Bias and Free Press


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.

Here’s what the NYT says:

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.

Here’s what Fox News says:

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?

10 Responses to “Bias and Free Press”

  1. keith says:

    This reminds me of Genesis 19:4&5

    Now before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both old and young, all the people from every quarter, surrounded the house. And they called to Lot and said to him, “where are the men who came tonight? Bring them out to us that we may know them carnally.”

  2. keith says:

    CNN announced today that if Trump were to die at the inauguration Obama would announce the replacement…

  3. Keith says:

    I have a question. Will the monies given to the Clinton Foundation be greater or less now that both Bill & Hillary will have more time to spend with the foundation and its good works?

  4. Jeff Beamsley says:

    Why would you care? They are both private citizens. There is no conflict of interest or influence peddling involved. The foundation already announced that they were shutting down the Global Initiative part of the foundation. It was the only part of the foundation that wasn’t directly involved in either raising or distributing money.

    What I think you SHOULD be concerned about are Trump’s significant unresolved conflicts of interest that will likely result in his downfall.

    Eisen describes Trump’s business entanglements as “frankly and nakedly unconstitutional. … It is extraordinary that we’ll have a president who is violating the constitutional conflicts clause, the so-called Emoluments Clause, as soon as he takes the oath of office,” he says.


    let’s remember that the Senate hangs by just a few votes, and there are some very independent-minded Republicans in the Senate, and I think when we get to our first scandal — and scandal will be inevitable with this arrangement that Mr. Trump is maintaining where he’s hanging on to his ownership interests … I think you’ll see in the Senate that some of those Republicans join with the Democrats to ask for documents, ask for witnesses, to call for hearings. So I think you’ll see some legislative oversight.

    The ACLU has already filed a FOIA suit asking for all government documents regarding Trump’s potential conflicts of interest.

    Compare that with the fact that the White House website, for a period of time today, was promoting the First Lady’s jewelry business.

    The Atlantic has a good in depth article on this too.

    Trump has promised not to enter any new foreign deals, and, at the end of each year, to return “profits” from “hotels and similar businesses” to the U.S. Treasury. But this arrangement leaves open a vast universe of ways in which Trump will, by virtue of his continuing ownership interest, foreseeably benefit (or suffer) personally from how foreign nations interact with the Trump Organization. This is the core evil that the foreign emoluments cause sought to address.

    The ONLY thing standing between Trump and a full scale assault from the media, the FBI, the ACLU, State AG’s, and Congress is his popularity. He is teetering on the raged edge of 40% right now. Even if he and his campaign survive the Russian investigations that are going on now, his foreign entanglements will produce a waterfall of claims about how a bunch of governments including Russia have been and continue to funnel money into Trump’s businesses. Combine that with a colossal fumble on Obamacare and his approval rating could easily sink into the 20’s. That means erosion in even his core supporters who realize that he is corrupt and unable to deliver on his promises. If that happens, the knives will be out and those Senators that are up for election in 2018 will be heading for the exits.

    If he gets into a big fight with Ryan and McConnell, I would not put it beyond them to drag their feet on stuff to further damage his image as a powerful deal maker. That could have the same effect of driving down his approval ratings and making him a lame duck in his first term.

    Pride goeth before the fall.

    The last real outsider that occupied the White House was Jimmy Carter. He believed that he could use popular opinion to bend Congress to his will and alter the way Washington did business. He failed. Some are predicting that if Trump attempts to follow the same plan, he will also fail.

  5. Keith says:

    Nice answer and problems will arrive.

    However your smart enough to know the question I asked. If the money becomes substantially less to the Clinton foundation it doesn’t take some as bright as you to understand the reason. Just at least be honest.

  6. Jeff Beamsley says:

    We could also use your same logic to suggest that if revenue from foreign governments and large foreign corporations goes up at Trump properties, you could draw the same conclusion.

    The difference, of course, is that if Trump makes any money from foreigners, he is violating the constitution and could be impeached.

    Clinton didn’t violate any laws and personally took no money from anyone. She also agreed to separate herself and Bill completely from their foundation if she was elected. Trump hasn’t come even close to that sort of separation from the interests that cause him problems.

