Media Critic Endorses Socialist Bias

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Media Critic Endorses Socialist Bias

by Ari Armstrong, December 8, 2004

According to Jason Salzman, who wrote the Rocky Mountain News's "On the Media" column November 27, the problem with Denver reporters is that they do not adequately advocate socialist positions in their news stories.

Thus, rather than critically point out instances of bias and promote hard-news journalism, Salzman's "On the Media" column promoted more bias and less objectivity in the news. Apparently Salzman is substituting for or replacing fellow leftist Michael Tracey, who has typically used the column for rants only vaguely related to Colorado's media. Thankfully, David Kopel of the Independence Institute writes the column every other week. While Kopel obviously holds a particular conservative/libertarian world view that he promotes elsewhere, generally his "On the Media" columns consist of reasoned criticisms of bias he finds in local media. Ideally, Kopel's leftist counterpart would locate different instances of bias, not promote a leftist bias.

Salzman laments that Wal-Mart and other stores discourage unions. He wishes news reporters would offer "analysis of the politics of raising the minimum wage, to help level the playing field..." He doesn't want a debate about the merits of the minimum wage: he wants news journalists to "report" why raising the minimum wage would "level the playing field." But of course the notion that the minimum wage "levels the playing field" is nothing but a leftist bias without any relationship to reality. In fact, raising the minimum wage would harm the least-experienced workers in society and damage economic productivity. I take that to be an objective fact, but I'm sensible enough to realize it is a controversial one. I'm not asking news journalists to report only my views.

Here are some additional examples. Salzman believes unions make health insurance more widely available, and he blames the lack of health insurance on the lack of unionization. He further assumes those who lack health insurance do and should receive health care funded by taxes. He wishes news reporters to ask, "How much profit is reasonable for large companies to earn and forecast, while at the same time demanding serious concessions for their unions?" News journalists should also report "whether the federal government is adequately enforcing our nation's labor laws" and ask "what, if anything, should be done about it," claims Salzman.

Every one of Salzman's cited proposals is rooted in a leftist world view. Every one is debatable. Every one is inappropriate as the perspective of a news story.

Every one of Salzman's proposals is opposed by free-market theorists. Free-market economists generally hold that, while unions should remain perfectly legal, they should not receive any special privileges from the government. The government's job is to make sure neither unions nor businesses resort to physical force or threats of such. Unions are not responsible for increased real wages, and in fact they reduce economic growth by discouraging employment. Health insurance should not be tied to employment, and it is only government interference in markets that has created such a tie. The government should not be involved in health care at all (other than to enforce laws against force, fraud, and gross negligence). Many people not on insurance (me, for instance) pay for health care out of pocket. The profits "reasonable for large companies to earn" are those made possible by willing customers who purchase the goods or services, along with the organizational skills of the companies' owners. Some of the "nation's labor laws" are in fact inappropriate political powers given to unions, and thus they should be abolished.

But Salzman does not want open debate on these issues. He wants only the leftist perspective represented in the news pages. There are two reasonable explanations for Salzman's position. Perhaps he is simply ignorant of the fact that his proposals are rooted in a leftist world view, and thus he confuses his leftist opinions with reality. Or perhaps Salzman realizes his proposals are neo-Marxist in nature, and he is so confident that his views are correct that he does not wish the masses even to read about the contrary view.

Of course, a news reporter could interview both leftists and free-market advocates and describe both perspectives in an article. But that is not straight news. It is the conveyance of others' opinions. The inherent danger is that an allegedly "balanced" account of various perspectives may not include all the relevant perspectives. Often, these sorts of stories become a pretext for the "reporter" to promote his or her own views.

Thus I suggest a new division of the newspaper. Today we have allegedly "news" sections and "opinion" sections. But much of what passes for "news" is in fact opinion, and many opinion pieces contain significant original investigative reporting. I'd like to see the hard news strictly limited to factual reporting. Of course, there are always choices of inclusion and exclusion, yet these decisions can be made with an eye to newsworthiness, without an ideological bias. Ideological selection is always a danger on the news pages, but this problem can be minimized by competent editors and reporters.

I'd like to see the opinion sections dramatically expanded. We already have something like this: several opinion writers (Diane Carman, Mike Littwin) already appear in the news sections. There's no real difference between the columns on the "news" pages and columns on the "opinion" pages. So why not simply expand the opinion pages and label all opinion accurately?

There's no reason why an advanced hard-news reporter shouldn't also be allowed to contribute an opinion piece. Some might think this would compromise a reporter's objectivity, but the result would be the opposite of that. A reporter would have an outlet, other than the news pages, for his or her opinions. The opinions would be properly labeled as such. Everybody would know where the reporter was coming from, which would help both the reporter and readers keep the reporter's hard news intact. We do not eliminate bias by pretending we haven't any.

The model I'm describing continues today's tradition of printing many perspectives within the same paper. This makes marketing sense, as people of all stripes will find the discussion interesting. Large circulations lead to economies of scale. There is a broader intellectual benefit of this approach, I think: people of particular world views can regularly confront people with different ideas.

The other model is a publication that comes completely from a single perspective. Such a publication can maintain high levels of journalistic integrity, but such a model doesn't seem to work economically for a mass market. Ideological niches are filled by magazines in today's world. (The Colorado Freedom Report is an example.)

I am suggesting that there is a difference between hard news and more sophisticated world views. I am not suggesting that only hard news can be objective. Highly abstract fields such as economics, psychology, and philosophy can yield objectively true knowledge (though they often don't). Salzman's views are objectively wrong. But a correct economic theory is more difficult to achieve than is a correct review of who did what to whom yesterday. One can hold out for objective truth and still recognize that people often disagree about it. So my goal is not to suggest that all opinions are equally valid, but rather that all perspectives based on abstract theories should be kept distinct from the hard news.

I advocate taking world views out of the hard news sections and creating larger "opinion" sections. At least reporters should do all they can to remove bias from their stories. Salzman, on the other hand, suggests that news reporters intentionally bias their stories toward Salzman's leftist dogma.

December 12 Update: Salzman's December 11 "On the Media" column, on the other hand, serves precisely its appropriate purpose. The Rocky Mountain News ran a story two days before Denver's Parade of Lights about a controversy in which the parade's organizers would not allow religiously themed floats. Salzman reveals that the paper sat on the story for over two months. Salzman plausibly argues the timing served a sensationalist purpose. Further, had the story been reported earlier, "folks in the community might have been able to work out a way to avoid an ugly controversy," Salzman notes. It never even occurred to me to question the timing of the story, yet Salzman did so and ended up with a story about the media more interesting (at least to me) than the original story about the parade. Hopefully the News will replace Tracey with Salzman and Salzman will do more of what he accomplished in his latest column.

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