Monday, May 6, 2013

The Downside of Impartial Journalism

Journalists who work in democracies pride themselves on being neutral when they report on the news. Their goal is to present the most important sides of an issue so that the reader can interpret that information and take appropriate action. Instead of advocating one side or the other or letting her personal bias slant her report, the objective journalist lets the story tell itself, by letting the key players who disagree on how to interpret some facts tell their sides of that story. Of course, there’s plenty of conflict in the world, so just reporting on that conflict doesn’t require neutrality. What makes this kind of journalism neutral is that the neutral gives equal weight to the different interpretations, as opposed to judging them and trying to settle the matter for the reader. This “he said, she said” style of journalism is supposed to inform the public so that they can decide for themselves how to respond.

As Wikipedia’s Objectivity (Journalism) article points out, it’s important to distinguish scientific objectivity from neutrality. Scientists try to falsify a hypothesis so that the facts will emerge, whereas a neutral journalist is interested in presenting a complete rather than a purely factual account. For example, by presenting the opinions of two sides that disagree on what the facts are or on how they should be interpreted, a neutral journalist sullies her report, from a scientific perspective, by intentionally including falsehoods, assuming the two opinions contradict each other. When you have contradictory statements, one of them is false, so the greater the variety of sources in a news story, the more likely the story won’t be entirely factual. Again, though, the journalist’s goal isn’t to be objective in the sense showcasing “just the facts”; rather, she wants to be like the news aggregator websites that present high quality opinions from a variety of sources that are likely to disagree with each other. Instead of bringing together conflicting editorials, though, a journalist tries to bring together all the credible sources of information pertaining to a newsworthy event, including eye witnesses, experts, analysts, and even partisan functionaries. The reader is left with the task of judging which source is best, given the journalist’s representative summary of the total quantity of relevant information.

Conflict Sells the News

That’s my charitable portrayal of the journalist’s understanding of her ideal of neutrality. There are two related points, however, that should lead us to suspect that this high-minded ideal isn’t what it seems. First, conflict is good for the business of selling news stories. In fact, news reports become stories the more they reflect conflict between sources of information, and stories that have a narrative structure are what attract readers and bring in money from advertisers which supports the journalism business, such as it is. If you have a choice of reading (1) a dry list of bulletin points that lacks any narrative structure and pretends there’s no disagreement about what happened or how to interpret the facts or (2) a report that speaks to the human interest in the action promised by a conflict, by letting opponents play our their conflict in the report, chances are you’ll prefer to read (2). Mind you, as I’ll show in a moment, in aesthetic terms these news stories are anticlimactic since the journalist’s neutrality prevents her from resolving the conflict and thus supplying the reader a Third Act.

Granted, a defender of neutral journalism might say that this confluence of interests is coincidental. Even if news reports that feature conflict are good for the business of journalism, and the ideal of neutrality ensures that the reports will feature conflict, by motivating the journalist to prefer completeness to factuality, this doesn’t show that the journalist’s ideal is based only on crass economic self-interest. Neutrality may serve the loftier goal of informing the rationally sovereign population of a democratic society, and people also just happen to enjoy being told stories that reflect the tensions of everyday life.

Serious versus Fringe Sources

I agree that however suspicious this coincidence may seem, it may be merely a coincidence. Still, there’s a second curious point, which is that even the most neutral of journalists nevertheless selects those sources she considers to be of highest quality. Typically, there’s an unstated assumption in news stories that only the Serious sources of information are given the bulk of mainstream media attention. If we look closely at who these Serious sources are, we find they’re either active participants in a democratically-approved organization, in the sense that the organization labours to uphold the conventions that are taken for granted by the majority, or else those sources convey information that’s consistent with those conventions. In a democracy, the more popular an organization, the more powerful it is, and the higher up a member is in the chain of command in some such organization, the more Serious that member is taken to be by neutral reporters. Thus, the government, the police, the military, and the big business world would all be Serious sources of information, assuming their members were to speak about some newsworthy event.

