One of the freedoms cherished by the founding fathers was a free press.
They felt it was an essential part of a robust democracy.
They also were not so naïve as to ignore the challenges that come with unfettered publishing.
The basic challenge is balancing the public’s right to know with the power that a biased press has to influence the public to advance its own political agenda.
There have been times when there were no restrictions on the press at all. The press were propaganda arms of the political parties during Lincoln’s time. At the turn of the last century sensational yellow journalism ruled. Pulitzer and Hurst used their newspapers to start the Spanish American War. They also advocated the assassination of McKinley which then occurred. Pulitzer was so troubled by his “yellow sins”, that he dedicated himself to creating a new code of ethics for newspapers. That code survives to this day, though only a handful of newspapers still support it.
The government had some better grounds to control the broadcast media because they were using public bandwidth. The last vestige of government regulations controlling broadcast news coverage (The Fairness Doctrine and Equal Time Requirements) were eliminated during the Reagan administration. Every attempt to restore at least those provisions, has been opposed by both conservatives and liberals. Obama, for example, preferred net neutrality, caps on media ownership, and investments in public broadcasting as ways to encourage a wide range of media options for voters.
Public opinion STRONGLY supports the equal time requirements. Similar majorities rejected the concept that news sites should be required to present opposing points of view (Fairness Doctrine).
Combine this with the “narrow casting” business model available to online and broadcast media, and you have the “something for everyone” landscape that we enjoy today.
The extreme of this phenomena is fake news. The purpose of fake news is to sell advertising. That is the same business model legit news organizations use. The difference is that fake news outlets don’t actually report on anything. Their stories are fiction intended to manipulate rather than inform their target audience. The bulk of the fake news operations focus on conservative conspiracy theories because they’ve found that those get the most clicks.
The following graph does as good a job as any in attempting to explain the current landscape.
Whether or not you agree with how individual news sources appear on this spectrum isn’t really the issue. The issue is that this spectrum exists and the further you get from the middle vertically and horizontally, the less reliable the information becomes.
Bias does not mean that someone disagrees with you.
Bias means that a news organization’s political opinion influences either their news choices and/or the content of their stories.
As you can see from the above graph, there are very few news sources that meet the criteria of being free from partisan bias – NPR, BBC, WashPost, NYT, NBC News, ABC News, AP, and Reuters. It does not include Fox or MSNBC. It does not include Slate, The Atlantic, The WSJ, or The Hill.
Conservatives have spent decades disputing the claim that Fox is biased and the NYT is not. There is no winning this debate.
But here’s the core of the discussion.
Democracy needs reliable sources of facts that we can all trust in order to move forward.
Fox fails this test because they blur the boundaries between opinion (they call it entertainment) and news. Hannity is just one example. He has a news show, but also was an official adviser to the Trump campaign. His defense is that he claims to be an entertainer and not a journalist. This is the same defense that John Steward used on the Daily Show. The Daily Show makes no claims to be fair or balanced. Fox does.
The WSJ also recently failed this test. That’s because their editor has said that the paper will no longer fact check Trump. Instead the paper will simply present readers information and let the readers decide whether or not Trump is telling the truth.
I honestly think it is pretty easy to sort all of this out.
Let’s look at what each news source says are their code of ethics.
The core purpose of The New York Times is to enhance society by creating, collecting and distributing high-quality news and information. Producing content of the highest quality and integrity is the basis for our reputation and the means by which we fulfill the public trust and our customers’ expectations.
The Fox Nation was created for people who believe in the United States of America and its ideals, as expressed in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Emancipation Proclamation. It is a community that believes in the American Dream: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. One that believes being an American is an honor, as well as a great responsibility – and a wonderful adventure.
This is a place for people who believe we live in a great country, a welcoming refuge for legal immigrants who want to contribute their talents and abilities to make our way of life even greater. We believe we should enjoy the company and support of each other, delighting in the creativity, ingenuity, and work ethic of one and all, while observing the rules of civility and mutual respect and, most importantly, strengthening our diverse society by striving for unity.
The Fox Nation is committed to the core principles of tolerance, open debate, civil discourse, and fair and balanced coverage of the news. It is for those opposed to intolerance, excessive government control of our lives, and attempts to monopolize opinion or suppress freedom of thought, expression, and worship.
We invite all Americans who share these values to join us here at Fox Nation.
I tried to find an ethics or mission statement for the WSJ, but they appear not to have one.
In other words, NYT is committed to distribute high quality news and information. Fox News is committed to creating an experience for a particular group of people who all share a common point of view. The WSJ is going to do whatever it needs to do to make money. All have been true to their stated goals.
It is possible to find unbiased organizations who strive to report the news in a straight forward manner and inform the public on what is true and what is false.
It is also possible to find biased organizations who will report the news, and in some case make up news, to suit their audience. They have a particular point of view that they promote. They filter and in some cases alter or invent what they call news in order to re-inforce that particular point of view. Those who choose to rely on these sources of information and fundamentally misinformed.
Next up: How does democracy function in an environment where at least some portion of the electorate are either uninformed or misinformed?