Montana Voices: Media bias hides in eyes of biased beholders

If you are among the dwindling few who still believe journalism is an honorable profession, proceed with caution.

David Crisp

But first, a confession. Last week’s column about Sinclair Broadcast Group’s acquisition of three Montana TV stations provoked annoyed responses from readers who accused me of selectively using facts that promoted my point of view.

This, of course, is true. Readers who followed all of the links in that column could have spent most of a day reading about Sinclair and related topics. Whether I was adequately judicious in how I used that evidence is a question open to endless debate. That’s the nature of this business.

Unfortunately, growing numbers of readers think journalists in general do a poor job of setting biases aside and reporting accurately and fairly. Evidence for that also was selectively ignored in last week’s column, but surveys I cited make a damning case.

In a new Marist poll, only 8 percent of respondents said they have a “great deal” of trust in the media—the same percentage that have a great deal of trust in public opinion polls (Congress gets 6 percent; Trump gets 14 percent).

Here’s the most damning statistic of all: According to a recent poll by Survey Monkey, 89 percent of Republicans think President Trump is more trustworthy than CNN. Ninety-one percent of Democrats go with CNN.

Let’s be clear: This is not a debate over whether there should be a federal minimum wage or what the highest marginal tax rate ought to be. This is a fundamental disagreement about the nature of reality. CNN, for all its flaws, corrects its errors, fires errant reporters and, in a hopeless quest for political balance, leaves its studio floors sagging with the weight of enormous pundit panels aimed at permitting all possible points of view.

Trump, according to an analysis by the New York Times, said something untrue in public on each of his first 40 days in office. This is a man who in the past used a fake name to call reporters pretending to be his own publicist. Just this week he has claimed, falsely, that he has signed more bills than any other president at this point in his term.

Here’s the second-most damning statistic: Asked if they would “trust news organizations that have a reputation for objectivity proven by track record,” 36 percent of Republicans said no. That suggests something I have long suspected: With a fairly large number of readers, it’s a waste of time even trying to be fair and unbiased. They won’t believe you anyway.

And here’s the third: Eighty-five percent of Republicans agreed that “news organizations tend to provide only one side of the story depending on who owns them or who funds them.” Even 52 percent of Democrats agreed.

This is a coherent point, and it may well become a problem, but so far as I can tell it remains largely untrue. In all my years in media, I have never heard of a reporter who was vetted for political views. In years of gossiping with reporters, and following the trade papers, I have heard very few examples of media owners ordering reporters to slant stories.

Why not? For one thing, even bad companies generally want to hire good reporters, and good reporters won’t work for companies that order them to slant the news. More than swaying public opinion, corporate media owners want to make money. They are pretty good at that.

For another thing, journalism is a demanding craft that asks a lot of reporters and pays them little in return. Those who survive long enough to earn positions that give them the power to order how stories are covered don’t need marching orders from their corporate bosses. They are tamed.

Finally, major media outlets tend to be owned by major corporations. If they are going to order up biased news, it won’t be biased in favor of liberals. In fact, a 2010 study by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro found little relationship between newspaper ownership and the “slant” of stories.

So how biased are the media? It’s remarkably hard to tell. In an unusual and interesting study, Tim Groseclose, a political science professor at the University of California Los Angeles, has argued that all of the United States would vote more like Texas or Kentucky if the media were less biased. The study is interesting because it attempts to measure an inherently subjective topic with mathematical precision.

But in a critique of Groseclose’s methodology, Brendan Nyhan notes that deviating from the political center does not prove bias. “The center has no monopoly on truth,” he wrote, “and we should not ask the media to follow it slavishly. Democracy works best when the press is independent, not narrowly centrist.”

Or, as Justin H. Gross puts it in a detailed critique, Groseclose’s work equivocates on a key question: “Is the media biased when it inaccurately represents the world, or when it fails to reflect the audience’s (natural) opinions?”

Nor does evidence that most journalists lean left or vote for Democrats prove that reporting is biased. The question is not whether reporters have bias—of course they do—but whether they are able to suppress their biases in their stories.

Put another way, journalists do what they always have done. They gather evidence, weigh its relevance and try to present it in an accurate and even-handed manner. Whether they are adequately judicious in how they use evidence they gather is a question open to endless debate.

Which is right where we came in.

David Crisp is a longtime Billings journalist and college professor who writes a weekly column for Last Best News.