Unfair and Unbalanced


That's Tyler Cowen describing media bias. And arguing that's just the way we viewers want it.

We should resist the temptation to think that the TV screen, or the newspaper Op-Ed page, or the blogosphere for that matter, is the critical arena deciding the fate of the world. In reality, these media are a sideshow to the more general human preoccupation with stories. We use TV and other media to suit our personal purposes, not vice versa. No, the media are not fair, but they are unfair in ways different than you might imagine. They are unfair because you, collectively, as viewers, want them to be unfair.

Read the whole piece over at Tech Central Station.

And read Cowen's recent interview with Reason, too.


NEXT: Soros v. Bush

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  1. The thing that frustrates me is that many news outlets (including the “fair and balanced” ones) pretend to be just reporting the news when in fact they are doing the opposite. I like to make up my own mind about issues, so just give me the facts dammit! My usual workaround is to seek content from a number of sources and assume that somewhere in the middle of the spin and opinions is the truth. I come to Reason daily, but also check the BBC, ABC (the OZ one) and others. Continuously reading party doctrine rots the brain 🙂

  2. “The thing that frustrates me is that many news outlets (including the “fair and balanced” ones) pretend to be just reporting the news when in fact they are doing the opposite.”

    That’s the brilliance of FOX, in my opinion. That they’re so unashamed and biased and yet they’ve co-opted the language of the rest of mainstream media. This is infuriating only if you take it seriously. But if you recognize it as an assault on the CNN/CBS/NBC/etc claim to independence then you can enjoy how absurd they ALL sound. Or maybe I’m giving FOX too much credit.

  3. you may be giving their talking heads too much credit, but whatever agency came up with that slogan and model is to be commended. with fruit cups.

  4. Bias can appear not only in how a newsie reports and issue but whether he reports it at all. Ignoring a sensitive issue (to them) is an effective way of making it not exist at all.
    Thankfully there are many newsies of opposing view points so we can read all of’em and interpolate reality, such as they report it collectively. BTW, don’t forget the grain or two of salt, heh.

  5. They’re businesses; there is no “art” of journalism except for those idealistic fool journalists who believe there is. The motivation is the $; they’re not bringing you the news, they’re selling you the news.

  6. If you want a fair and balanced news station it would have to be a mix of programming. An hour of Fox, then an hour of PBS, an hour of MSNBC, an hour of CNN, etc.. The problem with just asking for the facts from news is that the bias is in the facts presented and omitted. There is always more to any given story and the best way to hear all the facts is to listen for what each side has omitted from their story. Then you can decide.

  7. The entire idea of “objectivity” in news strikes me, as a Frenchman, as inappropriate and dishonest. I think you’ll find this to be a general European attitude. I have had many discussions about this cultural attribute, and those Europeans I have discussed the issue with found the trait to be bizarre.

    In France you have left papers like Le Monde, Lib?ration (the latter is essentially Marxist), and right newspapers like Le Figaro. Their biases are known, and everyone accepts this. The reporters even write openly with their bias; they “editorialize” outside the editorials in other words.

    I think American news outlets treat Americans like they are children.

  8. Veering off the substance of Cowen’s column for a moment — his ideas there are reliably stimulating — I just want to mention Cowen’s writing itself.

    I was a devoted fan of “In Praise of Commercial Culture.” I bought two copies for myself, and several as gifts. I thought it was wonderful. But what has happened to Cowen’s writing? The prose he concocts now is near atrocious. Either he’s always been a bad writer and just had a really good editor back then, or something really has happened to his writing ability.

    It’s most obvious when you read his blog stuff — the guy’s grammar and spelling are so bad, you wonder if he actually reads much. His writing over at Volokh, for instance, sticks out miserably next to that of his fellow posters.

  9. I like Reason. I like the Economist. Sometimes I even like the Nation (gasp!). These publications have known biases. I know which side I’m getting, and I know that what I’m hearing is an argument in favor of a side, not an attempt (be it disingenuous or merely feeble) at objectivity. I can correct accordingly.

    Most of the media outlets that claim objectivity are in my opinion bland rather than biased. Call me a leftist if you will, but I don’t see liberal bias in the “mainstream media” so much as “boredom bias.”

  10. I think American news outlets treat Americans like they are children.

    More than the news outlets, mainstream society as a whole seeks to treat individual Americans like children, and wants the government to help them. Somewhere along the line the belief took root that small collectives of individual lawyers and politicians – perhaps a few thousand individuals total – are of sufficient mind and moral character to determine the best lifestyle choices for the millions who elected/patronized them. *cough*.

  11. This post contains several disparate elements.


    R.S.T. wrote: “More than the news outlets, mainstream society as a whole seeks to treat individual Americans like children, and wants the government to help them.”

    I’d like to follow up on R.S.T.’s post. (I refuse to write “rst.” There is a good reason that convention dictates the use of capital letters in names and periods in abbreviations: They help maintain clarity in reading. K.D. Lang and E.E. Cummings are/were self-indulgent goofballs. No offense, R.S.T.)

    We have indeed become a nation adults who wish to be treated as children; his comment is dead-on. (I refuse to write “spot-on,” which for some reason has become an overused and annoying phrase of late.) The more interesting question is why did this come about? And, related: When did it come about?

