July 04, 2004

Liberal Media.

I have had a request for some time now to go beyond my anecdotal (and sometimes snarky) posts about liberal media bias, and deliver a more coherent critique. Mike F. wants to know whether I really believe that the media is biased, and if so, why I think that when outlets such as Fox News, the Washington Times, and Wall Street Journal exist. This topic has also been the subject of several e-mail discussions with Brad A. as well.

So I thought it worth spending a bit of my fourth of July weekend spelling out my reasoning when I say, yes, the media is liberal, and yes, it matters.


Before I do, though, I want to make clear that I don't think that liberal bias is the only (or even predominant) factor that leads to bad reporting. In fact, I think that there are three other main factors that contribute to sloppy, one-sided journalism:

  1. Laziness – it is often easier to fit the facts into a story you already know, than to discover the story hidden in the facts. In addition, partially because of the demands of 24 hour news channels and web sites, there seems to be less oversight and fact-checking, to make sure that the facts are accurate. See, for instance, these e-mails from a BBC editor lamenting the fact that "a significant number of BBC news reports are untrustworthy and littered with errors because the corporation's journalists fail to check their facts". The Greg Packer phenomenon is another example.
  2. Commercialization – the consolidation of the media into the hands of huge conglomerates drives home the fact that news outlets are out to make a buck. While it's easy to overemphasize this, and imagine it a new trend (when were news papers ever not out to sell more papers?), as always it's worth taking into account the incentives that drive the news media. This trend could argue for news outlets that either cater to the, presumably conservative, interests of their corporate owners and advertisers or proliferate sensational, anti-administration scandals (a la Monica Lewinsky) that drive audiences.
  3. Access – journalists need to cultivate and protect access to people in power in order to further their careers. From a game-theoretic point-of-view, journalism is a repeatable game, where the players make choices based on the understanding that they will play the game again tomorrow with the same people. This can obviously lead to favoring people in power (whether the press corps with Bush or CNN with Saddam) so that privileged positions can be protected.

These factors can also reinforce or oppose each other in complicated ways. Laziness combined with commercialization can lead to sensationalized, "manufactured" stories like Laci Peterson and Jennifer Smart where the news coverage basically is the story. Commercial interests in promoting scandal may conflict with the need to protect access. Also, short- and long-term incentives can conflict such that assets like "brand" and "journalistic reputation" are in tension with self-interested positions on specific issues. Finally, second-order effects might dominate is some situations. So, while one might assume that profit-maximizing corporations might want news that appeals to the broadest base of consumers, ones driven by advertisers might actually be driven to appeal to a smaller, yet more affluent and hence "valuable", subset.

There are also difficulties in dealing with a particular moment in time and how that relates to larger trends, for instance the current liberal frustration with being out of power in Congress, the executive, and by some accounts, the judiciary.

All this is even more complicated by the interplay between "objective news" and editorial opinion. If the New York Times fills it's op-ed section with liberal opinions (or the Wall Street Journal with conservative ones) but their "news" reporting is unbiased, are they part of the "liberal media"? What about cable news channels where news and commentary are not as clearly separated? Can we avoid assigning a label (liberal/conservative) based on editorial content? On the other hand, is it reasonable to believe that editors that select conservative columnists are going to be less selective in choosing and editing news stories? It's complicated.

So, I'm not coming at this from a simplistic model of the way the media works. But I do think that problems I've mentioned above are exaggerated and amplified by a insular and monolithic world-view, namely a liberal one, that dominates in journalistic circles. When a reporter, and all of her colleagues, are liberal, the meta-narrative that a lazy story will fit into will be a liberal one.

Anecdote and Argument

Anecdotally, it's easy to pick apart specific stories in specific papers or channels. But, admittedly, selected examples of purported bias, like the man-on-the-street interviews so often complained about, are not particularly compelling if you don't already believe the story line. But I do want to list a few anecdote-driven arguments that I do find somewhat compelling, before moving on to more substantive evidence.

