January 20, 2003

Journalists biased? Yes, in the worst way

Ever since Walter Cronkite's stopped telling America the way it was, public mistrust of journalists, print and broadcast, has grown. Liberals, conservatives, greens, reds and every other political shade or hue has charged the news media with bias. Well, says Los Angeles Times media writer David Shaw, they're right. The news media are biased - just not in the way you think they are.

"We're biased in favor of change, as opposed to the status quo. We're biased in favor of bad news, rather than good news. We're biased in favor of conflict rather than harmony.

"Increasingly, we're biased in favor of sensationalism, scandal, celebrities and violence, as opposed to serious, insightful coverage of the important issues of the day."

These prejudices, Shaw argues, "are far more common, and far more damaging, than any kind of intermittent, inadvertent ideological bias."

This is strong stuff, and it gets stronger. Shaw decries the " 'let's you and him fight' school of journalism" in which minor dispute between public figures are escalated to national crises. He bemoans the "news media's knee-jerk adversarial position toward those in power" and "our sneering assumption that virtually every politician is a liar or a hypocrite," and pronounces the nattering nabobs and their "stench of contempt" (in Jim Lehrer's words) responsible for the public's growing distaste with the electoral process.

"Worst of all," Shaw says, "the growing sensationalism-cum-trivialization of the news leaves us little time or space to cover the truly important issues of the day."

Shaw has never been a gentle critic. Indeed, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for his critiques of how the media, including the L.A. Times, sensationalized coverage of the infamous McMartin Preschool child molestation case.

Even in that context, the tone Shaw's condemnation of his colleagues is unforgiving. Is he engaging in some sort of tough love or intervention, hoping the harshness of his words drives those journalists addicted to the highs of celebrity bashing and ambulance chasing into a recovery program where the Twelve Steps begin with a better understanding of the responsibilities that accompany exercise of the First Amendment? Or is Shaw simply so contemptuous of what his profession has become that he can contain the bile no longer?

Shaw's words sadden me. They should alarm newspaper editors and reporters.

In an age of omni-media, where the incessant bleating of broadcast and Internet pundits, and the reduction of reporting into stacks of scroll bars creates a clamorously poisonous atmosphere that chokes out quality journalism, newspapers have an opportunity to foster a healthier, more vibrant news environment whose deep reporting, evocative writing and enticing photographs give the public's interest in knowing what's going on in their communities a chance to thrive.

Shaw's column received some attention in the journalism blogosphere today. Here's MediaMinded's take on it.

 David Shaw The more pernicious bias is less substance, more fluff

Posted by Tim Porter at January 20, 2003 05:18 PM

While I agree that all of these evil tendencies are there, I'd find the rest of it more believable if the alleged hostility to those in power wasn't so much more evident when aimed at Democrats. Why was all the attention on Condit when a woman was found dead in a Republican's office? Why was the "liberal" New York Times shouting for Clinton's impeachment over nothing but not for the impeachment of either Bush despite outright criminality in the elected-Bush administration and blatant negligence on the part of unelected-Bush?

No, the bias is there, and it has always been conservative.

Posted by: Avedon on January 24, 2003 07:37 PM
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