About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Monday, August 01, 2005
Media bias, liberal or conservative?
A much needed balanced view of the controversy appeared recently in the New York Times, by Richard Posner (a Judge on the US Court of Appeals and a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School).
There are a couple of things I found particularly interesting about Posner's piece. First, it points out the results of recent research showing that 65% of Americans think news organizations would try to cover up a mistake they made, and that 79% of the public thinks the media are under too much corporate control. This is interesting because it is often said (by liberals, largely) that the American public isn't skeptical enough, that people are completely bamboozled by what they read, watch or hear from the media. Hmm, 79% is a high level of skepticism. Could it be that the reality is a bit more complicated than simple-minded criticism of the media might suggest?
Second, and perhaps more importantly, Posner points out that bias is actually a good thing! Given that human beings are by nature hardly objective, the public -- the idea goes -- is much better served by a cacophony of contrasting views expressed by a variety of media outlets (including, and foremost, the Internet and the blogosphere). If you want to be informed, you can; if you want to read contrasting opinions on the same subject matter, you can. (Of course, whether people have sufficient time or inclination to do so is another matter.)
This view of balance emerging not from the objectivity of individual reporters or commentators, but from the continuous checks and balances offered by a community of views, is actually very similar to the way philosopher Helen Longino of Princeton explained (in her book, "Science as Social Knowledge") the astounding (though not perfect) degree of objectivity in science. It isn't that individual scientists are particularly objective, unbiased observers of the world. Rather, it is the continuous process of peer review that -- in the long run -- eliminates the crap and leaves the good stuff in clear view.
Of course, in the case of news the process is more complicated because it isn't just the facts that matter; people can hold genuine and respectable -- but different -- opinions about the same facts. Nonetheless, there is tremendous appeal to the idea of a large community involved in volunteering opinions. As Posner points out in his article, at least people who blog and comment on other people's blogs spend part of their time thinking and writing, rather than being couch potatoes...