Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Thoughts on Media Bias

Politicians routinely speak of the inherent bias of the media. Usually this is to suggest that the media are "left wing liberals," though the Rush Limbaugh's, Sean Hannity's and Fox New's of the world certainly are accused of a severe right wing conservative bias.

I would suggest that perhaps a more useful way to view the media is in terms of "anti" and/or "ratings."

These days the media are driven largely by ratings. With competing 24 hour cable (or dish) news outlets, not to mention the seemingly limitless internet access, the stations need to actively attract viewers (and, of course, the larger the number of viewers [ratings] the larger the advertising revenues). Keep in mind that news stations must make a profit (or at least try to), unlike the "public service" loss leaders they used to be. Logically, it follows that to wean viewers from other stations or other activities, they must be noticeable, different, and yes, entertaining.

How best to do this? Controversial, in your face, anti-opinions have become the market leader. The actual news value is largely secondary. Who gets the most press? Clearly it's the ones that speak the loudest, show the greatest degree of self-importance (generally referred by themselves as self-confidence), and "entertain" us. It's actually hard to tell sometimes if some of these news entertainers actually believe most of what they say, or if they are merely playing a role to maximize ratings, profits, and (largely ghost-written) book sales. Traditionally the "anti" attacks have been against whoever currently is in power in the Congress, Administration, or any other highly visible authority figure. Add to this the obvious "incompetence" attributable to anyone that is so politically inept as to not avoid controversy. Take the media attack on the federal government after Katrina. While much of the criticism was well deserved, an unbiased report would have reached the obvious conclusion - that we all are guilty of poor planning for potential future events...that we all tend to deal with the crisis of the moment (aka the squeaky wheel)...that we all are unprepared for those events that are infrequent, unpredictable (at least in timing, if not occurrence), and yet catastrophic if they do occur. Stuff happens. Clearly we shouldn't ignore the deficiencies when things go wrong. But perhaps the media could spend a little more time dealing with the issues so we could learn from our mistakes rather than focusing solely on the sensationalism of attacking whomever is ripe for blaming. In other words, focus on objective information and analysis rather than theater.

Of course, all of this would require fundamental changes in how we view the media. Because these organizations, like all businesses, must make a profit to stay viable (and on the air), they must continue to get sufficient ratings to garner sufficient revenues. Without change it would seem we are stuck with what we have wrought - and to be clear, the "we" is "us" (the viewing public) that hath wrought this. We show preference to the sensational which begets more sensationalism, which begets more "anti" and more theater and more bias (in both directions) because this provides the greatest entertainment value. Perhaps some day we'll demand thoughtful analysis and accurate portrayal of the information by the media. Perhaps we'll care enough to demand, and reward, honesty and integrity in our public servants. Perhaps. But while we all have the video game mentality it isn't likely.