For me, the cries from liberals of Fox News this, Fox News that, is simply more support for the idea that most media is liberal. In my view, Fox News is the mirror image of CNN, MSNBC, and the network news channels. Yes, it is right-of-center. Yes, it's commentary, tone and choice of stories, particularly in regard to the Iraq war, is more conservative than those of the other cable news channels. But it is no farther right of center than the other channels are left (if this causes some sputtering on your part, be patient and I'll return to this point below in the evidence section). In my mind, the "outrage" of Fox News' bias, should inform liberals more about the plight of conservatives before the advent of Fox News, than about the unfairness of the system. To those that would argue that CNN is just more "objectively true" than Fox News, I would respond that we've reached one of the fundamental difficulties in tackling media bias – the subjective nature of the labels ("conservative", "liberal", "biased", "objective"). Whether your epistemology has room for objective truth or not, you should at least be comfortable admitting that the application of the label "objective truth" is itself subjective.

Second, on one particular issue, the Iraq war, I have been struck by the non-stop flow of people returning from Iraq who claim that their experience does not match up with the view portrayed by the media. While these people, often military personnel, diplomats, or representatives on fact-finding missions, are certainly not unbiased themselves (they went there for a reason and, like all people, have an agenda), the consistent stories they tell and evidence they cite, leads me to conclude that the media is missing an important part of the story. Can I assign this failure unequivocally to bias rather than laziness? No. But the effort put into telling other parts of the story, leads one to presume.

Finally, there is the argument that all people cannot help but inject their personal viewpoints into their reporting. Yes, this is an argument against "objective news". Beyond the question of getting the facts right, a thousand subjective judgments go into the final product we call news. From story selection, to choice of interviewees, to editorial decisions, to headline writing and layout decisions (above-the-fold/below-the-fold), to vocabulary – each contains a potentially unconcious viewpoint. I was particularly struck by Brad A.'s example (admittedly making a different point) of the language choice (either latinate or vulgar) between the majority and the dissent in partial-birth abortion cases. At a minimum, these conscious or unconscious word choices will color the final product. And this is problematic when the evidence (see below) leads us to conclude that there are many more liberals in the news business than in the population. For (final, anecdotal) example, it's difficult (at least for us cynics) to see how an editor this vociferous in his partisanship could lead an unbiased news organization.


But enough anecdote and argument. Is there evidence that the news media is liberal? A first question, which again gets to the heart of the problem, is "What do we mean by liberal?" "More liberal than me" is obviously problematic. Self-reported liberals is equally difficult, because it just moves the subjectivity from the observer to the observed. More liberal than the average (median?) American, sounds right but has measurement problems. More liberal than the average human is probably less relevant for talking about US media, and even harder to measure.

Different studies have used different techniques, some fairly clever, to answer this question and I want to highlight a few of them here.

First, the Media Research Center has a round-up of surveys and studies that discuss the voting record of various groups in the media: White House correspondents, Washington bureau chiefs, Congressional reporters. Some of the information is old, but a particularly striking example is given in Elaine Povich's book, Partners and Adversaries: The Contentious Connection between Congress and the Media. According to a survey, 89% of Washington correspondents voted for Clinton in 1992 and only 7% for Bush. By contrast, 37% of the American public voted for Bush. To put it in perspective, fewer of the journalists voted for Bush than did voters in even the most liberal counties in the country. Even the county containing Cambridge, MA registered 19% for Bush.

The site, which again I want to point out assuredly has its own agenda, has plenty of other statistics.

