How Media Bias Hurts the Country

Beware, lest we walk into a well from looking at the stars.

In politics, John Stuart Mill told us, it is almost commonplace that a party of order and stability and party of progress or reform are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.  Only through diversity of opinion is there a chance of fair play for all sides of the truth.  It is not the violent conflict between parts of the truth, but the quiet suppression of it that is the formidable evil.  Mill's wisdom is pertinent to two aspects of modern American culture: the censorship of opinions by the social media giants and the inherent bias, the left-wing slant, of much of the U.S. media.

Recent events, especially those connected with the rhetoric and activities of President Donald Trump, have shown that an "enlightened few" in a small number of unelected, unaccountable companies have acted to control the norms of open debate and part of the global public conversation on the internet, and perhaps thereby embitter political debate.  On January 6, 2021, Twitter suspended the account of Donald Trump, and a day later, Facebook, and then Twitter, issued an indefinite suspension and a permanent ban on messages by Trump.  They cite their rules forbidding content that incites violence.  At the same time, Google and Apple removed Parler, a small social network with ten million, popular with conservatives, from its stores, and Amazon eliminated Parler, which broadcasts parleys, from its hosting service.

Understanding that these actions were taken in response to the justifiable outrage over the events of January 6, 2021, when a violent mob marched in Washington, D.C., and stormed the Capitol, and that no company wants to be linked with the kind of posts associated with that mob, it is arguable whether the censorship by the Big Tech giants has gone far beyond what is desirable in a democratic society, where diversity of opinion is intended to ensure fair play.  The U.S., which has always favored an open internet, is now confronted with the problem of sustaining one.

The Big Tech giants, particularly Facebook with 2.7 billion followers, and Twitter with 300 million, are private companies and are free to decide what they should publish and reject.  They are protected by Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which shields companies from liability for what users post on their platforms.  It acts proviso was intended to make sure that new companies were not handicapped by the requirement to monitor large amounts of information they could not handle.  Section 230 promoted the continued development of the internet and other interactive media and preserved the competitive free market for the internet unfettered by federal or state regulation.  Companies can remove posts without assuming legal liability.  Those companies devise their own rules and can post content and remove content they see as objectionable while not being liable for what is posted by third parties.

Many people approve of removing Trump from the media platforms, arguing that his online posts might lead to further violence by his supporters.  The problem is that there will probably never be consensus over arguments of this kind and the decisions of Big Tech.  For a healthy political system, there should be conversation over the standards proposed by Big Tech for censorship of expression and over its definition of what constitutes inciting violence.

That concentration should deal with two issues.  One is the wisdom of a concentration of power over expression in the hands of Big Tech.  The other is the degree of political bias in favor of those whose views are acceptable. This was noticeable in the lack of news or refusal by Big Tech to report on the allegations against Hunter Biden before the presidential elections or on the tweets by the Iranian ayatollah for armed resistance against Israel.  Critics have also pointed out that Big Tech in spite of its apparent incitement published the statement of Colin Kaepernick, "When civility leads to death, revolting is the only logical reaction.  We have the right to fight back."

The concentration of power and the possible bias are important because the social media have a strong influence on the U.S. and global public conversation.  In the world population of 7.8 billion, the internet has 3.7 billion users.  One in five Americans says that primarily he gets his news from social media; about 48% of those aged 18–29 do so.  The Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults conducted in July 2020 indicates about two-thirds of Americans, particularly Republicans, believe that social media have a mostly negative effect on the country, because of their display of misinformation, hate, and harassment and their role in increasing partisanship.

The problem of the media is not new. It was John Adams who wrote in 1815 that a free press is necessary for the functioning of the Republic but warned that it was also an invitation to abuse.  President Abraham Lincoln in April 1861 accused newspapers in the border states of bias in favor of the South and ordered many papers, supporters of slavery and sympathetic to the Confederacy, to be closed.

Today, there are concerns about the degree of truthfulness, objectivity, and impartiality of the press, about the lack of clear distinction between news reports and opinion, about suppressing essential information or distortion of facts, and even fake news.  In general it is useful to outline what may be considered some of the categories of media bias: disproportionate coverage, reporting particular events over others and omitting others, misleading definitions, lack of transparency, the manner and tone of presentation of story, drawing inaccurate conclusions, or favoring a particular political party, advertisers, corporate owners of the media, stressing the exceptional rather than the ordinary, presenting a false balance despite evidence to the contrary, analysis or opinion rather than content, reducing events and ideas to a few passages that have a partisan point of view.

Evidence shows that the U.S. mainstream media have a leftist bias.  Since 1989, the number of Americans stating there is a great deal of bias in U.S. news coverage has nearly doubled.  The Gallup/Knight Foundation survey of September 2018 reported that 62% thought most of the news to see was inaccurate and biased and that PBS News and the Associated Press were least biased.  Party affiliation is the key to how the media are viewed: 71% of Republicans had an unfavorable view of the news media compared with 22% of Democrats.  This difference was marked during the Trump administration.  A study of the first 100 days of that administration showed that there was negative overall, 13-1, treatment by the press of his actions.  There was not a single major topic where the treatment of Trump was more positive than negative.  The closest result was on the issue of the economy, where the record was 54% negative to 46% positive.  On immigration, it was negative 96-4%. 

All studies, while they differ in degree, indicate that the majority of U.S. journalists identify as liberals or Democrats.  It is arguable whether this results in bias in presentation of news.  However, since ideological belief shapes what and how news is presented, it is reasonable to conclude that it is not a myth that the mainstream media have a leftist-Democrat bias.  It is not difficult to discern the difference. 

The news bias toward the left is similar to that in other aspects of modern American culture: much of the academic world, the entertainment business, and late-night TV hosts.  It is wise that a democratic society have no one public truth, no orthodoxy, but it must have freedom of expression, except where there is clear and present danger.  In its deliberations, the U.S. Senate must subject its beliefs to the test of unbiased information and conclusions.

Image via Pixnio.

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