Media Bias: A Bottom Up Perspective
My facebook BLEW UP last night during the presidential debate, and it is during these times that I am reminded of why I left my former life of academia. The academic political arena, like politics as a whole is certainly a fiery place that can be intensely vitriolic, scathing, and often condescending. Ideally, shouldn't we all be able to live and let live? Upon further inspection I wonder if we are getting farther and farther from that ideal and closer still to a country divided by ideals.
On one hand, I see this passion as evidence that not everyone is apathetic, as the media would often lead us to believe; which of course is a good thing. On the other, it raises concerns that those in the Ivory Tower with whom I once roamed, can't see out their windows or past their own deeply ingrained beliefs, leading one to question the value of their expertise.
Why is the question of value important? Because these are precisely the folks that the media look to as experts, and to a large extent these experts help shape the national conversation and at least in part determine what should be of the utmost import to regular folks like you and me, and perhaps more importantly, to policy makers and political insiders. One would assume a political expert should be able to check their own deeply ingrained beliefs at the door when making "analyses" (a term I will use loosely, as that is often not at all what we get) of the political world, and I am just not sure that this is a reality, let alone even a possibility given the contentious nature of the field. And the semantics matter here: analysis is too often confused with educated opinion when talking about politics and political experts. The former assumes unbiased review, while the latter clearly does not.
Just yesterday, Mike Wagner of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Go Badgers!) wrote an interesting article addressing the issue of expert bias in political media, using political campaign contributions as an indicator. He writes, "...reporters and readers, but especially reporters, should take the time to try and find a way to judge the expertise of their academic sources before using evidence of a political donation to write them off. Have they published in the area about which the reporter is seeking a quotation? Do they have a record of being unfair to one or more sides of the political aisle? Are the experts referring to published evidence when making their claims? Are other experts who publish in that same area chomping at the bit to refute your source’s arguments as the ramblings of a crazed-partisan? Google News, Google Scholar, and a few phone calls would be all most reporters would need in most instances to be able to make a reasonable judgment in most cases."
Now I would never argue that mainstream media are simply conduits through which information (biased or not) is transferred. The current popularity of and almost certain future shift to exclusively highly partisan media outlets certainly suggests otherwise. However, to say that a good reporter should easily be able to tell if their "expert" source is giving them a biased "analysis" by taking note of whether they have published in the area (i.e. what would make you an expert in the first place and has nothing to do with potential for political bias), or if they refer to published evidence when making their claims, assumes that the field itself is unbiased, to which Dr. Wagner himself concedes, it is not.
So the question becomes, who gives a rat's ass if the information passed long by political experts is biased? Well, in short, we all should if we are looking for clarity in a nebulous political vacuum; if we are looking for analysis as opposed to educated opinion. But I'm not sure that is what we're looking for. If it is the media's objective to tell us what to think about rather than what to think, (a mantra that is beaten into your head as a student of the study of media and politics) then these biases that come from the experts would be the fundamental flaw in our media system. But perhaps that theory is showing it's age as evidenced by the aforementioned popularity of highly partisan news outlets. Perhaps the bias, and with it all the vitriolic, venomous, condescension that often comes with it is exactly what political man is looking for. And I'll be damned if the media doesn't have an incentive to give it to him.
So what does this all mean? That perhaps one shouldn't be concerned that the experts in academia can't isolate and pack-away their own political biases, because when it comes to politics we aren't looking for anything more than educated opinion anyway; and an educated opinion that supports our own at that. The question shouldn't be whether the media are biased; they are, and are becoming increasingly more so by design. And the question isn't what is the source of this bias, because who cares? Political media is biased, not because the experts are biased, but because that is what political man wants. What this means for the future of our civil society is perhaps the question we should be asking. But if we asked it, what would the value of the expert's opinion be?