More recent data can be found in this 2004 study conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the Project for Excellence in Journalism. You can read the final report here [PDF]. There are other interesting things in the report, including journalists' concerns over a commercialized editing room, that are worth reading as well. The survey of 547 journalists found that 34% of national journalists consider themselves "liberal" versus 20% of the population at large. Only 7% considered themselves "conservative", versus 33% of the US population. While these self-reported labels are obviously problematic (for instance, are the 54% of national journalists who call themselves "moderates", actually conservatives who are afraid to say so or liberals who, compared to other journalists, consider themselves moderate), the survey points to views about religion as being a key differentiator between the public and journalists, with 58% of the public holding the view that you must believe in God to be moral, while only 6% of journalists do.

These facts argue strongly that the individuals in the media, the reporters, editors, anchors and correspondents, are more liberal than the average American. But what about their reporting? An argument could be made that, recognizing the prevalence of their bias, the journalists would bend over backward to be fair in reporting on issues, if only to allay the suspicion of bias. Perhaps we should expect conservative reporting from a liberal media. Then again, perhaps, as I argued above, we should expect unconscious liberal coverage despite best intentions.

A final study from Yale University, recently released, and dicussed in this article tries to get at an answer to this question. The full report can be found here and is definitely worth reading to fully understand their methodology. The authors build on two previous works. First, the scores calculated by the Americans for Democratic Actions (ADA) which measure the "liberalness" of members of Congress based on how often they vote the ADA's side of the issue. A politician's ADA score (also known as a liberal quotient, or LQ) is often used to rank how far right or left she is, and the rankings tend to track, at least relatively if not absolutely, intuitive feelings of which members of Congress are "more conservative" or "more liberal" than others.

The researchers also build on previous work that tried to judge media bias based on how often they quote from "liberal" vs. "conservative" think tanks. This obviously begs the (perhaps less difficult but still vexing) question of which think tanks are liberal and which conservative. Whether the Brookings Institution is more liberal than RAND Corporation is a typical question.

The authors try to solve this problem by taking a period of time and looking at which think tanks members of Congress quote most often and matching that with their ADA score to assign an imputed ADA score to the think tanks, that rank orders them according to how far left and right they are. This method passes some basic plausibility tests in that the Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation get very low scores (since they are quoted most often by hard-right members of Congress) while the Economic Policy Institute gets a high score (for being quoted most by very liberal members of Congress).

Finally, they took a sample of articles from major publications and counted the citations of the same think tanks. They made obvious corrections, like disregarding references that were only used to argue against the think tank's position. They used the metrics to give the media outlets a likely ADA score (using the maximization of a likelihood function – see the paper for details). The paper also has many other points about why this metric is appropriate (or at least the best available).

But before people claim that Amnesty International (11 points above House median) is a "legitimate" organization, whereas the National Right to Life Committee (24 points below the median) is just "bunk" and "propagandists", let me remind you of the subjectivity that we're trying to remove through this exercise. One man's propaganda is another man's gospel truth.

The authors were surprised by the results, which show that all media outlets tested, except for Fox News, were more liberal than the median representative in the House. In fact, Fox News was much closer to the median of the House than any of other news outlets. In their words:

We now compute the difference of a media outlet’s score from 39.0 to judge how centrist it is. Based on sentences as the level of observation (the results of which are listed in Table 8), the Drudge Report is the most centrist, Fox News’ Special Report is second, ABC World News Tonight is third, and CBS Evening is last.
Given that the conventional wisdom is that the Drudge Report and Fox News are conservative news outlets, this ordering might be surprising. Perhaps more surprising is the degree to which the “mainstream” press is liberal. The results of Table 8 show that the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, USA Today, and CBS Evening News are not only liberal, they are closer to the average Democrat in Congress (who has a score of 74.1) than they are to the median of the whole House (who has a score of 39.0).
And here's the figure from the report:
Figure 3
Regardless of whether you buy this specific methodology (and there are obviously some problems with it) it is an attempt to provide a metric that can measure the bias. Whether you should believe it "objective" or just another in a series of biased accounts of media bias is up to you.

