Silent Press

January 15, 2008


Critical analysts of the fourth estate have often noted that it is more interesting to note what is missing from mainstream media press coverage than what is reported. The two biggest tells of bias are the ubiquitous question and the unanimous silence.

When every national delegate to the United Nations, except the USA and Israel or the odd British abstention, votes unanimously for a resolution of the General Assembly. you'd have to conclude that our government had a fairly serious difference of opinion with the prevailing opinion of the rest of the world. If we were Liechtenstein or Moldova our dissent from world opinion would be trivial, but since the USA is THE superpower of the Earth, at the moment, and that we can veto any action in the UN - you'd think such a story would be news. But it isn't.

Microsoft has been getting into a lot of trouble in Europe about monopolistic business practices. Microsoft has been doing in Europe what it has been doing here for years. The European anti-trust laws are based very closely on those of the United States. The fact that the Europeans are asking Microsoft tough questions and levying big fines for unfair and illegal business practices, and that the US courts are not - you'd think that such a story would be news. But it isn't.

The New Hampshire primary didn't happen, apparently, as the professional pollsters predicted. That was news. The fact that the votes that were cast by people voting by paper ballot in New Hampshire conformed to the pollsters' predictions, and the votes that were cast by people voting by Diebold electronic voting machines did not conform to the pollsters' predictions - you'd think that such a story would be news. But it isn't.

I begin to become suspicious of the news media when they fail, en masse, to ask pertinent questions. Years ago, I was struck by the odd fact that you could survey one or two dozen major newspapers in this country and they all contained largely the same news, reported in largely the same way. A hundred years ago, this was not true. Big news organizations, like the Hearst organization, were active in many markets and their output was predictably uniform, but if you wanted another view, you could find another source that would, right or wrong, disagree with Hearst. Of course, most regular readers of the Hearst press in its heyday were converts to its ideas in the same way that devotes of Fox News today are uninterested in exposing themselves to any other opinion. But in the past, contrary opinions were there in the mainstream press. Today they are largely absent. We have consolidated ownership and control of mainstream news media to an unhealthy and unwholesome extent. We get the same slant on the same story blaring at us through a hundred trumpets all in the same time signature and all in harmony with one another.

That is the crux of the problem: news is opinion, not fact. Even things that are just plain facts take on aspects of opinions when reported in the press. Take an earthquake, for example. It's hard to get more factual and unequivocal than an earthquake. But what if there are two earthquakes or some other disaster? Which gets top billing and more coverage and which less and why? Part of the news about an event concens people's response to that event - how is that response portrayed? This is the essence of yellow journalism: portrayal of things related to facts in such a way as to strongly favor a consistent set of prejudices. 519 people died in the earthquake in Somalia; government relief efforts were hampered by large scale corruption and inefficiency OR official relief efforts were disrupted by anti-government insurgents seeking to extend their influence over the refugees OR public disaster response was supplemented by private relief efforts that succeeded in providing more effective relief to refugees than in any comparable disaster on the continent.

Everybody's prejudiced. Certainly all jorunalists have prejudices and even if they didn't, editors and publishers would correct the news according to their prejudices. So, how do you get fair and unbiased news coverage of events? By having different people working for different organizations covering the same event independently and reporting it differently. You can then read all the accounts (depending on your level of interest and involvement) and draw your own conclusions. Mostly, in the US, people seldom make an effort to read or watch news from multiple venues anymore. There's no point: Channel A news is virtually identical to Channel B news. Newspaper X's headlines are almost identical to newspaper Y's.

Today we have the Internet and it is, at least until the powers that be succeed in completely strangling it, an important force in freedom of opinion, of democractized media access. Everybody says so. It must be true. How do you find stuff on the Internet? Google? Does Google show you what you want or what Google wants you to see? Who is Google anyway? We need to ask critical questions, not just of obvious contenders for bias, like Fox News, but of everyone. We need to require better news, too. If you want to be a part of an informed and intelligent electorate, then you've got to get out of your media high chair and do some work on your own, to use your intellect to become informed. What is the price of indolence and ignorance? Look around you - you've been paying for it for years.

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