The whole Don Imus flap has gotten me thinking. Before this, I’d practically forgotten that Don Imus even existed. His brazen, crass, and crude manner caused me to tune out his clap-trap long, long ago. Now, I find his sorry saga splashed all over every imaginable media outlet--print, broadcast, and digital. Like I care! Like I actually care that Al Sharpton--not exactly my idea of a healthy arbiter of morality, justice, and truth--has exposed as a rogue someone that anyone with a lick of sense would have already known was a rogue! All that notwithstanding, this lamentable example of one noxious insult traded for another has gotten me thinking once again about media, bias, and the state of modern journalism.
There is only one thing a person can say in this day of brash intemperance that requires real courage--and that is a truism. A truism is often so biting and precise that it is discomfiting. It is anathema and thus scorned. Making the accusation of media bias is a perfect case in point. Like a truism, it is universally acknowledged. And like anathema, it is simultaneously universally scorned. Even so, as is the case with most truisms, it is true.
The fact is undeniable: every journalist sees the news through the very peculiar lens of a very particular worldview. Tom Brokaw once quipped that “Bias like beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Quite so. News is rooted in the unique vision of things a reporter brings to the task of selecting, researching, and telling stories. Thus, as Neil Postman and Steve Powers assert in their remarkable book, How to Watch TV News, “every news story is a reflection of the reporter who tells the story.” Every news story is biased precisely because every journalist has a bias. As Rudloph Bultmann once admitted, "There is no such thing as presuppositionless exegesis."
Herbert Gans, a renowned media analyst, has said, “Journalism is, like sociology, an empirical discipline. As a result, the news consists not only of the findings of an inquiry, but also of the concepts and methods which go into that inquiry, the assumptions that underlie those concepts and methods, and even a further set of assumptions, which could in turn be tested--if only journalists had the time.”
Those assumptions and presuppositions ultimately drive what is and what is not revealed in, by, and through the media. Again, according to Postman and Powers, “Most news does not inhere in the event. An event becomes news. And it becomes news because it is selected for notice out of the buzzing, booming confusion around us. This may seem a fairly obvious point but keep in mind that many people believe that the news is always out there, waiting to be gathered or collected. In fact, the news is more often made rather than gathered. And it is made on the basis of what the journalist thinks is important or what the journalist thinks the audience thinks is important.”
Therefore, they say, “a viewer must know something about the political beliefs and economic situation of those who provide the news.” It is after all, not the world as it is that they present day after day in their reports, columns, stories, and broadcasts; it is the world as they believe it is--or even, as they believe it ought to be.
Linclon Steffens, a journalist working during the early part of this century, proved that he could “create a crime wave” anytime he wanted simply by writing about all the criminal activity that normally occurs in the New York metropolitan region during any given any month. He could then "end the crime wave" simply by not tallying the lists of crimes committed.
Cecil Chesterton and A.R. Orage, English journalists of the same era, conducted a similar exercise in London. They created a scandalous hysteria simply by reporting all the odd doings of Parliament members in and around Westminster.
In both cases, journalists were able to transform public perceptions, not by manufacturing events, but by highlighting generally neglected facts about the actual every-day affairs of modern urban life. They were able to change the course of future events by giving their own peculiar slant to prior events.
Evidence of the power of the media to shape public opinion is not just anecdotal. Virtually every American demographic and sociological study over the past thirty years has underscored the tremendous impact that newspapers, television, radio, magazines, and other popular mediums have on the way we think, feel, and behave. More often than not, the perception of the world that the man on the street has, is shaped by what journalists choose to emphasize as opposed to what they choose not to emphasize.
Apologist Francis Schaeffer pointed this fact out in his seminal work How Should We Then Live? He wrote, “There are certain news organizations, newspapers, news magazines, wire services, and news broadcasts which have the ability to generate news. They are the newsmakers, and when an item appears in them, it becomes news. When it is omitted, it is not news.”
Only God controls events. But the media controls what we know of those events--or even whether we know of them. They are indeed the newsmakers.
The literary lion Sidney Lanier once commented that “small minds love to bring large news, and failing a load, will make one.” What was once merely epigrammatic is now epidemic.
