Saturday, December 28, 2002

I've been quite forthright in my criticism of instances of liberal bias in the press, but I'm well aware that conservative commentators often confuse lack of conservative bias with liberal bias. A perfect example appeared Thursday in James Taranto's "Best of the Web" in the online Wall Street Journal.

Taranto complains, quite justifiably, about the New York Times' lack of attention--even in an article about prominent Democrats' positions on anti-terrorism measures--to Senator Patty Murray's bizzare comments about Osama bin Laden (she suggested that his support in the Arab world stems from his alleged good works there). But Taranto then lumps that article in with a Seattle Times editorial defending the Washington Democrat's remarks. After noting that "Seattle is a haven for wacko anti-Americanism", where a majority opposes an attack on Iraq, Taranto cites these instances of "[t]he Murray whitewash" as "an example of....liberal media bias".

Let us put aside for the moment the absurdity of citing an editorial in a single newspaper as an example of "liberal media bias" (especially after having just cited another, nearby newspaper's editorial expressing the exact opposite view). In truth, even if all of Seattle's newspapers consistently editorialized in favor of left-wing positions, it would be ridiculous to accuse them of left-wing bias if Seattle's population is in fact solidly left-wing. "Bias" is meaningless without a baseline, after all, and the only independent one available is the one drawn by the center of (a particular audience's) popular opinion. That's why it's not "bias" for newspapers to stand uniformly on one side of consensus issues like the evil of murder or the goodness of charity, or for Seattle newspapers to oppose the invasion of Iraq. That's also why it is an example of bias that the New York Times, which bills itself as an authoritative national newspaper, instead usually reflects the baseline views established by its liberal urban New York readership rather than a more national one.

It's unfortunate that most "media criticism" these days is largely partisan, and consists of complaints that the press is insufficiently biased in favor of the critic's personal views. A more useful role for media critics would be to identify disconnects between the press and its audience that might lead to the latter being poorly served or feeling alienated from its main news sources. But perhaps in today's fragmented, polarized media market, there is no room for such dispassionate analysis (apart from the odd, forlorn blogger).

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