If you have references to other studies (or even arguments) that refute these claims, please put them in the comments. In fact, I'd even be happy to see some anecdotes. For now, thought, here are some further readings:

Posted by richard at July 4, 2004 11:59 PM

From my own experience working with newspapers, I agree with your characterization of the media in the first section "complexities." I also read a summary in business week of the research you cite in the second part of post, and I was intrigued but not yet entirely persuaded.

However, I don't see a link between the two parts. Lazy journalism may lead to individual reporters, news outlets or even congolmerates becoming one-sided. But I don't see why necessarily would lead to an industry dominated by one ideology across the nation, and why that ideology would be liberal.

An ambitious attempt at a grand, unified theory of the media. Lots of interesting points, but overall, but a bit too rambling for my ADD attention span.

Posted by: Michael W at July 6, 2004 01:23 PM

Perhaps I didn't explain the goal of the post well enough. I wasn't necessarily trying to give a grand unified theory of the media. I was trying to answer the question of whether the media is liberal.

You're absolutely right – the first part, Complexities, does not in anyway imply the second part. The first part was simply to show that I've thought a bit about how this all works and that I'm not using a simplified model of an evil, elite media (Slander! Treason!) as some who are quick to label it liberal are wont to. As I said, not all (or even most) bad reporting is caused by liberal bias, but liberal bias can exacerbate some of the effects of bad reporting.

The second part was supposed to stand on it's own and attempt to answer the question. Nothing in the post was an attempt to explain why the media is liberal, just that it is. And, barring refuting evidence, it does so fairly strongly in my mind. If, in the eyes of the public, in their own voting records, in their own self-reported labels, in their usage of think-tank quotes, the media are overwhelmingly more liberal than the average American, why can't we just admit they are liberal.

Or, if it makes you feel better, that the average American is more conservative than you'd like to admit.

Posted by: richard at July 6, 2004 01:47 PM

And you didn't even mention the New York Times has had 48 front page articles on the Iraqi prison abuses and only 1 on the oil for food scandal (the missing $21 billion!)

Posted by: Dick V at July 6, 2004 05:56 PM

I may reply more indepthly (not a word, but it conveys my meaning well) if I have time, because I appreciate your efforts, but a few off the cuff thoughts:

"Or, if it makes you feel better, that the average American is more conservative than you'd like to admit." This may be my fundamental problem with your logic. The average American is more conservative than I would like — but not more conserative than I think they are. Americans are twice as likely to describe themselves as conservative than as liberal (this is admittedly based on old data so if you have something more up-to-date . . .)

Also, the members of congress are not only way more conservative than I would like, but more conservative than the population as a whole (because of reversal in fortune of the parties over the past decade, recent Republican Gerrymandering, the remarkable work of the religous right to mobilize their base and fund candidates at all levels, etc.).

So, the American people as a whole are indeed conservative (especially when compared with the rest of the world) and congress even more so. You then define the media as liberal because this study found them to be to the left of the median congressperson.

The problem lies in defining moderate as the median congressman, who is more conservative than the median American, who is more conservative than the average person in the world. If Joe Lieberman and Constance Morella are way left of center (by your chart) then I'd probably say the New York Times is as well.

If you start where you started, you can only come to the conclusion you came to (if that makes sense). I think the premise is flawed . . . You address this a bit in your preamble, but then had to pick something for your analysis, and you picked a conservative callabration (in my liberal worldview). You say NYT is liberal because it is on par with Joe Bidenl I say ABC News is conservative becasue it is on par with Ernest Hollings of South Carolina . . .

And no Dick, he didn't mention the abuse to oil-for-food ratio; nor did he mention the "how cool are our weapons and soldiers" to Iraqi dead & soldiers maimed ratio — which is probably just as high.

Posted by: Mike F. at July 7, 2004 12:19 AM

I haven't had a heck of a lot of time to look at the follow-up links. It's interesting stuff.

