Unbiased Media: A Contradiction in Terms

If President Trump’s recent “Fake News Awards” demonstrate anything, it is that we assume journalists and news outlets operate without biases. This notion is not only false, but historically anomalous.

Newspapers in America from their earliest versions through the early 20th century were unquestionably partisan. With titles like The Richmond Whig, The Scranton Republican, and The Philadelphia Democrat, many newspapers brandished their partisanship in their titles and most others throughout their pages. Whether a newspaper was directly or indirectly controlled by a political party or particular viewpoint was a given.

Early newspapers were partisan, in large part, because they were funded by private individuals or consortiums with particular agendas. As advertising increased its portion of newspaper revenue and began to dominate the newspaper market in the latter half of the 19th century, papers could afford to drift more toward the middle in order to attract broader readership which could then be sold to advertisers.

Concurrent with the rise of advertising as the primary source of revenue for newspapers was the rise of science. In the latter half of the 19th century, America invested heavily in research-based universities to feed its growing industrial empire. Behind that push was the growing confidence that science and rationality in general were tools to understanding the world. This was the era of Darwin, William James, Freud, etc.

As science become the dominant cultural narrative, people began to believe that all topics could be approached with detached rationalism and scientific rigor. Journalism, then, became not the megaphone of a particular viewpoint, but a rational, scientific method for reporting the truth of events as they happened. The takeover over rational journalism was complete by the 1920s and 1930s.

This idea of an unbiased, professional media was a novel idea, and it proved unable to fulfill its pristine purposes of enlightening the public with incontrovertible facts. This is true for at least two reasons. First, as Postmodernism has exposed, rational objectivity is impossible. Second, newspapers, and eventually radio stations, television stations, and online news outlets, are businesses that make decisions based on profit motives, not journalistic integrity.

Beginning in the middle of the 20th century Postmodernity challenged the reigning ideology of Modernism. Its proponents questioned whether anyone could be truly objective in his/her approach to any topic. Postmodernism has poked sufficient holes in the idea of objectivity as to render it almost unable to float. We are increasingly aware of our inset biases and our inability to escape them as they shape our outlook on the world.

This realization forces us to question the ability of any journalist, as full of integrity and honor as they may be, to truly report any story without bias. Bias feels like a dirty word, but it need not be. We are all biased and simply need to appreciate that reality as part of our experience in the world. Journalists take angles on stories fed by their inherent biases, and yet they can still be excellent journalists while doing so.

Business concerns for news outlets are another important factor in understanding why they are unable to remain unbiased in their reporting. News outlets attract subsets of people, often drawn by their political views. In order to attract advertising revenue that keeps people employed, news outlets must understand their customer base and sell to appropriate advertisers. They must also be careful of causing an uproar in society, lest they run the risk of losing large advertisers who do not want to be associated with scandalous organizations.

Thus, an organization may be forced to make editorial choices to ensure the long-term viability of their business, rather than fulfill its mission to inform the public. If one were to watch advertisements on MSNBC and Fox News without knowing which channels aired which advertisements, it would be relatively easy to identify to which station those ads belong because of the markets targeted by the ads. Media outlets know their audiences and make editorial choices to feed those audiences.

The push for journalistic integrity in the last century was a laudable goal that produced much profound reporting and exposed much shameful business by corporations, government officials, and the like (e.g. Watergate). However, the time has come for news outlets to stop pretending they are unbiased, and instead own their preconceptions and particular points of view.

In 2014, the Pew Research Center published a report on the ideological leanings of respondents and their news sources. It codified what most people intuitively understand about the political leanings of various news organizations. Fox News is conservative, MSNBC is liberal. Slate Is liberal, Rush Limbaugh is conservative.

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These are not dramatic revelations. Anyone who consumes news regularly understands the spectrum of perspectives offered by various media sources. The problem is that many, if not most, of these outlets proclaim their unbiased approach and many lambast ideologues on the other side for misreporting or flat out lying when often they are simply speaking from their preconceived biases.

What is needed is for news organizations to reclaim the state of journalism as it has always existed and don the mantles of the ideological perspectives they represent. If Fox News drops is “Fair and Balanced” moniker to say, right of center, and the Huffington Post wears its liberal viewpoint on its sleeve, it makes it much more difficult for us to quibble over whose story is fake or true. After all, reporting is really just truthiness on display. The sooner we appreciate that, the sooner we can stop fighting about “fake news.”