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Challenging the media bias

Observer Viewpoint | Sunday, February 6, 2005

The retirement of commentator William Safire – one of two rather lonely conservative voices coming from the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times – has instigated a fresh slew of attacks by conservative pundits about the liberal media bias at the newspaper. Safire was, after all, just about the only buffer between the Times and forced admittance of its strongly left-leaning tendencies. But questions of media responsibility, especially at this moment of crisis, extend well beyond the typical objections to liberal bias. Recent scandals are forcing people of goodwill to think seriously about the need for change in the way the media is run in the United States.

In the last month, it has been discovered Bush Administration officials are paying off conservative analysts to support some of the administration’s various policy proposals. The scandal began with commentator Michael McManus, who personally received $10,000 and whose right-wing Marriage Savers Foundation received a generous $49,000 for McManus’ printed praise for Bush’s marriage initiative. Conservative columnist Maggie Gallagher received $41,500 for her support of the initiative. And most recently, leading black conservative Armstrong Williams was found to have taken a whopping $241,000 – straight from the pockets of American taxpayers and with the approval of the U.S. Secretary of Education – for his role in drumming up support among the Black community for the No Child Left Behind education legislation. None of these three individuals found their bribes to be relevant enough to merit informing their host publications.

While payola and bribery certainly represent the worst of media practice in our country, limiting the discussion of responsible media to the actions of a few unethical individuals would be missing the much bigger point. Columnists and commentators have been bought off, but the real issue at hand is the buying off of the entire institution of the media by undemocratic and for-profit corporations.

Media outlets do not exist to make the world a better place, or even to be fair in their reporting. Their institutional mandate is to increase the profit of their shareholders. The tenuous justification for this structuring is that Americans should in theory desire unbiased news, and as such the most profitable media corporations would be those that are most fair in their reporting. But, as the catapulting of Fox News and The New York Times to the top of their respective viewership charts demonstrates, what Americans tend to want most from what they watch and read is to reinforce their preexisting beliefs. This reality serves to deepen existing cultural divides in our country and to weaken honest dialogue. An alternative approach incorporating publicly-owned media would at least minimize the agenda-pushing of major media outlets.

Furthermore, media organizations do not practice democratic principles in their reporting. Certain people and groups have much greater access to the media than others. These biases – the representation of the experiences and perspectives of one person or group of people more than others – can be related to categories of race, class, religion and gender just as much as partisan affiliation. While regulation forcing the representation of a diversity of views could be seen as an infringement upon free speech, requiring a more transparent accounting of who presents the news might alleviate some of these problems. Making public the backgrounds, beliefs and viewpoints of individuals reporting the news would at least make more Americans aware of the power of spin.

While these changes may help to rectify some of the most ostensible consequences of biased news, structural changes which are limited only to the media, cannot actually establish impartiality. Power structures inherent in our systems of government and economics will always give voice and authority to some more than others.

For example, if the next U.S. president were to decide invading Mexico were necessary in order to protect the freedom of Americans, an unpartisan media would be one that gave half of its coverage to this patently ridiculous proposal to the perspectives that support it, merely because of the power of the president. And, unfortunately, the result might be half of Americans honestly believing that to be patriotic requires one to support the invasion of Mexico. This despairing reality begs several questions. Is responsible or unbiased media even possible, and why is one person – or one ideology that happens to be practiced by people with power – able to set the agenda for what the media will cover and what all Americans will be thinking about?

Every media outlet – from The New York Times to Fox to our own Observer and Scholastic – must recognize their publications are not just reflecting the news and thoughts of their constituents but also generating the framework through which our campus and nation will discuss issues deemed relevant. Unlike their explicitly-biased counterparts, such as The Irish Rover and Common Sense, organizations which purport to produce balanced news and commentary are ethically bound to take steps to limit their bias. As such, transforming media establishments into more transparent, publicly-owned and not-for-profit organizations would drastically improve the quality of news and commentary, ensuring the voices and experiences of more Americans are represented in wider social dialogue.

Michael Poffenberger is a senior anthropology and peace studies major. His column appears every other Monday. He can be reached at mpoffen@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.