April 06, 2005
Noam Chomsky Was Right, There is a Media Bias
When you sit right behind the 10 yard line, pretty much every play seems like it's on the other side of the field. Hence, when Noam Chomsky, who is far-left of even the farthest left Democrats (he calls himself an anarcho-syndicalist), says the Mainstream Media (MSM) is 'right-wing', he is really using the term to describe any one in favor of capitalism. To Noam Chomsky, Ted Kennedy is a raving right-wing lunatic. Ok, maybe not raving, but right-wing nonetheless.
It is therefore surprisig to most people that I am a big fan of Noam Chomsky & Edward S. Herman's General Propaganda Model as put forth their book Manufacturing Consent.
While Chomsky and Herman's theory was developed to show how corporations control the media for their own anti-democratic purposes, the same theory can also be used to explain all sorts of media biases. Cassandra (via Emperor Misha) has an interesting post on the subject, and does a great job in classifying media bias once it has hapened, but it lacks a theoretical causal underpinning.
When attempting to explain liberal media bias the Propaganda Model does not need any grand conspiracy as the causal mechanism. Instead, it relies on the every day mundane activities of the hiring and editorial process.
Further, the advent of blogging may eventually make this theory arcane. As media voices diversify, the number of actors responsible for making decisions increases. Bias becomes less a concern because the diversity of thes voices are all over the ideological spectrum.
Here are the main causal points of the Propaganda Model, in nutshell:
1) Selection of topics. Reporters, producers, and editors do not choose stories at random. Random selection of topics would, in theory, ensure some amount of fairness. But that's not how the real world works. Members of the media choose stories that interest them.
Since the major national news outlets, such as the NY Times, WaPo and the network television stations are staffed largely by Democrats, these outlets run stories of interest to their staff. The minor media outlets, such as local television and papers, take cues from the big boys of the media. That is, a great deal of the stories they think are 'important' are those that the media leaders think are important.
What the blogosphere brings to the table is a diversification of what is believed to be important. While many of us may take cues from bigger bloggers, the road works both ways. I can't tell you how many e-mails a day I get from other bloggers wanting me to link to one of their posts. You can be sure that Kos, Powerline, Instapundit, and Atrios aren't just posting randomly. They post what concerns them and many of these posts are inspired by what smaller blogs are talking about.
2) Distribution of concerns. Again, of the thousands of potential stories which might be covered, which ones are given space in a newspaper or time in a television program? A person must make that decision. Unless we think that editors, producers, and reporters are somehow immune from biases, then what becomes the 'big story' is what they think is a big story. But what is worthy news and what is not worthy news is completely subjective.
As shocking as it is to imagine, liberals and conservatives often have different concerns. Of course to Chomsky there is no difference between liberals and conservatives (they are all apologists for the powers of greedy capitalism), but for the rest of us, stuck somewhere mid-field, these differences are important.
The citizen journalist makes up his own mind about what is important and what is not. We are equally bias, but at least we do not pretend to some standard of neutrality.
3) Framing of issues. An overwhelming majority of MSM reports are factually correct. Rarely does the media get the facts wrong, and when they do they usually correct the error.
But facts without context are meaningless. How an issue is framed is often times much more important than the issue itself. And how we frame an issue is directly affected by our predispositions and worldview.
For instance, should a story on Social Security be framed as an issue of personal control over financial decisions, as an issue of macroecomic concerns about the debt, or as an issue of the general direction of social programs in the U.S.?
Issues must be framed through subjective criteria for this is exactly what makes us human. All animals can see facts, but only humans have the ability to make moral judgements about facts. To claim that the media somehow escape framing issues through their own moral constructs is to claim that they are no longer of the same species as the rest of us.
To make such a claim is to make them superhuman. The blogger makes no such claim.
4) Filtering of information. Again, which information goes in a story and which does not? This is a subjective call which will be affected by the decision makers own sense of what is important and what is not.
We in the blogosphere are no different. We filter information according to what we believe is important and what is not, what is wheat and what is chaff.
5) Emphasis and tone. Related to framing.
The Rachel Corrie case is illustrative. No one disputes the fact that Corrie was killed while protesting. But the tone and emphasis of the story is imporant in a number of different ways. Human rights activists killed by Israeli troops has one connotative meaning and is factually correct. Anti-American protester mistakingly runover by IDF tractor is also factually correct but carries a completely different sense.
Often times bloggers on one side of the ideological gap that divides the blogosphere cry that the other side has a post that is bias. The fact that all such accusations are completely correct makes such accusations meaningless. Of course they are biased. That is the nature of the business we are in.
What is different is not that we aren't biased, but that we admit that we are.
Well, most of us. Some of us are suffering under the illusion that we know reality as an epistemelogical fact. Those that differ from our characterization of reality are really liars or delusionals. But the biases of those that suffer from the affects of Marxism or Objectivism on the brain are easily seen by even the most immature reader.
No house of cards in the blogosphere waiting to fall. The blogospher is 52 pickup. A big mess.
6) Keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premises. Chomsky and Herman emphasize here that reporters with what might be considered radical views are slowly weeded out. They may not be fired, but neither are they promoted. Their stories may also be heavily edited, seldom reach the front page or recieve much air time, and they may be given assignments of little interest for them. It is only journalists who play ball, so to speak, that find success in the media game.
It is this last point in which bloggers threaten the MSM the most. The diverse nature of the citizen journalist corps means that many more points of view are represented. It is much more difficult to weed out the more radical among us.
So does the Mainstream media have leftist bias? Nope. But that is largely because the left is far removed from the mainstream of American politics. Neither do they have a right-wing bias, unless you are like Chomsky and believe that all who support capitalism and its 'political superstructures' are right-wing.
What it does have is a liberal or Democratic partisan bias. This is easily explainable by Chomsky and Herman's Propaganda Model. In fact, the theory better explains a liberal bias than it does a conservative one because the majority of important figures in the MSM are Democrats.
The blogosphere, though, threatens the usefulness of Chomsky's theory as more and more citizens are able to affect editorial decision-making. While the media may become more explicitly partisan, it will entertain many more points of view as legitimate.
The only threat I see to this is the role of Google News. By weeding out news and opinion sites which they believe are unacceptable, they shape the content of what is read by millions of people each day. They represent a meta-filter for what is important and what is not important.
Then again, I might just be biased.