By contrast, a neutral journalist will ignore information from Fringe, out-there, or crazy sources. To be sure, that editorial decision might be justified. For example, if an eye witness to a car accident were insane or grossly irrational, her testimony wouldn’t likely influence how the story plays out, since it wouldn’t be admissible in court, the police would ignore it, the testimony would obviously be out of touch with reality, and so on. However, what Fringe sources actually all have in common is their radicalism. Above all, the Fringe consists of social outsiders who, for one reason or other, reject certain social conventions and so they represent a challenge to the status quo. If you aren’t an engaged, powerful member of some relevant organization or your views conflict with the established mainstream narrative, a so-called neutral journalist will regard you as Fringe rather than Serious and will therefore not help convey any relevant information you may have to the public.

Now, you might be wondering whether the second point contradicts the first one, since if neutral journalists prefer to report on conflicts, and radicals conflict with society, those journalists might be expected even to give extra weight to radical messages, to feature them in their news reports. Clearly, this doesn’t happen, so what’s going on here? To resolve the apparent tension, we should distinguish between conflict and revolution. A revolution is the mighty conflict that ends manageable, more reassuring conflicts. Radicals are revolutionary agents who seek to overturn the mainstream social order. That kind of blow-out conflict isn’t good for the business of journalism in democratic societies for the simple reason that that business is itself part of mainstream society, meaning that neutral journalists are themselves members of a Serious organization, one whose power rests on the public’s appreciation of the organization’s contribution to what passes for conventional wisdom. Granted, this state of affairs is currently in flux since the mainstream media are threatened by internet reporting which cuts out the middlemen. Nevertheless, the impartiality of neutral journalists is limited to their willingness to provide a platform to any relevant Serious person. Once an issue is broadened to include radical viewpoints, so-called neutral or objective journalists reveal their partiality to the conventions of the society in which they function as major players. CNN is infamous for this limited neutrality.

By contrast, so-called advocacy (“biased” or partisan) journalists tend to be Fringe precisely in that they’re radicals; they speak on behalf of marginalized groups (the poor, nonhuman animals, minorities) whose justice or revenge would threaten an established democratic order. Note, for example, that you won’t find advocacy journalists providing slanted coverage of actual powerful forces within society. To be sure, well-established groups have their lobbyists and public relations people who may pretend to be journalists. For example, Fox News in the US is nominally a conservative news outlet, but the company’s a fraud as has been ably exposed by the Daily Show and as has therefore become common knowledge. To the extent that there are any actual journalists at work in Fox News, they don’t advocate for the causes they truly serve--not by name, at least--and even the conservative Fox pundits aren’t upfront about the sort of society they’d like to see realized. Instead, those employees are demagogues who manipulate public opinion by clouding issues with rhetorical tricks that oversimplify or otherwise misrepresent the far right-wing agenda. As I’ve explained elsewhere, that agenda is just to maintain and/or apologize for the default organization of all large groups in social species, which is the dominance hierarchy. In the US, that hierarchy takes the form of a stealth oligarchy. Now, the difference between any kind of journalist, including a biased one who doesn’t pretend to be neutral, and a demagogue, lobbyist, or publicist is that the former is a true-believing ideologue who uses ideas to interpret the facts and who tells the one side of the story that furthers the goals prescribed by her ideology, whereas the latter is a cynical pragmatist who pretends to have an ideology which she honourably serves, but who instead makes up stories that are utterly unrelated to the facts.

That’s the difference between MSNBC and Fox News pundits: the former actually believe in liberal myths and attempt to explain the facts from a liberal perspective, whereas the latter are actors who are much more likely to intentionally misrepresent the facts than to care about whether the facts are better explained from a conservative standpoint. Glenn Beck is a classic example of a demagogue masquerading as an advocacy journalist. Like a professional wrestler who changes his character as the wind blows, he changes his script from one of libertarianism to crackpot conspiracy theory to religious evangelism. And when Fox News “analysts” do seem to advocate for conservative causes, they frame the causes to make them appear as if the analysts were defending oppressed minorities. Hence the alleged war on Christmas in the US, the most Christian modern nation; the defense of the freedom to own guns being couched as an aid to the revolutionary who’s at war with a tyrannical government, rather than as a ploy to enrich the gun manufacturers; and the ruse that the Republican Party cares about the social issues of the old white men who are the Party’s most visible members, whereas Republican leaders are dedicated mostly to furthering the economic agenda of almost all rich Americans.
The Media’s True Liberal Bias: Neutrality as Vacuity