But some points off the top of my head, quickly, while the post is still ripe —

There is a normative undercurrent here, not in the post per se, but in the post as set against the larger argument that goes on in this forum. The obvious take-home intended here is that it is problematic to have the center of gravity of "The Media" too far to one side of the average Congressman or American resident (yes, Mr. Ashcroft, I'm counting non-citizens, too).

But I wonder, what exactly do we want our press to be? The Framers of our Constitution envisioned not objective relayers of information, but determined gadflies of government. Not facts distilled of any conscious or unconscious slant, but pamphleteers who can and will distribute politically charged materials to whip up a democratic froth on the lips of a population that might too easily otherwise tolerate tyranny, simply because of inertia.

From a First Amendment perspective I would be supremely skeptical of a press that endeavored to align itself perfectly with the views of Congress. As a humanist I am appalled at the extent to which the media currently does try to tailor its reporting to its read of the tastes and distastes of Joe American.

You're never going to expunge the bias out of reporting. The best thing to do is cultivate a readership that questions what it sees or reads — and not because some other media entity (say, Rush Limbaugh) says it should and dictates how. All self-appointed conveyors of information ought to be reviewed for their motive and opportunity to convince or mislead. I think the will to objectivity in the news has done more damage than good, because people get lulled into thinking this ideal is achievable, that the Times has done it, that Fox has declared itself to be "fair and balanced." Then the spoon-feeding of America follows.

So the ideologies of the press and the average American don't jibe. Does it necessarily follow that either needs adjusted so that we can placate the false deity of "objectivity" in reporting? And if so, which one?

I have my preference.

And I could argue, just for kicks, that there is a reason why the journalists who spend their days in the White House are "liberal." It might be that they went to awful, awful places like Harvard and Berkeley where they were brainwashed by leftists. Or maybe, just maybe, spending all their time in the White House, where they can watch this Administration at work, shapes their thinking and their reporting.

Maybe there is something to the fact that the people who are one or two removes closer to the action (oxymoron, I know) are parked to the left of the rest of America. Maybe, as Dicky V. says about the government, "they know something we don't, and we should trust them."

I don't trust the government. I don't trust the press, either. I don't think that the "facts" promulgated by either have any basis in some supreme, indisputable Truth. They're just rhetoric packaged in a graph, and somehow, over time, this sort of rhetoric became more acceptable than my kind, which is written argument.

As an English major, I'm inclined to look through the Emperor's New Clothes at "facts" of any kind, though the Power Point presentations, the graphs, the charts, the employment figures, the catalogs of dead, and conclude:

everyone's just making all this shit up. So let's call the whole thing off.

Posted by: Brad A. at July 7, 2004 11:35 AM

Mike F.,

I understand your point about the difference between median Congressman and median American. But I think that you're moving into territory that's hard to measure with your assertion that the median member of Congress is more conservative than the median American.

We'll all agree that partisan gerrymandering is a gross distortion of the will of the people (ignoring for a moment Arrow's Impossibility Theorem), but I'd want to see more about number of state legislatures dominated by each party during census years before I conclude that it favors Republicans, as you aver. Perhaps "recent Republican Gerrymandering" simply undid older (but equally unfair) Democratic redistricting.

Also, many would argue that the "reversal of fortunes" of the political parties had less to do with the American people changing position and more to do with the parties changing position – maybe the American people are as conservative as they ever were, they just switched parties. Conservative southern Democrats switching to the Republican party would account for this.

Anyway, I'm not trying to argue that you're wrong – just that it's not clear that you're right that "the median Congressman ... is more conservative than the median American". Just wishful thinking?

As for the rest of the world, I think they are fairly irrelevant when discussing the slant of the American media. I'm also not sure you are correct. Compared to Westerners, Americans may be conservative (and religious) – but what about the 1 billion muslims? The millions who live in tribal societies? Are you sure that Americans aren't more liberal? Again, hard to measure effectively.

In general, though, as I said in the post, relative terms like conservative and liberal are part of the problem. But I prefer a metric that is set against a defined baseline better than one that starts "You say... I say...."

