A Definitive History of Media Bias

In many respects, the current cultural crisis of the United States is rooted not in our political institutions, but in the epistemic organs of our larger civic body.  For America, basically four organs pump the life-giving civic blood of public discourse so that an "informed public" can make political decisions within our democratic republic.  Those four organs --  journalism, storytellers (Hollywood), academia, and the Church -- have shriveled or failed to such an extent that our politics suffers as the public is deprived of the healthy civic blood needed for democracy.

These organs tell us the truth.  If they color it, twist it, spin it, or distort it, the citizens and the republic are all the lesser for it.  This principle makes the work of Professor Jim Kuyper so compelling and timely. 

As a communication professor at Virginia Tech, Kuypers has the academic standing and expertise to clinically diagnose the current problem of partisan journalism.  This latest book is part of a longstanding series of solid scholarly work by Kuypers that seeks to clarify and strengthen our public sphere of arguments by highlighting how those charged with fulfilling our epistemic functions fall short.  In his latest work, Partisan Journalism, Kuypers synthesizes from an academic standpoint key research offered by sources such as Tim Groseclose's Left Turn:  How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind and Bernard Goldberg's Bias:  A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News.  Kuypers improves upon these books by providing the most current, and a more comprehensive, view of partisan journalism.  His latest arms readers with the depth of analysis that allows for better clarifications to friends and associates as to how the media currently miscommunicates, with his expertise as a communication professor shining through in a way that leaves readers better understanding how these distortions happen and how to think critically beyond the limitations inherent in our current press.

Kuypers provides an important historical backdrop that is encouraging.  Our nation, in fact, has a tradition of partisan press that dates back to our founding.  It was in the early twentieth century that norms and ethical practices of objective journalism were attempted.  This knowledge suggests that we can certainly survive and even overcome our present limitations on public information, as we have in the past.  In fact, it is doubtful that news today is as biased and distorted as it was in the early 19th century or earlier.

As a debate professional myself, I usually lament the clever but plainly one-sided view of content provided in academic books.  Regardless of political viewpoint, Partisan Journalism informs while challenging readers.  I particularly enjoyed chapter four, "Three Presidents and a War," that examines how JFK, LBJ, and Nixon were treated by journalists in the conduct of the Vietnam War.  I have read many treatments of such questions and never encountered the depth and value of information provided by Kuypers.

This book provides profoundly important documentation as to how the press came to be so decisively against the use of American military force.  The transition from World War II-style Ernie Pyles to Vietnam-style Walter Cronkites is documented with such narrative precision that readers will see clearly how we arrived at our present frustration.

The American military finds itself paired not with an empathetic friend in today's journalism, but rather with an intensely skeptical adversary.  As Kuypers lays out, Vietnam played a pivotal role in how this relationship changed. 

Over the course of 12 chapters, Kuypers takes readers swiftly and competently through the nation's history with journalism and politics.  Chapter 12 examines elections in 2010 and 2012.  Kuyper's specific expertise on media distortions surrounding President Bush also shines through.  His previous work on the Iraq War helps him clarify explicitly how Bush's claim that Iraq might have WMD was clearly distorted by media outlets to create a competing narrative of how Bush lied to justify an immoral war.

Throughout the book, Kuyper employs compelling academic study and research techniques to bolster his explanations of media narratives.  This lifts the book higher in utility above compelling insider reports like the one provided by Goldberg.  Kuyper uses powerful media databases such as LEXIS/NEXIS to document statistical data on reporting that makes his conclusions difficult if not impossible to resist. 

Kuyper's work fits well into academic books produced by professor and editor Robert Denton in his political communication series at Rowman and Littlefield.  It is encouraging to see an academic press bucking the trend of reactionary treatments aimed at excluding or minimizing conservative voices in the American public sphere.  This work is empowering to a public that wants a more critical thinking about government power.  It is not a partisan tome, and it stands well as a scholarly work that will help any student of politics and journalism see what has happened in these areas while imagining better possibilities for both.

Partisan Journalism is not, in fact, an attack on journalism.  It is an excellent piece of communication scholarship that clinically examines how journalism influences the American political process.  By seeing more clearly this relationship through Kuypers's excellent work, all readers can envision a better practice of journalism, a better critical thinking stance in processing such journalism, and ultimately a better political process illuminated by such shared commitments.  I strongly recommend getting a copy of this book if you are interested in questions of media and politics. 

Ben Voth is an associate professor of communication and director of debate at Southern Methodist University.

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