Addressing Mainstream Media Bias (2013 Sep)

by Barry A. Liebling

Several years ago a disgraced referee for the National Basketball Association was sent to prison. He was convicted for wagering on games that he officiated. While it is not necessarily wrong to bet on sports events, his crime was a classic case of conflict of interest. An outside observer could see that he had an incentive to make calls that favored the team he was betting on at the expense of the opposing team. Thus, he was not in a position to do his referee job properly.

The referee confessed that he had done the wrong thing but insisted he was fair-minded on the court. He claimed that if he had not bet, the outcome of each of the games he tainted would have been the same. Is it possible to bet on one team but still be a competent referee? Perhaps. Some people could place bets, resolve to be even-handed, and succeed at being scrupulous referees. But even so, fans who favor the opposing team would be justified in feeling uncomfortable.

There are two solutions to the conflict of interest referee problem – either find referees who have no stake in the outcome of the game or have referees disclose their partiality in advance so that all players and observers know what their sentiments are. In the second case there should be two adversarial referees in each game – one in league with each of the teams.

The recent uproar where Republicans complained about media bias has parallels to the referee story. NBC is producing a dramatic mini-series detailing the life of Hillary Clinton, and CNN is planning to make a documentary on the former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State. Both projects – according to Republican partisans and anyone who knows how the media world works – are intended to give Mrs Clinton a public relations boost to help her get the Democratic nomination and secure the presidency in 2016.

Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, did not take the news passively. He announced that if the networks went ahead with their plans he would urge his party to deny CNN and NBC the rights to broadcast the 2016 Republican presidential primary debates. While the networks have the right to show any programs they wish, Mr Priebus asserted that he recognizes their motives, is unwilling to be their accomplice in defeating the Republican party, and will retaliate.

On cue, several executives at NBC and CNN expressed shock at the chairman’s rebuke. Their tactic is to disarm their critics by feigning innocence. Some NBC representatives pointed out that their news division is completely separate from entertainment programming, and therefore Mr Priebus is not justified in attacking NBC News. At CNN a spokesman remarked that Mr Priebus was prematurely and unfairly condemning the documentary since it had not yet been made.

Several powerful media companies – frequently referred to as the mainstream media or the legacy media – are partisans for the Democratic party and promote progressive politics. Besides NBC and CNN its members include ABC, CBS, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. Their management teams and editorial writers are dominated by left-leaning enthusiasts. In essence the mainstream media is betting on the success of the Democratic party and on the expansion of the welfare state. This means they are in no position to be detached referees.

Of course, mainstream media players have the right to their political opinions and preferences. They have a right to campaign vigorously to promote their politics. The problem is that they are zealots pretending they are not. When Republicans accuse them of being biased, mainstreamers deny that their personal beliefs influence their editorial content. They have frequently been the referees in national political debates and have taken advantage of their position. For example, in the 2012 presidential election CNN moderators Wolf Blitzer and Candy Crowley enhanced the prospects of the Democrats by attempting to make Republican candidates look foolish.

Even as a betting referee cannot escape charges of conflict of interest, progressive mainstream media players cannot successfully conceal their ardor for Democrats and antipathy towards Republicans. In the sports world eliminating conflict of interest is straightforward. It is easy to find referees who are indifferent with respect to the outcome of a game. But the prospect of finding completely unbiased, disinterested political reporters and commentators is bleak. Nearly everyone with an expertise in politics also has definite preferences about who should win any particular election.

The solution to the mainstream conflict of interest problem is insisting on full disclosure. Put all the cards on the table. Everyone involved should stop pretending to be neutral and forthrightly proclaim their position. Of course Republicans and the mainstream media could still deal with one another. Partisan documentaries, dramatic programs, special reports could be produced – but they would be labeled accurately. Republican interviews and coverage of debates could still be done (if agreeable to both parties) – with an explicit statement that the mainstream outlet is committed to helping the Democrats triumph.

Note that the mainstream media is not the only game in town. The Republicans also have their cheerleaders – sometimes called “new media” – who should also be forthcoming. Talk radio is saturated with programming that is antithetical to the progressive agenda.

Fox News, which reaches an ever growing number of viewers, sends out a steady stream of messages intended to thwart the goals of the Democratic party. Incidently, Fox News – like its mainstream rivals – is displaying “imitation neutrality” when it describes itself as “fair and balanced.” While it has many Democratic commentators on its programs, the purpose of giving them a voice is to innoculate viewers against their arguments.

Perhaps the most formidable media outlet available to the Republicans is the internet – where at relatively little expense their partisans can deliver print, audio, and video.

It will be refreshing to see all media players shun their pretenses, avoid conflicts of interest, and honestly tell the world where they stand.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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