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May 21, 2004

why you should read the newspaper

We're told that the President of the United States doesn't read beyond the front page because he detects a hostile ideological bias in most reporting. He says:

My antennae are finely attuned .... I can figure out what so-called 'news' pieces are going to be full of opinion, as opposed to news. So I'm keenly aware of what's in the papers, kind of the issue du jour. But I'm also aware of the facts. .... It can be a frustrating experience to pay attention to somebody's false opinion or somebody's characterization, which simply isn't true.

Meanwhile, I have known many colleagues who think that all reporting and commentary in the "corporate" press is false and deliberately misleading. These leftists would be just as happy as Instapundit to see the word "lies" spray-painted across the New York Times.

I'm a consistent critic of the major newspapers myself--and TV news is beneath contempt. But I don't see how you can be a responsible observer of the world unless you use the raw material that the mainstream press provides. Sometimes the quality of coverage is poor. But to reject it all is to walk in that "absolute night when all cows are black." If you despise the most detailed sources of information, then you can make no distinctions except on the basis of your original prejudices.

Besides, sometimes we distrust the news because it's uncomfortable stuff. Conservatives don't like to read about incompetent Republican presidents or about the prevalence of poverty and racism. Liberals don't like to read about the real failures of government and the real costs and limits of regulation. Centrists don't like to read that there are legitimate arguments between right and left. Yet real progress comes from facing these difficult facts.

I'm increasingly worried about a kind of criticism that I suspect George Bush employs, along with many other Americans. Chris Betram puts it well: readers look for "symptomatic silences" and "accuse people of indifference or lack of balance for failing to mention some event or incident."

It's easy to play this game. You make up your own mind about what's important (based on reading some news source) and then assess other publications--including editorial columns and blogs--to see whether they accord an appropriate amount of space to each story. I guess that's an acceptable way to criticize newspapers that claim to report "all the news that's fit to print" (or the equivalent). However, it should never be an excuse for failing to read the news. Even if a newspaper devotes the wrong amount of space to each item because of a systematic ideological bias, we can still get lots of information from reading it. To assume that other people will be miseducated because editors emphasize the wrong stories is to hold our fellow citizens in rather low regard.

For my own part, I can't figure out how to assess charges of left-wing or right-wing bias in the press. There's too much diversity in the coverage, and the political spectrum is too poorly defined today. [Follow up: see Jay Rosen's latest post on the same subject.] I do detect a disturbing set of professional biases in favor of ....

  • conflict rather than consensus

  • deficits rather than assets

  • political strategy rather than policy

  • motives of political actors rather than quality of decisions

  • campaigns rather than government

  • federal government rather than states

  • government rather than civil society

  • the US rather than the rest of the world
  • These are problems, but they don't excuse us from reading the news.

    Posted by peterlevine at May 21, 2004 03:40 PM

    Comments

    Cognitive Dissonance. We all do it to some extent. We examine each new piece of information and figure out how it fits into our framework. If it disagrees, we discard it. If it fits, we adopt it.
    You're very right, though, that to stop reading all papers because you don't like what you read in one isn't an option either.

    Posted by: Christina at May 21, 2004 04:51 PM

    "To assume that other people will be miseducated because editors emphasize the wrong stories is to hold our fellow citizens in rather low regard."

    I disagree. We are a social species, we are influenced by the opinions of others irrespective of logic, we don't all have the time or the inclination to devote to becoming sufficiently astute _not_ to be swayed, if such is in fact possible.

    Besides I think what you're doing here isn't entirely fair - you're not addressing the _accuracy_ of the belief that people are swayed by biased coverage, you're just saying it indicates a socially undesirable judgement.

    "These [professional biases in reporting] are problems, but they don't excuse us from reading the news."

    To the extent that they fail to provide the "relevant information payload" that _should_ be delivered by a news article, they give at least a partial excuse. What's the point in reading endless articles about a candidate's strategy and attire, if you're still left in the dark about policy?

    "I don't see how you can be a responsible observer of the world unless you use the raw material that the mainstream press provides. Sometimes the quality of coverage is poor. But to reject it all..."

    True. Wholesale rejection is foolish, but cutting back on your reading of calorie-rich-but-nutrient-poor newspaper articles in order to leave time for higher quality sources of information is not.

    Posted by: Anna at May 25, 2004 11:00 PM

    I really like to see the debate over journalism in our country shift its focused away from "bias" and more towards "quality". It seems like a simple enough shift - one that still encompass all of the dominant "bias" arguments used by the Left and the Right but could also highlight all the other problems we're seeing with journalism today (like your list of "Professional Biases", which could also be consider quality-control issues).

    Our country has been stuck in this "liberal/conservative bias" argument for so long opinions appear to have gelled. Maybe just shifting the debate a bit could free us from that rhetorical blackhole and get people thinking about the role the media plays in our democracy?

    Posted by: futurstan123 at May 26, 2004 06:03 PM

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