In Praise of Partisan Media
Fake impartiality by the media is the real problem, not bias.
As much as it pains me, let me take a few moments to defend MSNBC.
Media bias is a perpetual grievance of the right—for obvious reasons. But maybe the only way to improve on the situation is to champion more openly ideologically driven political journalism. By any measure, it's a lot less destructive than what we had for decades: media feigning impartiality.
Take last week's much-talked-about testy exchange between anchorman Thomas Roberts and Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus. It can be uncomfortable watching a head-on collision of hackery, but the truth is that the exchange between Roberts and Priebus was weirdly honest, entertaining and informative. It's not often a TV anchorman admits to viewers that he's reading "directly from what the president just gave us." At least he's honest. And it's not as if Priebus was on MSNBC to offer his dispassionate impression of the situation, either. He should be challenged.
We all know where MSNBC and Fox News Channel stand. It's establishment media masquerading as impartial that have the real impact. This bias is rooted in insularity, showing a lack of curiosity about the other side's worldview—the ignorance about religion, guns and free market economic ideas, for example—and, even worse, a lack of skepticism toward its own conceptions about how things work.
To the untrained eye, the Obamacare rollout may seem like an unmitigated disaster. But editors at Reuters ("Web traffic, glitches slow Obamacare exchanges launch") and The Associated Press ("Rollout of 'historic' Obamacare in California hits some snags") will try to dissuade people of this notion. Bias is found in not what you write but what you don't, in what goes above the fold and what sort of delicate nouns and adjectives you sprinkle in your headlines.
And when Obamacare was a bit, you know, glitchy, the media struggled to find someone who could make the federally run health insurance rollout a success story. They came up with Chad Henderson, a 21-year-old part-time child care worker and conscientious son—the kind of person we're supposed to believe Obamacare can really help.
The Washington Post reported, "Meet Chad Henderson, the Obamacare enrollee tons of reporters are calling." (The article was penned, incidentally, by the reporter who believes that Kermit Gosnell was a mere local crime story.) "I haven't had health insurance for 14 years," Henderson told the Post. "My dad put me on BlueCross BlueShield, but the premiums kept rising, and we dropped it since he wasn't making that much." What the author, much less any editor at the Post, won't ask: "Wait. Doesn't this guy sound like he's full of crap?" "Hold on. Do we believe his claims about affordability?" "Hey, why don't we hound one of the thousands of people who failed to enroll?"
The entire story turned out to be bogus. But it took Peter Suderman at libertarian Reason—a place where, one might imagine, the ideological sensibilities of the staff are naturally skeptical about feel-good collectivist enterprises—to debunk every angle of the story. But you have to wonder how many Chad Hendersons get away with it.
The establishment media could, of course, hire more ideologically diverse staffs to fix this problem. There could have been a Suderman at the Post. Despite what many conservatives believe, there are many media professionals who take their craft very seriously, many who break important stories, many who are immensely talented—but very few who aren't biased to some extent.
Having a point of view doesn't preclude a political journalist from being honest or curious or a critical thinker (though, after hearing Thomas Roberts' confused understanding of lawmaking, it's obviously not mandatory), but journalists believe—or act as if they believe—that their work is immune from ideology. With a few noteworthy exceptions, of course, that's impossible. And that's fine. The key to making it work isn't impartiality; it's diversity.