So neutrality in journalism isn’t what it seems. On the one hand, neutral journalists have a financial incentive to gin up conflicts by providing equal coverage of multiple sides of an issue, or at least to let the opponents speak for themselves even if they’re not on an equal footing, objectively speaking. On the other hand, these journalists aren’t so neutral after all, since they presuppose a way of framing all sources of information: some are Serious, meaning relatively powerful, while others are radical, or relatively powerless. The high-minded goal of neutral journalism is to inform the public, since a healthy democracy requires an informed citizenry; after all, the majority are supposed to hold power in such a society. But if even neutral journalists are biased in favour of Serious voices, the charitable interpretation of the ideal can’t be right; the goal can’t be merely to inform and to let all judgment fall to the reader, because the so-called neutral journalist prejudges the information she passes along.

We can get a better idea of the social role played by this journalism if we consider the relevant liberal bias of mainstream media, which is just the neutrality in question. Most mainstream journalists are surely also liberal with respect to their feelings about social issues, since elite journalists are well-educated and educated people are disproportionately liberal (see page 37 of this Pew Report). (This doesn’t mean liberals are smarter; on the contrary, the smartest people in the US go into business school and make millions defrauding the sheep in the lower classes, by using arcane financial instruments to manage colossal Ponzi schemes, and this business requires a social Darwinian perspective that’s anathema to liberalism. The moral here is that intelligence is different from having a moral sense.) In any case, a mainstream journalist’s personal liberalism doesn’t impact her reports as much as the so-called neutrality.

So how is neutrality a liberal bias in journalism? Well, to see this, we need to appreciate the difference between modern and postmodern liberalism, a distinction I’ve explained elsewhere. Modern liberalism is classic, science-centered Enlightenment rationalism, the individualistic European philosophy that replaced the feudal, Church-dominated worldview and celebrated science (free-thinking), nature, and personal freedom (capitalism and democracy). Modern liberals were blown away by the success of scientists like Galileo, Newton, Kepler, Maxwell, and Darwin. So by “liberty,” old-school liberals meant rational autonomy, the ability to control yourself by thinking carefully about what should be done, as opposed to going with the flow (dogma) like an animal following its instincts or stimuli. A liberated person was someone made independent precisely by her power of reason. As women were thought to be more emotional and intuitive than logical, European secularists still considered them more like animals than people.

Then came the postmodern age starting, I’d say, in the early twentieth century with Einstein and Freud. Einstein replaced concepts of rational absoluteness in physics with that of relativity and Freud popularized the earlier discovery of the unconscious and of the animal aspect of even the most calculating of men’s minds. And the World Wars made ridiculous the scientistic fantasies of social progress through technoscientific power. Then the Sixties social revolutions fell through and the Marxist economic theory was revealed to be pseudoscientific, thanks to the Soviet Union’s collapse (the Iron Law of Oligarchy trumps all liberal or conservative rationalizations of the different stripes worn by dominance hierarchies). Reagan’s and Thatcher’s “free markets” reframed the economic debate and liberals were left holding the bag. This is to say, with Thomas Frank, that the so-called conservatives assigned themselves a job approximately as easy as picking your nose on a full-time basis, which was the job of looting the treasury and the middle class and funneling that money to the alpha males, all while acting publicly as irresponsible, obstructionist "governors" to prove that government doesn’t work, so that the public will clamor for government functions to be privatized. Meanwhile, the liberals who nominally believed in big government had to clean up the conservatives’ mess. You see, modern liberals believed in technocracy, in a bureaucracy of experts who could apply scientific social theories to rationally manage society. Big government was a kind of technology that would transform human nature, teaching people to be rational and thus to be free. But when all of the liberal myths (Marxism, scientism, rationalism, social progress) lost their power to enchant, thanks to the big events of the last century, liberals became deer caught in the headlights; they became postmodern.