    In 1803, Americans did not wanted to treated like children. In 2003, they do. What has changed during that time? These are some major developments:

    — explosion of technology, particularly in communications
    — voting rights for more than white males
    — immigrants from many other parts of the world
    — fetishization of youth and youth culture (which is probably a subset of the first development I listed: the explosion of communications technology)
    — increased life spans (also a subset of the “technology” development)
    — the abandonment of the gold standard, and institution of the Federal Reserve

    There are certainly other major developments that could be thrown into that mix. These are empirical, indisputable facts; the question, then, is which of them transformed us into a nation of perpetual children.

    I’d like to hear some speculation and elaboration on the question I have advanced here.


    This thread seems to be dying — you’ll notice there was a slew of responses in the first 180 minutes, but just a handful in the many hours since. That’s a dependable frustration for me with Hit & Run; the threads I enjoy tend to die out quickly, and because I don’t get to read or write until I’m home from work, my posts typically wind up at the end of a dead thread. So I doubt I’ll get much response to this query, in which case I’ll keep posting this in other threads until some discussion is generated.


    While I’m being pedantic, I’d like to make a plea to posters who decline to provide names: Please don’t do that. Names serve a function. A comments thread is like a conversation. And that conversation is far more difficult for readers to navigate when they don’t know who’s talking.

    It also creates extra work for other posters. For instance, I was eager to respond to one of the posts near the top of the thread, but the writer did not leave a name. I thus didn’t want to trouble myself or other readers by writing some convoluted “Dear Anon at 11:38 a.m. … .”

    The best solution to this, of course, is in Reason’s hands: Tweak the software to require submission of a name for each post. That would not be some “fascist” move or betrayal of anonymity. Posters can still hide their true names, but at least they will be forced to provide an identifier with which their post(s) can be referenced.


    Additionally, posters who are responding to another’s comment would help us all by excerpting the comment to which they are responding. You’ll see, for instance, that both R.S.T. and I have done this in our posts. And while you may not have consciously realized it, this made your reading easier.

    Indeed, providing an excerpted comment is not only a courtesy to other readers, but a benefit to oneself. The point of writing is to communicate, and quoting in this way helps ensure that one’s point is made precisely and with less chance of confusion. It’s the smart thing to do if you’re here to actually communicate and persuade, and not just exercise your fingers on a keyboard.


    Thank you all.

  12. I think objectivity in news coverage is something to be desired, if not easily attained. But, if a news program or paper doesn’t want it, the least they could do is inform us of their bias.

  13. Don’t bother reading the Tech Central article, it’s biased. Just kidding.

  14. I don’t know if it’s everbody or just me, but when I open “comments” my edit button grays out. I excerpt minimally because I can’t copy and paste.

  15. The product of the news media is audience not news. They sell you to advertisers. The advertisers pay them. That’s the business model.

    Now, they can’t hold everybody. They put news stories in templates that appeal to the audience that they can hold, not the audience they can’t; and that involves stories showing how this relates to you, how it’s very like your own problems, how it shows dangers you yourself face or fear, in short soap opera templates. This is the news audience.

    The bias is not what you want, but what the largest collection of people they can hold (no matter how small) want. Most people may very well hate it, by a large majority. The typical reaction to TV news is disgust. But enough people like it to support the news production. That’s all it takes. It’s there forever.

  16. Collective viewer action reveals a preference for bias, while many individuals decry that bias. It seems to me absurd to have “neutrality” as an ideal. Although one might even make a good-faith effort to declare a prejudice, and to present alternative perspectives, another will likely find bias along an unconsidered axis.

    Anything anybody says is an opinion about a perception. Bias is implicit in language. Forget the grail of fairness and just argue for your point of view. Whether you report or harangue, it is still up to me to decide.

  17. I think a lot of people overestimate the media’s ability to sway people’s opinions. I mean, if you take someone who has hardcore right-wing beliefs, no amount of NPR or CNN is going to change those beliefs. Similarly, if you take someone who holds strong and fast to left-wing beliefs, no amount of FOX News is going to change those beliefs. The notion that we, as citizens, are some sort of sheep begging to be led by whatever “bias” the media throws at us is ludicrous and flies in the face of everything that Libertarians stand for. Free minds – think for yourselves, people. Don’t let the media, whatever its bias may be, think for you.

  18. Regardless of your position on the political “spectrum”:
    If you can’t listen to Peter Jennings or All Things Considered or Brit Hume and detect the inherent bias, you’re beyond hope.

    All this gushing about the nature of “bias” and “perception,” etc. is just more watching shadows on the cave wall, i.e., metaphysics.

    The first post was a home run…If I became emperor (Of course after having Salma Hayek delivered) I would force every media type to declare for whom they have voted, and the particulars of their biases and then let them have at it…similar to equity analyst disclosures after Sarbanes-Oxley. “Objectivity” was a joke with Murrow and it’s hilarious now.

  19. I feel like being a pain today.
    T.S.R., if you wish to follow convention, fine. Just don’t impose those conventions on others. If someone chooses to use lower case letters for their handle, who are you to “correct” them? By doing so, you reduce the clarity of your response. And as David Tomlin points out, not all of us can cut and paste when posting our comments.

  20. T.S.R. – if that post was supposed to be ironic, it worked (i.e. talk about how Americans want the government to treat us like children, then proceed to treat all posters in this forum like children – i.e. simple, step-by-step instructions about how to post one’s name in this forum)

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    DATE: 12/10/2003 08:01:15
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