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Craig Parshall, General Counsel

 

The Necessary Bias of All Media

October 20, 2010

Here is a new twist on the age-old query about the “liberal media.” National Public Radio (NPR) has just told its staff to avoid attending the mock political rally scheduled for Washington on October 30th, hosted by Comedy Central stars Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, both of whom have made a cottage industry of lampooning conservatives, Republicans, and occasionally Christians. The reason given by NPR was the need to maintain journalistic “objectivity” and to avoid the appearance of bias. Yet NPR failed to similarly instruct its reporters to avoid frequenting the Glenn Beck “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington, an event that was composed  of an unusual tapestry of political and religious followers that seemed to lack representation from only one quarter: liberals. NPR has admitted that it has received a tidal wave of media inquiries asking, “Why the different treatment?”

Cornell Law Professor William Jacobson has a theory, and I think he is right. He notes in his blog that NPR has stated that “we didn’t get questions from staff” about attending the Beck rally; so the implication is clearly that no questions were raised by staff about that rally because none of them had any intentions of ever attending such an event. However, so many of NPR’s reporters and staffers likely wanted to enjoy the tarring and feathering of the right-of-center aisle of America by team Stewart/Colbert that NPR had to issue a formal edict to prevent them from flocking to the show. We could resolve this issue by simply raising the oft-saluted flag about the “liberal bias” of the media. But I suggest we look deeper than that. This really isn’t about the Beck rally, nor is it about the humorous barbs from Comedy Central pseudo-pundits who love to hate conservatives and traditionalists. It is about the truth that all of us, journalists included, view the world through a lens of values, opinions, and beliefs. In that sense, “bias” – in its classical definition – is a necessary, inherent component. The question is not whether some of us have a lens and some of us do not. The real question is whether our lens, or that of the mainstream press, is the one that brings clarity and truth to the events we are examining.

Numerous polls and studies have demonstrated that the national media leans consistently liberal, votes generally democratic, and is often critical of conservative Evangelicalism. But as my college philosophy professor used to say, “That doesn’t really give us an answer to the more basic question: So What?” A good starting point for that question is the temporary scandal about the secret, invitation-only “JournoList” email listserv forum created by some liberal, nationally-positioned journalists during the last election. That email network was used, in part, as a forum among those reporters back in 2008 to share ideas on how they could best help elect Barack Obama. The real media “crime” was not that liberal journalists consorted together, but rather that they enjoyed the façade of presumed “objectivity” spoken of by NPR (and touted by most national publications, schools of journalism, and press associations), while at the same time they were secretly working to betray it. The answer to the “So What?” question is this: I do not half-mind biased reporting if the reporter owns-up to the fact that his/her account of news is filtered through a certain worldview. As my dictionary tells me, one of the definitions of “bias” is “a mental leaning….” Humans have them. As an example, Bible-believing Christians view current events through a theological prism. What makes Christian journalists, writers, and media folks more vulnerable to criticism is the fact that we not only admit our Gospel presuppositions, but we also seek opportunities to proclaim them boldly. Or if we don’t, we ought to.

I suggest that reporters and writers in big media do the same. They should concede that they have certain mental leanings on issues. However, when the mainstream press pretends that it doesn't have a worldview, or that they can effectively neutralize it in their production of purely “objective” news coverage, then the media has elevated itself to that final, dangerous pinnacle. A media that fails to admit (or is blind to) its biases has become a media elite, a journalistic Mount Olympus looking down on the opinions and beliefs of the common folk, many of whom possess a vital, and integrated faith in a God of the Bible that many in the press do not share.

The dangers of this kind of elitism are illustrated by what one New York Times reviewer declared in 1905 about a novel by writer Lew Wallace. That reviewer wrote that Wallace’s book was read only by the “unsophisticated and unliterary,” but had been rightly avoided by anyone who really understood the concept of true literary “worth.” The novel was called Ben-Hur, and became one of the most widely-read American novels of all time. Its subtitle, by the way, was A Tale of the Christ, which may give us an insight into that book critic’s own biases. History proved that Times reviewer to be wrong, of course. In the same way, if the American press fails to abandon an elitist attitude, and if it fails to expose its aggressively secular worldview to the antiseptic sunlight, then it shouldn’t be surprised – after it has minimized the deepest values and beliefs of tens of millions of Americans – to find that history has proven big media to have been wrong as well.