What’s left for the postmodern liberal, ideologically speaking? Pragmatism, “centrism,” and scientific management (Taylorism). Postmodern liberals are disenchanted, uninspired, weak-willed creatures, because they’ve lost their religion. Whereas their predecessors celebrated the human capacity for rational self-control as the seat of freedom and of human rights, postmodern liberals care more about efficiently managing the social system, and so they maintain the status quo rather than pushing for progressive changes. Thus, you have Obama’s Democrats, for example, who have normalized George W. Bush’s economic and foreign policies which Democrats formerly held to be odious, and before them you had Clinton’s Democrats who continued Reagan’s free market agenda of bilking the middle class with Ponzi schemes (unregulated bubble markets sustained by low interest rates set by the Fed that inevitably burst, leaving the scheming insiders to their golden parachutes). Even when liberals cry out on behalf of the oppressed, their rhetoric is vestigial and superficial, since they no longer have any myths to justify their social ideals. They’re atheists who can’t get past Nietzsche, they’re rationalists who are blocked by Freud and Darwin, and they’re socialists who are stuck with the facts that big governments become dominance hierarchies (oligarchies, kleptocracies, dictatorships, etc) and don’t create ultrarational utopias.  

So in a free society in which liberals cave in to the brutal reality recognized by conservatives, about the default status of the pecking order, neutrality in the press is a necessary evil, a concession to the fact that liberals can no longer defend their ideals and thus they cling to the back of technoscience merely by being toady managers of the prevailing social order. Whereas Obama said he would change the way the US was heading under Bush, he could stomach to fight for and implement only superficial changes in tone, to make the US’s unseemly alpha-male agenda less exposed on the global stage. To fight for change against a rabid, implacable foe, you have to believe strongly in something. Postmodern liberals are nihilists even if they’re afraid to admit as much to themselves and so they pretend they’re still entitled to the old-school progressive rhetoric. Their courage naturally fails them now, because their myths ring hollow in the face of postmodern reality. And so they take that reality for granted and lose hope for progress. The neutral press is liberal in precisely that sense: its slant towards Serious sources amplifies the voices belonging already to the most powerful and well-entrenched members of society, carrying their messages across the mainstream media and leaving out the Fringe voices of the outsiders who aren’t so decadent that they can afford the luxury of avant-garde nihilism.

Fittingly, the mainstream journalist’s vaunted neutrality fails to advance the old-school liberal causes, in two ways. First, a neutral press fails to raise the standard of discourse or even to keep the citizenry in touch with reality. How so? Because a neutral press is a vacuous, cowed one whose weaknesses are easily exploited by demagogues and partisan hacks. Here’s how this works. A neutral press is honour-bound to give equal attention to all relevant Serious voices on some issue. So suppose you’re a clever, powerful ideologue who wants to shift the public debate in your direction. All you have to do then, when speaking to the press, is exaggerate your beliefs and the reporters will be forced to carry your wackadoodle message without judging it in any way, not even to call a spade a spade. Then the public will think your side has gone too far, but you and the neutral press will have shifted the goalposts so that the compromise position will be: [drumroll…] the position you secretly preferred all along! At worst, the press will call upon partisan analysts to tear down your talking points, but because of neutrality, the press will require that all Serious sides be represented in that analysis, so that the criticisms will appear to cancel each other out. Thus, the neutral press is like the phony referee in a professional (fixed) wrestling match: easily distracted and exploited in a thousand ways, apparently clueless and impotent.

Ah, but as journalism scholar Jay Rosen points out, the media fight back against this reality by joining what he calls the Church of the Savvy. Although their fealty to neutrality ensures that mainstream journalists must stand still while they’re lapped by demagogues who mean to brand the public like cattle, the journalists’ self-image as heroes of democracy won’t let them go down without a fight. Unfortunately, to the gun battle with propagandists who rely more and more on cognitive science to deftly persuade people with soft power, these journalists bring only their cynical tone of voice. “Sure,” these journalists insist, “we’re pushed back and forth by the powers that be and we’ve tied our hands behind our back so we can’t return fire by being even a little bit objective and making some independent finding of fact. But trust me, dear reader/viewer, we know how the system works. We're savvy to the dark side and we're not fooled by that public relations baloney even though the postmodern liberal bias of our profession forbids us from naming names and speaking truth to power. Nevertheless, we can affect a snarky tone and roll our eyes when we're forced to pass on Orwellian hogwash, so that you don’t lose all respect for us. We're no dupes; unfortunately for you, though, we play them on TV and in print.” The savvy tone that CNN and BBC reporters are especially known for, since they pretend to be neutral, is a pitiful gambit indeed.

