We hear much wailing and gnashing of teeth these days about bias.
We hear it from all walks of life, and from all political affiliations, but in particular from American conservatives, who seem to feel as persecuted and under siege as Christians under the Romans at circus time. Daily you hear shrieking on every internet comment section ever, about the tyrannical, unfair, “liberal bias of the mainstream media.”
This whole argument about bias in general, and media bias in particular, whether it comes from left wing circles (complaining about capitalist, corporate bias in the media) or conservative circles (complaining about cultural liberalism in the media), is really quite fatuous.
The set of CNN’s late, unlamented, political talkshow Crossfire. (Image by Matt H Wade)
The typical critique often boils down to a variation of the argument ‘that there’s no such thing as 100% perfect objectivity, so people should stop trying to pretend that they’re objective’ (and is invariably accompanied on the conservative side with advice to just include more conservatives in every media outlet).
This is fallacious.
Here’s why: just because no one can claim omniscient objectivity, does not mean that some people are not more objective than others – regardless of their worldview.
It should be plain to anyone that some people take much more care in trying to examine multiple points of view, assess empiric evidence, and soberly evaluate arguments before coming to a conclusion; and that some people are explicitly advocating for a predetermined position or outcome before they even start looking for answers. (Or they just lack the intellectual tools).
Think of it as the difference between a salesperson and a diligent scientist.
There is a SCALE of objectivity. As a rough measure, let’s say 0% objective means you’re explicitly advocating for an outcome regardless of contradictory evidence, and 100% objective means you take all possible pains to follow all the evidence available, regardless of where it leads. Let’s also agree that 100% ‘perfect’ objectivity is unobtainable.
Note that this means that even someone who is much more objective than someone else – CAN STILL HAVE A POINT OF VIEW, based on the evidence and arguments they process.
Stephen Colbert once joked that “reality has a well-known liberal bias”, and it was only funny because of the way modern conservatism keeps trying to make objective, empiric reality fit an increasingly radical worldview, rather than the other way around. (You could argue the shoe used to be on the other foot. Conservatives used to pride themselves on discarding airy-fairy political or economic notions that didn’t actually work, which somehow started to unravel some time in the ’80’s – I’m guessing as a result of the Republican Party being ever more tightly integrated with its evangelical wing). The list of examples is too numerous to mention, so I’ll just note a couple of the most egregious:
- “Unskewed Polls” in the last Presidential election, a conservative attempt to refute all the mainstream polls which showed Barack Obama leading.
- The idea that constantly lowering taxes and cutting government services means more growth and prosperity for everyone, as opposed to disproportionately benefiting the wealthy.
- Denial of man-made climate change, in contrast to the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community.
- Denial of evolution (and far too much other mainstream science to mention).
The full-throated denial of mainstream science by modern conservatism is staggering.
Arguing that attempts to insert this denial into say, The New York Times is an example of how to lessen the bias of mainstream media, means you have the definition of bias exactly the wrong way around. You can’t get a more perfect example of bias than an ideological political party fighting against the consensus of the scientific community.
Mainstream conservatism today is screaming about the liberal bias of the mainstream media because mainstream conservatism has itself long since forgotten how to be unbiased – and to a staggering degree. I refer you to the biblical proverb of logs and eyes, Matthew 7:5:
“You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
Mainstream conservatism has pretty much explicitly left “the reality based community,” as famously articulated by a Republican aide’s now infamous quote to Ron Suskind in 2004 (later attributed to Karl Rove) in The New Yorker:
“The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
This is why publications like The American Conservative, which I would argue is the most consistently intellectually honest, interesting publication on the right, remain niche, and not mainstream.
It’s an objective conservative publication – not a biased one.