Dogma and Media Bias
by Ari Armstrong
[This article originally appeared in the Boulder Weekly on February 19, 2004.]
"I have definitive proof the war in Iraq was justified."
If I had begun my column with that line (without the scare quotes), chances are good that by now you'd be thinking roughly one of two things. Either, "This is just another Republican lackey trying to hide Bush's domestic failures behind the patriotic zeal of an ill-conceived war." Or, "It's about time somebody in the media defied his liberal colleagues and told the truth about the necessity of this war."
I suspect that very few readers would have read that first line eagerly awaiting my presentation of evidence, to be evaluated according to the rules of proof we all say we hold in esteem.
Each of us is bombarded daily with more information about the world than we could possibly organize, research, or even notice. If you're like me, you usually read the paper to see how events are reflecting or offending your views, not to inductively check the validity of those views.
Most of us, then, "filter" the news and views to which we are constantly exposed. That is, we notice certain items of news, and ignore others, according to what our broad world views tell us is important. Likewise, we tend to angrily dismiss those who contradict our views, even as we join the cheering squad to root on our team's writers to victory.
To refer to popular debate about Iraq as ridiculous would be to overstate the sophistication of affairs. "Bush lied, there were no weapons of mass destruction, and soldiers keep getting killed, therefore the war was wrong." Or, "The pacifists don't support American troops, blame America for the September 11 attacks, and would appease terrorists, and anyway Saddam was a tyrant, therefore the war was justified." Please. It seems as though the logic often fails to rise above the level of "I hate Bush therefore the war is bad" or "I love Bush therefore the war is good."
Something interesting happens when we try to boil down the complex world to sound bites or even opinion articles: we tend to substitute motives for reality. That's understandable. The real debate about Iraq is so complicated, so bound up with centuries of history, so dependent on one's philosophical, economic, and psychological views, not to mention military tactics, that there simply is no easy and obvious answer -- at least not one that also has the virtue of being true. Very well educated people who have nothing but America's best interests at heart can reasonably disagree on the matter. Even people with similar philosophical views can reach opposite conclusions about any given military venture.
Both left and right believe the media is biased. Jeffrey Friedman addresses this issue in the latest edition of Critical Review (Vol. 15, Nos. 3-4), a journal Friedman edits. Usually the allegation of "bias" is bound up with a view of motives. Many on the left believe the media is biased because it is largely controlled by large corporations. Many on the right believe the media is biased by "liberal" journalists and editors.
Friedman challenges the usual cases that purport bias. He notes American media have created a "firewall" between the managers and the writers. The assumption that large corporations will skew information for their own benefit is itself an ideologically derived theory -- i.e., a bias. Is there any reason to suspect small, independent media outlets should be any less biased? Indeed, Boulder Weekly is much more overtly partisan than large local dailies (which is one reason I like the paper). At the same time, journalists aren't necessarily even aware of the role their ideology plays in their writing, and anyway is it really an improvement to replace a "liberal" bias with some other bias?
The very notion of a "biased" media presupposes there could be such a thing as a non-biased media that would play the role of accurately relating to the public information it needs to hear. But then we must turn to the role ideology plays in deciding what information a supposedly non-biased medium "should" report, and how. In other words, we're all ideological, and the only escape is utter ignorance.
So have I written myself into a corner? As a self-described "libertarian," do I have any hope of reaching sound conclusions? Can any of us read the paper without sifting everything we read through the filter of dogma?
The only answer is to do our best to accept what broadly can be understood as the scientific method, which means we actively try to disprove our own beliefs by working through them logically and testing them against available facts. I am by no means perfect in this pursuit, but I do try to cast a skeptical eye on the claims of other libertarians and to regularly rethink the foundations of the theory. Put simply, we have to be willing to argue most forcefully against ourselves.