Tuesday, August 31, 2004

I read Scott Rosenberg's post today about extraordinary attempts to avoid appearance of journalistic bias, then got to discuss it with him today too. I noted that the problem seems to be a bit worse in the US. In Canada and the UK, I think newspapers may be a little happier to be known to have a bias. Not the Globe and Mail, perhaps, which takes a high-horse approach to politics and society despite clearly having biases at times, but at least the Sun. And in the UK I've heard papers are more likely to take sides and I know the Economist sometimes bluntly admits its bias. In the US, it seems, papers go to greater lengths (including forbidding attendance at benefit concerts) to avoid being seen as a mouthpiece for either the Democrats or the Replublicans.

One theory for the extra attempts to appear neutral: since there's only two real US parties, any admitted bias is tantamount to admitting that the paper favours one of them. In Canada politics may not be quite so partisan or polarized, or at least haven't been for so long. A Canadian paper with a slight conservative bent could be a PC mouthpiece, or a Reform mouthpiece, or neither, so at least there's confusion about which party it's supposed to be the mouthpiece for. But I'm not sure this theory holds up because certainly Canadian politics can be partisan (and nasty), and UK politics may be polarized much like American.

Another theory is that since Americans are generally so quick to come up with conspiracy theories, Americans are therefore quick to assume that politicians are somehow controlling journalistic output. Therefore a paper must appear especially untainted to avoid being written off as government-controlled propaganda.

I'm not terribly happy with either of these theories, and maybe I'm wrong that this is uniquely American, so feel free to chime in.


Anonymous said...

The smarmy false pretense of journalistic objectivity certainly exists in Canada and the UK--but it's overwhelmingly concentrated in the official news organs of those respective countries, the CBC and the BBC. If you want the "official story" in Canada or the UK, you know where to go--and conversely, if you're reading a private media source, you must want something different.

In the US, on the other hand, it was the "big three" networks who filled the role of dominant, "pseudo-official" news source in the postwar era. Like state-run media, they owed their dominance to a licensing system that gave them an oligopoly, and tried to justify it by presenting themselves as reliable, civic-minded "public service" news sources. But because they also retained (and loudly touted) their "independence" as private-sector outlets, their print-media competitors couldn't present themselves as iconoclastic alternatives to their official line, and instead had to try to match them for authoritative credibility, by adopting the same philosophy of objectivity.

Note that the advent of cable television has seriously eroded both the dominance of the "big three" and the whole idea of authoritative, objective news. Fox News is the obvious example, but it was inevitable, once the oligopoly was broken, that the illusion of objectivity would break with it.

Natasha said...

American 'objectivity' begins with allowing both sides to spout off about the most bland surface level of whatever issue, giving each of them roughly equal column space, and never doing any research that would indicate whether or not one of them was soft on facts. Further, it depends on pretending that only official party organs, corporate or political spokesentities, and major think tanks get to talk.

Major journalists were worried about covering the Iraq war protests because they didn't want to 'inject' anything into the debate. As though the biggest protest in human history didn't deserve coverage in its own right. They're useless.

Natasha said...

Also, I almost left out their neurotic lack of context. As though the laws of cause and effect have ceased to exist in their universe, they're barely capable of putting together a coherent political or international 'Why?' Gaaaah.

Anonymous said...

It's not uniquely American, but that's not really what I want to comment on.

To an outside observer, it looks much more like the reverse conspiracy theory is the valid one: that both political and journalistic output are subject to control from elsewhere, most likely certain very wealthy interests. Certainly the US is no longer a functioning democracy, which makes for a very uncertain world.

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