Trusting the Media

Why spin, fraud, and bias are inevitable


Suddenly Private Jessica Lynch is back in the news, with several stories that suggest her famous rescue was staged. This follows on another brouhaha over the now famous footage of U.S. tanks helping Iraqis tear down a statue of Saddam Hussein, which detractors denounced as a staged photo op. On close examination, these debates relate to semantics as much as facts: No one doubts that Lynch was a prisoner or that many Iraqis were glad to see Saddam's statuary fall. Instead, people are worried about the blurred lines between reality and showmanship—at the idea that the war could be reduced to action-movie agitprop with all the vexing nuances ironed out.

A more clear-cut sort of fakery has also been in the news this week, with a scandal at The New York Times. By now almost everyone has heard of Jayson Blair, the promising young reporter with an unfortunate habit of making stuff up and copying other people's work. Now Newsweek reports that the paper is investigating several other employees as well, "looking into complaints about fudged datelines, composite scenes and too-good-to-be-true quotes." Coming on the heels of similar scandals at the Associated Press and elsewhere, this has the potential to become journalism's equivalent to the Enron affair. I know, I know: Comparing scandals to Enron is a cliché, as tiresome as attaching the suffix "gate." But I have a particular parallel in mind. The major media have very carefully constructed their pose of reliable, objective professionalism. Like an inflated stock, that image relies on public confidence to survive.

Then again, the image was in trouble anyway, with or without Jayson Blair. The ancient debate over media bias has been especially active in the last few years, with partisans of left and right churning out bestsellers on how the press is in thrall to the other side. But a much more interesting question is what happens to the whole concept of "media bias" in the age of the Internet and globalization. Today, any literate American with an opinion can publish his views and distribute them widely. Increasingly successful mainstream outlets (cf. Fox) wear their politics on their sleeves. And anyone with a computer has instant access to papers from all over the world, laying bare the national prejudices that underlie the "objective" media of each country.

In such a context, it becomes harder and harder to maintain the myth of an unbiased objective observer transmitting nothing but facts. The media aren't merely biased: They're a din of warring biases, far more of them than anyone can summarize.

Despite all that, the illusion of absolute objectivity will probably survive, if only because so many people have a stake in it. There's a reason that Fox News, whose very selling point is its reliable slant, would adopt a slogan like "We report, you decide." And there's a reason why Ann Coulter and Eric Alterman, scarcely objective writers themselves, would attack the media not merely for being wrong but for being biased. The rhetoric of "objectivity" is far too useful a tool, for denouncing your enemies or for patting yourself on the back, to expect everyone to give it up.

And so it persists, maintaining itself in myriad ways. In the mainstream press, superficially prissy employment policies—firing reporters who moonlight as bloggers, "ethics" rules that would bar a reporter from accepting a glass of lemonade from a source on a hot day—exist partly to maintain the illusion of objectivity but also because, to a certain extent, an illusion maintained strictly enough achieves a degree of reality. (In the words of the sociologists William and Dorothy Thomas: "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.") In the new media, meanwhile, frankly opinionated media critics convince themselves that they're actually the objective ones. (As anyone who observes the warring partisans of Israel and the Palestinians can tell you, "media bias" is usually code for "insufficient bias toward my views.") The Internet's ability to let even tiny communities form makes it easier for political peer-groups to reinforce this conviction.

Wise media consumers assume that both the U.S. government and its enemies spread disinformation, that even fair-minded reporters will not always agree on the facts, that no institution is completely safe from fabulists and plagiarists, and that you should be on the lookout for everyone's biases, including your own. You and I, dear reader, are such wise consumers. Everyone else? They're biased.