Historian Daniel Boorstin observes that there was once a time when journalists saw their task simply in terms of recording events--precisely as they occurred. They believed that, “The responsibility for making news was entirely God's--or the Devil's. The newsman's task was only to give an account of such considerable things as arrived unto their notice.”
Thus, James Parton observed in 1866, “The skilled and faithful journalist recording with exactness and power the thing that has come to pass, is Providence addressing men." Similarly, Charles Dana, the great nineteenth century editor of the New York Sun, declared, “I have always felt that whatever Divine Providence permitted to occur, I was not too proud to report." Or as Joe Friday was wont to say, “The facts m’am. Just the facts.”
Of course, this notion no longer has much currency. If our daily newspaper is boring, we are likely to blame the reporter, whereas our ancestors would have blamed the day. As Boorstin has commented, “We need not be theologians to see that we have shifted responsibility for making the world interesting from God to the newspaperman.”
Thus, no longer content to be news gatherers, journalists have become instead, newmakers. No longer satisfied with merely reporting the news, they look for the “story behind the event.” They want to convey more than news; they desire to be purveyors of truth.
A generation ago, the great writer and editor Walter Lippman, offered a clear warning against that kind of aspiration. He said, “The function of news is to signalize an event; the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act.”
According to Lippman, the dramatic distinction between the news and truth stems not solely from the inadequacies of journalists, but also "from the exigencies of the news business, which limits the time, space, and resources that can be allotted to any single story.” He argued that if the public required “a more truthful interpretation of the world” they lived in, they would have to “depend on institutions other than the press.” Postman and Powers concur saying "anyone who relies exclusively on the news for his or her knowledge of the world is making a serious mistake."
Schaeffer comments, “Many viewers seem to assume that when they have seen something on TV, they have seen it with their own eyes. It makes the viewer think he has actually been on the scene. He knows, because his own eyes have seen. He has the impression of greater direct objective knowledge than ever before. For many, what they see on television becomes more true than what they see with their eyes in the external world. But this is not so, for one must never forget that every television minute has been edited. The viewer does not see the event. He sees an edited form of the event. It is not the event which is seen, but an edited symbol or an edited image of the event. An aura and illusion of objectivity and truth is built up, which could not be totally the case if the people shooting the film were completely neutral. The physical limitations of the camera dictate that only one aspect of the total situation is given. If the camera were aimed ten feet to the left or ten feet to the right, an entirely different objective story might come across. And on top of that, the people taking the film and editing it often do have a subjective viewpoint that enters in. When we see a political figure on TV, we are not seeing the person as he necessarily is; we are seeing, rather, the image someone has decided we should see.”
In the ideological and commercial world of media presuppositional worldviews will skew the product toward a particular perspective and away from another. That is simply the order of things in this poor fallen world.
It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. But according to Postman and Powers, “it is probably equally true that one word is worth a thousand pictures, at least sometimes--for example, when it comes to understanding the world we live in.” They say, “The whole problem with the news comes down to this: all the words uttered in an hour of news coverage could be printed on a single page. And the world cannot be understood in one page.”
But besides these rather understandable limits of time and space, there are moral limits as well. According to the veteran journalist Jimmy Breslin, today’s media moguls are the heirs of a rather steadily eroding moral tradition. He says that news organizations all too often succumb to "bribery, extortion, calumny, also known as slander, and two kinds of lies, bald-faced and by omission." For some this causes more than a little confusion because, after all, "the sins being committed at typewriters are greater than the ones being written about." In fact, Breslin says, "there is no situation so bad that a fresh edition of the morning newspaper can't make worse."
Perhaps it was that kind of calumny that provoked H.L. Mencken, the profound pundit of the last generation, to comment that, “All the durable truths that have come into the world within historic times have been opposed as bitterly as if they were so many waves of small pox, and every individual who has welcomed and advocated them, absolutely, without exception, has been denounced and punished as an enemy of the race. In that kind of atmosphere, with that kind of publicity, the connoisseur of the higher political mountebankery cannot fail to gain the upper hand.”
If that be the case, may we be ever vigilant to rectify the situation--lest our republic be torn asunder by the bacchic asceticism of the day.