Finally, your critique only focused on the final study. What about the voting patterns and the self-reported labels? Hold any water?

Posted by: richard at July 7, 2004 04:00 PM

Brad A.,

Well, I think you're reading too much into my posts. I made this argument because I think it is quite clear that the media is biased, and it's a liberal bias. I was answering the question posed by Mike F. and others, "Do I really think the media is liberal?"

That is quite separate from a normative statement about where the media should be. And no, I completely reject the idea that the media should somehow try to find the median of the country and stick to it.

This was supposed to be the topic of another post, and maybe it will be someday, but what I'm really objecting to is the claim of objectivity combined with a subjective bias. It's the denial that bothers me.

The claim of objectivity is a relatively new invention in the news media – and it seems to me to be a pernicious one.

By way of analogy (and one in your bailiwick), I would argue vehemently against getting rid of the adversarial system of criminal justice. We would not stand for someone replacing prosecution (or plaintiff) and defense attourneys with an "objective" magistrate – partially because we don't believe one exists. We believe that through two biased and subjective agents making their best cases, we can come closer to the truth than putting our faith in one person who attempts to rise above his own human weakness.

Perhaps the media (like in countries with parliamentary systems) would be better off casting off the mantle of objectivity (only slightly less powerful than the mantle of rationality) and letting us know where they stand.

Anyway, I don't know – but just so you know I don't support a media that chases poll numbers to find the middle (any more than I do a politician who does the same).

Posted by: richard at July 7, 2004 04:16 PM

Rich, you're right, of course. Have any recent shifts to the right made the government more conservative or just liberal? How can we ever tell? Some of the southern dems calling themselves GOP — finally — only made sense. But I do believe that the Gingrich up swell was certainly a conservative reaction to Clinton's first two years and it hasn't been undone.

But more importantly, that study's logic predicates itself on the median representative being defined as moderate. This logic say that we can make no judgment about whether the congress is liberal or conservative, because it is — by that study's definition — exactly moderate. (I don't want to nitpick at the study, though, but could all day: Senators should be removed from the study because they overrepresent small, conservative states; the study is done with a conservative administration in power and the press is and should be critical of whoever is in power, for examples — OK, too examples .)

So I'll stick to the main point. Issues have a left and right (I'm sorry but this whole exercise only works if we stick to the annoying left/right, liberal/conservative, one-dimensional view of the world). On one end we should have the death penalty for jay-walkers, because, hey, people would stop jay-walking; on the other end no one should get jail time for murder or drug trafficking because there was probably some reason they did it. Is there some objective, rational middle to the issue? Or do we have to define moderate as what the middle American thinks?

"58% of the public holding the view that you must believe in God to be moral, while only 6% of journalists do."

You use this as evidence that journalists are therefore left of center — and it’s probably true. I look at that figure and say, wow, at least 58% of Americans are so blinded by religion that they are incapable of rational thought. 83% of Americans also believe in the virgin birth according to Gallup. For the love of God I hope that the average journalist is to the “left” of the average American.

I have never doubted for one moment that the average New York Times journalist is to the left of the average American. I’m just not sure this proves anything. I contend — as do Americans when they describe themselves — that America is conservative. Your study tells me I can’t make that judgment.

But let me address some of your other points as well. You point out the leanings of the journalists, but don’t address my point, which was the leanings of the shareholders and executive management of the corporations that run the companies for which they work. My guess is that you’d find the opposite to be true (I just don’t have the time to conduct such a telephone survey). I know you believe this doesn’t matter because the journalists will just write what they want anyway, but you know I don’t buy that.

I don’t like this approach to the discussion. I think it answers the wrong questions. The question really is this: In the reporting of news, which mainstream publications are biased in the headlines they attach to stories and the emphasis they put on the facts from both sides.