Second, neutrality fails to reassure the freedom-lover that the modern experiment with individualism has been worth it. As Goethe said in Faust, technoscience has rewarded free individuals with the world, but has robbed us of our souls. The world is in our hands, because technology humanizes our environment, turning natural processes into artificial ones that benefit us especially in short-sighted ways. But what have we lost because of that power? Our religious sensibility and our confidence that we’ve overcome the worries with which any sentient creature is cursed. We’re left with angst and horror and only pathetic countermeasures in the form of delusions that needn’t fool anyone. What have we become as we’ve embraced technoscientific progress without knowing how to advance on the psychological or social levels? Machines, adapting to our artificial environments. Ironically, the more we postmodernists try to humanize our habitats, by surrounding ourselves with technology that lives up to our ideals, the more dehumanized we become as inhabitants, since our ideals are no longer fit for the posthuman world created by rapidly-advancing technoscience.   

The relevance of this is that the neutral media are supposed to encourage individualists by honouring their ultrarationality, merely informing them with a complete summary of current affairs and trusting in the public’s ability to assess what they see. Jay Rosen and the Daily Show point out that this isn’t what actually happens in postmodern societies. CNN’s “leave it there” meme has been duly mocked, but really the joke is on the consumer of news. In case you’re unfamiliar with how CNN’s infotainment factory works, CNN will play host to dueling pundits who shout over each other to get in their sound-bite talking points, and then the host will say “We’ve got to leave it there,” so that CNN can cut to commercials for old people, selling them prescription drugs that boast a trillion horrific side effects.

Raymond Pingree, an assistant professor at Ohio University conducted an experiment which shows that neutral reporting in politics tends to befuddle the consumer of that news. Far from being sufficiently rational to make heads or tails of what the partisans and analysts are saying or to judge who’s in the right, the experts succeed in muddying the waters and disheartening the consumer. When CNN leaves it there, you’ve only barely even been infotained, let alone informed or equipped to judge what to think about the talking points. Mainstream media neutrality makes journalists irrelevant as the vacuous, nihilistic postmodern liberals that they are, so that if you’re interested in deciphering or debunking the toxic nonsense spewed by pundit functionaries, you’ve got to abandon the impartial news outlets and turn to advocacy reporters or ideologues that thrive now on the internet. Otherwise, once the mainstream watchdog is muzzled, the thieves are permitted to rob your house; their rival talking points get in your head and you’re left confused and agitated but lacking any idea about how to proceed. Here’s where the advertisements take over. “Worried are you that you don’t know what’s going on? Just buy this flashy product and take care of this specific issue in your life. Then go back to sleep, sheep.” And this was the point about the anticlimax of impartial news stories. The consumer is left not just unsatisfied but mystified, and this leads to apathy and to a cynicism that matches the kind displayed by the Serious players featured in mainstream media, which is surely a big part of the reason why half of Americans don’t vote.

This tragicomedy is a testament to the postmodern condition. The modern myth of individual liberty was well and good a few centuries ago when only rich, white European males were considered persons. Their self-serving culture and alpha male privileges united them in the main. Now that poor people, women, and folks from all cultures are full citizens in postmodern democracies, the differences between “liberated individuals” are irreconcilable. The paradigmatic example is the division in the US between the red and blue states. On the surface, it’s the old, white males versus the young and the immigrants. In reality, it’s just the haves versus the have-nots, as it always is in a dominance hierarchy. In any case, the point is that individual liberty seems like a great ideal when your concept of personhood is very narrow. The more voices are allowed into the public debate, the less neutrality makes sense in the media, because the harder it is for the layperson to keep track of the relevant facts. When the neutral media abdicate their responsibility and pretend they’re doing you a service by respecting your rationality, even though they’re preferring to host cynical masters of manipulation who walk all over the “savvy” journalists and obfuscate the issues so as to keep the public in a trance state of cluelessness, your chutzpah meter should be deafening you with its alarm. 

