It’s all about ideological struggle…

Jack Shafer’s second installment of his series on bias in the news media makes these observations: Liberals and conservatives “talk right past one another” and “work backward from their conclusions to the evidence and damn what the other side says.” He then spends the balance of the column demonstrating the veracity of these observations.

By the end of the column, I don’t see how anyone with an open mind cannot agree that much of the debate about media bias is so bound by the dogma of the competing sides that it is nearly useless in gaining a deeper understanding of how the news media operate.

Here’s what I have said on the bias page of the Rhetorica Critical Meter:

The press is often thought of as a unified voice with a distinct bias (right or left depending on the critic). This simplistic thinking fits the needs of ideological struggle, but is hardly useful in coming to a better understanding of what is happening in the world.

The second sentence is the crucial point: The struggle over media bias is not a search for an accurate account of what happens when humans practice journalism (e.g. an academic account). The struggle over media bias is a political struggle among warring factions. It is a struggle among those who understand all too well that in politics the winner of the battle of definitions wins the political game. And, as I have said before, one of the most basic truisms of politics in a democracy is: You can’t lead if you don’t win. That truism speaks to more than simply electoral politics.

Eric Alterman, Bernard Goldberg, and others of their ilk are not academics or concerned professionals in search of truth (despite Alterman’s Ph.D.). They are political animals tearing at the corpus of journalism in a battle to yank it away from the political enemy.

It’s not a pretty sight to those of us who understand these things:

(I am bracketing editorials and punditry out of the following list because espousing a political position is one of the defining characteristics of these journalistic practices.)

1) Ideological bias is a local phenomenon: Yes, we may look at the record and find any number of odious examples of overt political bias on the part of reporters and editors. These examples are nearly always confined to a journalist, or an issue, or a particular news organization, or a particular situation, or a particular location. These anecdotes do not tell us much of anything about the ideology of the press as a whole. All instances of such localized bias should be vigorously challenged.

2) Voting patterns and ideological identification do not tell us much about bias in the news media as a whole: Yes, it appears many, perhaps most, journalists are what the editor of MediaMinded correctly identifies as “American liberals” (as opposed to the European variety). But journalists operate (often imperfectly) under a set of professional ethics that place a high value on fairness. Plus, as Shafer demonstrates, the definitions (policy preferences) of what constitutes liberal and conservative thought are constantly shifting. Journalists are not immune to these shifts.

3) The medium is the message: Journalism is certainly biased in favor of the structure of the various media that carry news messages. And journalism is biased in favor of its own set of professional practices.

4) Strong media theory is a discredited theory: People are not sheep being led to the slaughter. Baby boomers, Gen-Xers, and the Millennials have grown up in a media-saturated environment. These generations quite naturally are able to deal with media messages in complex ways. This is not to suggest that weak media theory is at play (an equally discredited notion). Instead, such theories as “purposive audience” and “active audience” suggest that news consumers are quite capable of making use of the media as well as being used by it. The relationship is a 2-way street.

5) Ideological media criticism is an elitist practice: The kind of criticism that contends that the news media have an overall ideological bias that makes it difficult for the opposite point of view to be heard suggests that news consumers are too stupid to understand news messages. The underlying premise is that only media elites can understand these messages and save the ignorant public from manipulation.

UPDATE (throughout the day): I’ll list the blogs commenting on Shafer’s column as I find them: The Cultural Elite, Bill’s Content, MediaMinded.