Dick’s point about oil-for-food vs. abuse is evidence of an anti-administration bias of which all of them from Fox to NYT are probably guilty — driven by ratings, no doubt. The fact that I needed to see a Michael Moore movie to even know how many American soldiers have been maimed in Iraq is evidence on the other side. Your headline anectdote about the NYT “insurgency” article is another one.

As math-o-phile, I generally prefer broad statistical analysis to argument by anectdote, but the analysis must be broad, objective, and must address the right issue to begin with.

Your last study is cleaner because it uses “objective” numerical data, but it misses the point as far as I’m concerned.

Posted by: Mike F. at July 7, 2004 06:18 PM

What a thread, can't keep track of everything!

Anyway, oil-for-food is a bugaboo of mine too. However, I don't necessarily fault the NYT on this one. As Richard points out, they are lazy so why would they follow just any joe-schmoe's conspiracy theory? People posted about it on etp as far back as Jan 2002 but I dismissed it as a crack pot theory given the seemingly unreliable sources that were espousing it.

No, I think it is the Bush admin's responsibility to point out this scandalous relationship that enable France and the UN to help prop up Saddam. If they had put half the effort they did in war planning on pressuring the international community truly to isolate Saddam, he may have been toppled without a single shot being fired.

That's my monday morning quarterback opinion.

- Mike

Posted by: Michael W. at July 8, 2004 09:54 AM

I think we agree, Richard. To claim absolute objectivity when at best you're only aspiring to it is insidious. Ideally a readership would understand that the reporting of facts necessarily conveys some of the reporter's baggage, be it psychological or ideological. The question is then what to do with the information given to us. How do we strip the accumulated taint off it and restore it to raw data to process into our own opinions? How do we accommodate the competing values of digest and context?

One way, as you suggest, is to identify the particular biases of particular news outlets so that readers can account for them. That takes the problem into Mike's world, because even if we believe in some theoretical point of pure objectivity, none of us will agree on where to locate it.

So people tend to fly by the seat of their pants, and to find some reason to allocate or detract authority from certain reported information. The rules of evidence, developed under the common law, give some insight into how to deal with the problem. Some examples: a declarant's "statement against his interest" or "excited utterance" (though criminal cases rarely turn on a witness's cry of "HOLY SHIT!") has more clout under the law. Et cetera.

Interesting that you cited the Anglo-American criminal process, which I agree is better designed than on the Continent (though possibly simply because it's what I know). In my prior post I had a long bit about jury verdicts, which I took out. But I'll present it now (cue collective groan from the audience):

The verdict, or "spoken truth," is a fiction that the law accepts. It's borne of an understanding that one cannot go back and establish what happened between O.J. and Nicole (or if O.J. were even there). And in many respects the legal question that the jury has to answer is interpretive, because it bears often on what the defendant's state of mind was — so even if twelve jurors saw Nicole get killed, there is no estimable "truth" as to whether the killer committed murder or manslaughter. Then there is the nature of the question posed, which is not "Did O.J. murder Nicole?" but "Did the prosecution prove beyond a reasonable doubt that O.J. murdered Nicole?"

At any rate, the law long ago recognized the practical problems in establishing "the Truth." So it set up a process for constructing truth. Twelve people listen to presentations, come to a unanimous conclusion (ideally), and the word that falls from their lips, "Guilty" or "Not Guilty" become the "truth," at least for the purposes of the law.

You really have to give props to law, which long ago considered and worked through a lot of the issues that philosophers and literary theorists have just now come round to raising in their coffee houses. But the law did it with lives and fortunes in the balance.

Posted by: Brad A. at July 8, 2004 11:46 AM

Brad A. – I thought we might.... is that a first?

I want to say one more thing about the question – "what to do with the information given to us." The answer, it seems to me, is critique it. To call it out. To agree or disagree. To condone or condemn it. Unlike the stylized formalization of the court room, with two sides and 12 jurors, in the distribution of information there are infinite sides and each one of us has to be our own jury.

