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?

There is much talk about liberal bias (the complaint of the right wing) or about the fact that the media are in the pockets of big business and blackmailed by a quasi-fascist government (the complaint of liberals).

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...


  1. …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?

    *I think the American public thinks negatively about a lot of things but often what they call “Skepticism” is less than reasoned thought. Rather it is often that folk’s do not believe what they read but are unable to back up that disbelief up. It is more distrust than skepticism. I am also concerned that in this society, doubting things makes people feel intelligent and superior even if it that doubt does not have any basis.

    …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.)

    *I really agree here, the public who do care and do read often work very hard and when they come home at night our mass media provides them with methods to relax but not methods to think. People are pounded with pseudo news, light comedy or crime shows and those help to assuage the tensions of the day but in very few cases does it enlighten them.

    *David Detmer has written an excellent book entitled Challenging Postmodernism in which he describes the failings of the media and proposes some solutions. I won’t go into long quotes here (though any reader can see my review of the book HTTP://WWW.RESPECTFULEMPIRICIST.COM/CHALLENGING.HTM)

    Briefly, he discusses the difficulties that journalists face but more importantly the tasks at hand to provide more reasoned news sharing. Essentially any journalist worth their salt, needs to recognize that there are more salient points to any story than the simplistic democrat versus republican version. Humans and their emotions are often guided by the media but they are not always so. People have a vast array of feelings about issues many or most very personal. As Detmer points out, the middle road is a distinct position. It is not some distillation of the left and right.

    Perhaps I am over long here.

  2. This is an intereting idea, and it has set me on this tangent. One of the things I think is bad about the blogosphere that isn't a problem with the mainstream media is that people tend to read all-liberal or all-conservative blogs. They don't mix it up very much, and differing points of view are often called "trolling" instead of "different points of view." The same can't really be said of the MSM. The Wall Street Journal is for conservatives, Washington Post is for liberals, but that isn't strictly true, and at any rate, liberals read the WSJ and conservatives read the WP. The same could be said for Fox News and CNN. But how many liberals are reading Powerline? And how many conservatives are really in tune with what's going on at Daily Kos?

    If we could find a way to get the liberals reading the conservatives and vice versa, then blogs would have real power. Right now, it's closer to a text version of Rush Limbaugh.

  3. Charlie, good point. What you are calling for (forcing people to read different viewpoints and take them seriously) used to be called "liberal education." I'm told it's out of fashion... :-)

  4. It is often claimed that the media used to be more objective. In fact, the opposite is true. There used to be newspaers that would take a straight party line. But there would be another paper in the same town that would take the opposite view. There would also probably be papers promoting other groups, like labor unions or some ethnic or religious group. What has happened is that most of these papers have shut down, and most cities now only have one newspaper.

  5. This is partly correct. My understanding is that the situation of extreme partizanship among newspapers that you describe was the norm very early on, during the 19th century. But the current level is worse when compared to the standard of journalism throughout much of the 20th century.


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