There's A Solution
There was a review of OutFoxed by Joel Selvin in the Friday Chronicle, a documentary about the right wing bias of Rupert Murdoch's Fox News network. What does it mean to say a news network is “biased”? They say public radio and television are liberal “biased” media and I've generally said, OK, I know public radio and television pretty well, if that's what they call biased, liberal or conservative, I have an image I can put in context.
I don't listen to Fox News and my assumption has been when they say Fox is “biased” they mean biased in the sense they as a news organization are waving the flag, favoring the war and the current administration, particularly on their talking head programs and in their editorials. What I hadn't thought to ask and what Selvin did ask was how did Fox manage to reliably hire reporters with a “conservative” bent? How do they keep their staff politically correct and free of liberals in conservative clothing (so they'd have a job and could pay the rent)? Reading the review I learned I'm more naive than I realized and I am, with sixty years of self examination of the subject, pretty naive.
What I hadn't understood is that Fox news stories come down from the top in the form of daily memoranda to their editors directing what “the story of the day will be”. Not just the story, but “the point of view expected to be taken in reporting it. One day, the assignment will be to portray Kerry as a ‘flip-flopper’. The next, to talk about how Iraqis never had it better. The next, to try to portray Kerry as looking French.”
Fox reporters use the phrase “some say” when reporting. When a newspaper reporter uses the phrase it's supposed to be based on comments made by real (generally don't want to be quoted and not related to the reporter or the paper) people and their editors are supposed to be serious about going over these sources with their reporters to confirm they exist. When a Fox reporter says “some say” they are not quoting other sources, they are making an editorial comment injecting the Fox line into the story: “some say Kerry looks French”.
That's not bias, someone's confused a public relations operation with a news network. There is always bias in any news reporting. That's half of what journalism school is about: How to manage bias in a professional and transparent manner. Some news organizations try harder than others, but every newspaper, every corporation, whatever their effort to keep their balance, still has unspoken taboos and lines you cross at your peril. Thou Shalt Not out the local large employer-advertiser on their less than lovely employment practices or their (toxic) waste disposal practices unless they are rude and stupid enough do it right out in the middle of the street in broad daylight in front of the children with competing news people crowding around shooting pictures.
As a reader you know to be on watch, you look for bias, you take what you read with a small grain of salt. As a reporter, as a corporate employee, as a member of any large organization you know the local politics and you're careful when you wander too close to the line. But memoranda that dictate your stories and lay out the spin you'll give them? Memos from above, “portray Kerry as looking French”? Jesus. I like the French. They make great wine and brother in laws.
The only solution I can come up with is transparency, the more the better: Documentaries like these, more reliable web sources, more newspaper sources (Yes, I know. Print news is dead and no one will be alive in another twenty years who will read it.), more (cable, satellite, broadcast) television, more (chortle) open government. It's OK to call yourself a news network if everybody knows up front what's going on when they hear “some say”, if everybody knows the reporters aren't more than mouthpieces who walk and talk the party line.
How to gain more transparency? Howard Dead revolutionized raising money on the web for elections. “Revolution” in this rare instance is, I think, the correct description. Significant contributions are rolling in from individuals now instead of just the large big dollar interest groups. John Dean came close to becoming the Democratic Party's nominee for the Presidency because he was able to raise money and put people together across the country - “a bunch of amateurs” - to run his campaign.
That's never happened before. He'd never have gone so far without the web. Some say the policies he articulated would never have been incorporated into the current campaign. Whatever happened, the genie is out of the bottle and, one hopes, has opened up political discussion that has to date has been managed by the large media companies who seem to own the national dialogue. (Who would have thought I'd ever be cheering on Howard Stern in his Clear Channel struggle?)
Is there a place on the web for a large number of reliable sources of online news? “Sources“ that generate enough income to survive? I suspect they will come. I can't think how to force transparency on our government without the leverage of a large block of voters banging on the door and I can't think how a large block of voters demanding information might be put together without the web providing information and coordination. I'm not sure democracies can survive without it. For all my carping I guess I'm an optimist, ultimately, still believing there's a solution.