So we develop a complicated web of trust, of judgments as to which direction (and there are more dimensions than liberal/conservative) each agent is biased.

We build and use reputations, not in isolation, but in the crucible of criticism.

If my reputation ends up "thoughtful, honest, willing to consider both sides.... but biased, opinionated, and stubborn" – I will be extremely happy. In fact, that's what I'm shooting for (although "persuasive" would be a nice-to-have).

Ultimately, my success is for you (all) to judge.

Posted by: richard at July 8, 2004 12:23 PM

I see what you two are getting at. Everyone's biased to some degree and we should all be critical of everything we take in (or should that be in which we take? I just don't know anymore). And most of us (us defined very narrowly here) do. I tend to be less critical of publications I have come to respect (e.g., the Economist), but still take pride and joy at calling out its bullshit when I think it's appropriate. I love reading the NY Times and being critical of it's leftish nonsense. I also enjoy — as you can no doubt tell — crtiquing the raging rightness (thought you might like that characterization) of Just-in-Casioanlly.

The problem — and here's where we get really eltisit — lies with the "outer party members" and "proles" (sorry, 1984 was on last night and our AG is a fascist so I thought the Orwellian terms might be appropriate).

When we see "Woman linked to Bush administration caught spying" or "Former Democratic staffer caught spying" we know it's a crock. It's healthy to keep bringing up NYT headlines that we think are inappropriate or global media ommisions (Sudan, oil-for-food, injured soldiers) that we find particulary glaring. It helps us level the evidencial playing field if we qrite about what we've read and open it up to discussion.

However, media bias is only a problem when it helps shape the thinking of a lazy populace (you say the lazy media deoasn't want to investigate; I say the lazy populace doesn't want to investigate). So just saying no one is objective and we should question everything doesn't solve the problem.

People buy papers that have headlines about crime, therefore the media puts out stories about crime, therefore people become worried about crime, therefore people vote republican and allow for Patriot Acts and harsh sentencing guidelines.

Sex sells so the media puts out story after story of the President getting a blowjob so people read about it everyday and after seeing presidential scandal in the news every day they say, wow, this is the most scandalous president ever. I'm obviously sticking to examples that suit my ideology because you do a good enough job of presenting the other side.

Fine, no one is objective, but how do we ascertain the direction the country is being led by this bias? That's the question as I see it. There is media bias (of all kinds). Where is the real truth and in what direction away from it is the media taking us?

We may have to analyze this compelling anectdote by compelling anectdote — simply becasue I don't buy/like the global study that's out there. It is possible to do this. Michael Moore leads us to believe that we are far more violent than our neighbor's to the north. We can then look at the statistics he used and see that he picked the most glaring one and ommitted the fact that, for example, overall violent crime is higher in Canada (see how balanced I am). It is possible to prove bias even if we are biased ourselves.

Final thought: If the media pushes everyone to the right until the median person is now right of where they were, the media is no longer right of center . . .

Posted by: Mike F. at July 9, 2004 03:00 PM

I have to say that this whole thread gives me renewed confidence in the possibility of reasoned discourse. It was a lot of work, from me and the commenters, but moving from snarky anecdotes to thoughtful analysis actually "worked". We ended up closer together in the end (at least I think we did) and we actually said something worth saying. While we may not have persuaded each other as much as we would have liked, certainly our understandin, of each other and the issue, is greater.

That it can be done, even in these polarized times with such a tendentious topic, gives me hope.

Ok, enough self-reflection.

Posted by: richard at July 9, 2004 03:28 PM

But has anyone else seen the Bunnies?!?!

Lucky Star . . .

Posted by: Mike F. at July 9, 2004 03:41 PM

Yes, I saw it. If I tell you it was awesome, will you stop spamming my comments section?

Posted by: richard at July 9, 2004 04:00 PM


Lucky star . . .

Posted by: Mike F. at July 9, 2004 06:03 PM