JOURNALISM Critics lament U.S. taste for bias in news
A media critic says many can't be bothered with sifting through varied viewpoints.
By NOEL HOLSTON
In early July, George Stephanopoulos, the former Clinton administration adviser who anchors ABC's "This Week," was in Ohio trying to get some inkling of whether the state is going to wind up red or blue come Nov. 2. Several likely voters mentioned they had seen "Fahrenheit 9/11," Michael Moore's George W. Bush-whacking film.
"What was most striking to me is that when I asked them, 'Why did you go to see it?' they said, 'Because we wanted to get the facts,"' Stephanopoulos said. "And they said it very sincerely, very earnestly and forcefully. ... At least a few of them had a sense that if [information] is coming from the government, if it's coming from the established media, they must not be telling us something and we have to go to this alternative venue to get the facts. And I think that's a challenge for all of us [journalists]."
Stephanopoulos' colleague Ted Koppel, anchor of ABC's "Nightline," added that he is "concerned that on both sides of the political spectrum, that if what Americans feel they have to get is news with an attitude, what they're going to end up losing is some of the objectivity that traditionally people in our business have tried [to attain] at least. We don't always succeed, but we have tried."
Comes from all sides
The ascendancy of "news" with an attitude -- a spin, a bias -- is undeniable. Whether it's Moore's determined effort to make Bush look dishonest and stupid; Brit Hume, Fox News Channel's chief Washington correspondent, looking as if he swigged sour milk when he mentions Democratic nominee John Kerry; Matt Drudge's right-thinking blogs; MSNBC's Keith Olbermann edging toward "Weekend Update" irreverence on his nightly news "Countdown," or the openly leftist Air America radio network hammering at Republicans the way Rush Limbaugh got rich pounding Democrats, purveyors of news and information that play to their audience's prejudices -- or at least their taste for amusement -- are everywhere.
A survey published in June by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that while most Americans (58 percent) say they don't care if the news reflects their own viewpoint on politics and issues, the minority that does care (36 percent) is extremely picky about its choices of news outlets.
The partisan-news trend is even getting endorsement from unlikely sources. The Television Critics Association, in its collective lunacy, gave its 2004 award for outstanding news and information program to Comedy Central's current-events satire "The Daily Show," bypassing nominees that included "Nightline," "60 Minutes" and PBS' "Frontline," which in the past year had delivered complex, objective reporting on topics as diverse as post-liberation Iraq, the Rwandan genocide and the impact of Bush's born-again Christianity on his policies. "Daily Show" star Jon Stewart had the decency and good sense to be embarrassed by his trophy.
Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw said in a recent column that he's come to the conclusion that a growing number of Americans "don't really want unbiased, straightforward news reporting. When they complain about bias, what they're really complaining about, whether they're on the right or the left, is that the news isn't biased in favor of their side of the argument."
Shaw attributes this phenomenon to the "intellectual laziness" of citizens too busy or too conditioned by the media's bite-size amusements to bother sifting through conflicting reports that may be challenging or even, God forbid, dry. And he is not alone in fearing for the health and well-being of our democratic society.
"If news choices are increasingly driven by partisanship, either because they're biased or because they're perceived to be biased, then I think the risk is that people will turn inward," Pew Center director Andrew Kohut said. "They're going to be exposed to fewer things that may challenge their points of view. And it would make sense that this is not an especially good thing for a democracy."