What’s Wrong With: Complaining About “Bias”?

'Bias is psychosomatic ... It's all in your head!' / PsiCop original graphicAlthough this topic is not related to religion, metaphysics, pseudoscience, or pseudohistory — which are the main focuses of my blog — I’d like to address a very common but largely false belief. And that is about something people call “bias.” Specifically, they often complain about “media bias,” accusing the media (newspapers, magazines, broadcast outlets) as being “biased” against them and their ideology.

At the moment, Donald “it’s my own orange hair!” Trump is screaming the loudest about it … to the point of claiming “the election is rigged against him” because the media are conspiring to ruin his candidacy and get Hillary Clinton elected (WebCite cached article). Yes, a lot of his whining about the “rigged election” centers on fears about voter fraud, but the reality is that, while it has in fact happened, in-person voter fraud is so rare and on such a minute scale that it can’t possibly throw an election (cached). And yes, I say that, even though just today it was reported that two Florida women were arrested for voter fraud, trying to affect a mayoral election (cached).

Even so, that little bit of infantile paranoia isn’t what I’m talking about in this page. As I said, what brings this up is the Apricot Wonder’s contention that the mass media are collectively and consciously throwing the election to Hillary.

This is just the latest manifestation of a very old Rightist whine, that the mass media are all liberal and “biased” in favor of the Left and against the Right. Talk radio legend Rush Limbaugh has made this his signature message since he’s been on the air in the mid-80s, and even before him, it was an old complaint. Politicians have bellyached about “media bias” for ages. In the current era, though, as a distinctly Right-wing complaint, it originated with Richard Nixon, who dealt with what he perceived to be unfair negative coverage during his run for governor of California in 1962. When that election was over, and he lost, he infamously held his so-called “last press conference”, at which he announced to the assembled reporters, “you don’t have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”

(The irony, of course, is that wasn’t actually Nixon’s last press conference. In the wake of Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964, as well as strife which erupted over civil rights concerns, e.g. the Watts riots, Nixon was able to fashion himself into a Republican and Rightist standard-bearer, and in 1968 won election as president. Through the rest of his career, Nixon would hold many memorable press conferences, including one in 1973 in which he famously — and, it turns out, falsely — declared, “I am not a crook” (cached).)

At any rate, Rightists accept as axiomatic that the mass media are biased against them. They’re able to point out many different reasons for this, most of which amount to cherry-picking or outright lies (such as the common complaint, at the moment, that “the media aren’t reporting on the Hillary campaign emails that have been leaked” (cached) — even though pretty much every outlet has done so, and on a daily basis, as the emails have trickled out daily (cached, cached, cached, cached, cached, and cached).

The problem with the whole concept of “media bias” is that people largely don’t even know what “bias” is, in the first place. True “bias” can be statistically measured; for instance, one can throw dice numerous times, tally the results, and use statistical tools such as the chi-square, to determine if any of them are “loaded” so as to end up with one particular result more than the rest. Now, while it’s easy to use the results of a die-throw to measure “bias,” measures of media “bias” are harder to come by. The reason is because people have to come up with such measures … but how they do so is compromised by a psychological phenomenon known as the hostile media effect. This is when ideologues of differing types view the very same media account as “biased” against them. Obviously it cannot objectively be the case (by any measure) that a single story is simultaneously biased against two opposite ideologies … yet that’s what happens. It’s been consistently observed and repeatedly confirmed by experiment.

The reason for this is very simple and very obvious: Assuming media accounts are diffused along the continuum of ideological positions, anyone who’s sufficiently far out on that continuum will look at them and perceive the majority as coming from the opposing side. This will make the person feel outnumbered and therefore sensitized to “bias” against him/her and his/her ideology. It’s inevitable, and there’s little anyone can do about it.

That said, academic studies have been done on “media bias,” but overall they’re inconclusive. Sure, some studies have found “liberal bias,” but others have found either a “conservative” or “corporate bias,” or none. The reality of it is this: Each media outlet is its own entity, affected by its own circumstances, and the ideological leanings (if any) of its reporters, editors, and/or publisher are just one facet. A more salient influence is the outlet’s own audience, which the outlet must satisfy in order to maintain sales. Another is the question of access; media outlets must write their accounts with an eye toward being able to work with public officials.

While a lot of Rightists think there’s a smoke-filled backroom somewhere in which a bunch of nefarious Leftists dictate to media outlets what they publish and how, there really is no such thing. There can’t be, because there are just too many different factors at play within each. What’s more, many outlets purposely employ people whom they know will speak favorably of both sides. For instance, CNN has within its stables of pundits Corey Lewandowski (former manager of the Trump campaign) and Jeff Lord (Right-wing strategist and Trump surrogate). These outlets give free air time to both ideologies. This is part of their (flawed) “duellistic” approach: They set up these little “pundit duels” in which each side says its piece — often dishonestly — and leave it at that, erroneously assuming the truth of the matter will just magically pop out at viewers. As I’ve said many times before, though, it’s all but impossible for the truth to emerge from two competing sets of distortions and/or lies. It simply can’t happen.

Also, people obsess over what they perceive as “media bias” on the part of large outlets, but ignore that their own local outlets can have rather strong biases of their own. Here in my home state of Connecticut, which is strongly “blue” (aka Leftist), for example, there are two well-known newspapers which have distinct Right-wing leanings: The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, and the Republican-American of Waterbury. I know people who subscribe to these papers, who angrily condemn “the Left-wing media” all the time, without acknowledging the Right-wing loyalties of the paper that’s delivered to them every day. (If this is pointed out to them, they just hem and haw and act as though these papers are the lone exceptions, when in fact, they’re anything but. This is the backfire effect at work.) Plus, the same Rightists who simper and whine about “the Left-wing media” are the very same folks who comprise the audience of one of the single most-watched broadcast outlets in the country: Fox News. They have no fucking idea that the channel they love — as well as other outlets (e.g. the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal, etc.) which consistently report from a Rightist angle — are all part of the very same “mass media” they insist is uniformly “Left-wing” in nature.

Ultimately, an implication of the hostile media effect is that it will be difficult even to begin evaluating and measuring media bias. People will have to choose the means of doing so, and whatever decision(s) they make will be affected by their own subjective views of what constitutes “bias.” Even the most serious academic can’t help but be tainted by this.

For the most part, then, when someone tells me one or more media outlets is “biased,” I just take that as a whole lot of subjective bellyaching, centered on the fact that s/he read, watched or heard a story that hadn’t been written precisely in the way s/he would like it to have been written. The reality is that the media are all over the place, and on top of that, in the US at least, we have this thing called “freedom of the press”: If you don’t like how the news is reported, nothing can stop you from creating your own paper, magazine, blog, Youtube channel, etc. to report things however you want. Arguably that’s exactly what Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes did back in the mid-90s when they established Fox News as a Right-wing outlet. Obviously that worked in the Right’s favor … so why do they still complain about it, now? I have no idea.

Photo credit: PsiCop original graphic.