Free Press versus Totalitarian Propaganda

A defender of mainstream news will say that I’m just whining, because a free press is obviously superior to what passes for journalism in a police state like North Korea. At least journalists in democracies allow differences of opinion to become public knowledge. In China or Saudi Arabia, the news is pure propaganda on behalf of the government and critics are jailed. Especially in the North Korean theocracy, the public are completely in the dark as to where their country stands in global terms. So for all its faults, surely a neutral, free press is preferable to a biased, unfree one.

Perhaps, but let’s be clear about the difference between theory and practice in either case. Theoretically, an unfree press, that is, a press that advocates some cause and doesn’t give equal airtime to opposing viewpoints could be progressive, assuming there were objectively better and worse ways of handling the normative issues that the media frequently address, about where the country should be headed, how the government should be structured, how social and legal debates should be judged, and so on. But in practice, when advocacy journalists become members of the Serious, mainstream establishment, their institution is corrupted and the journalists become more interested in aggrandizing themselves and their paymasters than in fighting for their principles. Shielded from public scrutiny, the national leaders are subject to all the more temptations and the state is beset by cronyism.  

And theoretically, a free-thinking press is supposed to function as I laid out above in the introduction, while in practice this kind of journalism is flawed in the ways I’ve discussed throughout this article. The result is that in the US, the most individualistic of modern societies, the impartial evening news shows have declining ratings, since young audiences flock to the internet for their news, especially to satirical sites like The Daily Show, The Onion, or YouTube celebrity analysts, and impartial CNN is a laughingstock with the lowest ratings compared to those of MSNBC and Fox News, which are advocacy news channels--at least superficially. The freer the society, the more likely its neutral media will fail in their mission, for the above reasons. 

Now certainly, an advantage of a free press is that its consumers will have a more complete picture of world affairs, since they’re offered more than one side of the story. But this seems to have the unintended consequence that that news consumer will be more likely to throw up her hands in confusion and drop out of the market for news altogether, since her news stories will lack resolution, leaving her with postmodern ennui. Perhaps this is why the American public is so xenophobic and ignorant about global or national affairs. Either kind of journalism, then, seems like it has the same effect in the long run: keeping the public uninformed.


  1. This is really painful to read, hits where it hurts.

    You may have become my favourite blog ever now.

    1. Thanks very much. I'm gratified to hear it. Feel free to spread the word about my blog! :)

      When you say "hits where it hurts," I wonder if that means you're a journalist or an American. I'm pretty tough on Americans, even though I'm Canadian. I'm usually too bored with Canada to criticize that country.

    2. Ah, Benjamin.

      That PM of yours could be an American politician very easily. From some moderately conservative progressive upper Southern State.

    3. Harper is conservative, but the two kinds of conservatism face opposite kinds of political correctness. In Canada, as in much of Europe, I think, craziness is best toned-down for the sakes of civility and social unity. The US is more individualistic, from what I've seen, so if you're crazy in the US, the politically correct thing to do is to shout your inanities from the roof top, without shame or any other reservation.

      The Liberals in Canada tried to demonize Harper when he ran for election, painting him as a closet American-style conservative, but after several years of being PM he hasn't proved to be much of a Trojan Horse. Social conservatism here is confined mainly to Alberta, and the Canadian political system isn't winner-take-all, like in the US, so a conservative like Harper has to permanently hide his conservative views. I suppose it would be easier to express your true beliefs than to keep them under wraps. Harper's main disadvantage in the US, I think, would be his Machiavellian coolness. Harper would be a lousy loud-mouth Tea Party demagogue. Moderate conservative politicians aren't faring so well in the US, so I'm not sure how easy the transition would be for Harper.

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  3. They call it "missing the forest for the trees." :)