    I honestly don’t know what plans the Clintons have for their foundation going forward, but since you have provided an opening that would require you to exonerate Clinton from the previous appearances of influence peddling, I hope that contributions to the foundation increase next year.

  7. Keith says:

    So do I!!!!!

    Use there name for good!!!!

    I will excuse Trump from nothing.

    I expect him to create the environment for 3 – 4% GDP growth.
    I expect him to negotiate FAIR free trade deals.
    I expect him to nominate conservatives to the Supreme Court.
    I expect some rational immigration reform. Note – I do not expect 12 million or so to be deported.
    I don’t care if he builds a wall.
    I expect him to be aggressive with ISIS in conjunction with other countries.
    I expect him to repeal and somewhat replace ACA at minimum for the most needy amount us.

    Top of my head that’s it.

    I was encouraged by the amount of Prayer that surrounded his inaguration.

  8. Jeff Beamsley says:

    I will excuse Trump from nothing.

    How about lying about the size of his inauguration crowds?

    I expect him to create the environment for 3 – 4% GDP growth.

    Create the environment? How about deliver?

    BTW, Q3 GDP numbers have been revised upward to 3.5%, so I would suggest that the “environment” already exists. Let’s see him preserve that rate AND not recklessly drive up inflation.

    I expect him to negotiate FAIR free trade deals.

    I guess you are going to need to describe what “FAIR” means. Most every trade deal has winners and losers. If you expect him to negotiate trade deals that don’t have any domestic losers, you’d better prepare yourself for disappointment.

    I expect him to nominate conservatives to the Supreme Court.

    Me too.

    I expect some rational immigration reform. Note – I do not expect 12 million or so to be deported.

    Please define “rational” reform. My definition of “rational” is that we recruit workers for jobs that are going unfilled.

    I don’t care if he builds a wall.

    How much debt are you willing to accept to build a useless wall? (see above definition of immigration reform)

    I expect him to be aggressive with ISIS in conjunction with other countries.

    Please define aggressive. Does that mean our troops returning in significant numbers to the middle east?

    I expect him to repeal and somewhat replace ACA at minimum for the most needy amount us.

    I expect him to seriously fumble the ACA repeal/replace. That’s because there is very little different that he could do that would retain the private insurance markets, reduce premiums costs, preserve quality, and cover more people. This fumble will be the beginning of the end for him.

    Here’s what I expect from him.

    1. Constant meaningless battles with anyone and everyone that disagrees with him or suggests that he may not be winning.
    2. Fumbled Obamacare replacement.
    3. No new jobs for the unemployed factory workers and coal minors that voted for him.
    4. A cascade of scandals because of his refusal to divest himself.
    5. A constitutional crisis because of his foreign entanglements.

    Bush II’s approval rating hit 30% in 2006. The Republicans lost control of the House, the Senate, and their majority in state governors.

    Trump could hit 30% yet this year because of his Obamacare fumble.

    Bush II left office in the low 20’s. If Trump falls into the 20’s, it will be all over. Senators up for re-election in 2018 will jump ship and begin supporting the many investigations which will be ongoing at that time.

    In 2018 many of those who voted for Trump because of his promise to bring back their jobs will still be unemployed or underemployed, but now will also have lost their health insurance. If he survives until 2018, he will lose his majorities. Hard to tell how he will respond to that, but I suspect it won’t be pretty and I suspect that he will either resign or get impeached before his first term is done.

  9. Keith says:

    Glad you’re optimistic. I believe when President Obama won I wrote all the good things I hoped he’d be able to do. Any thoughts?

  10. Jeff Beamsley says:

    This isn’t a partisan issue.

    Obama won both the electoral college and the popular vote. As a result, he had a legitimate claim to a mandate to implement the agenda on which he was elected. His legislative agenda reflected what he had promised during his campaign.

    Obama made full and complete financial disclosure so there was no question about any conflicts of interest. Trump has not.

    According to Politifact, 75% of the things that Obama said during his 8 years in office were true. Using that same comparison, Trump is operating a less than half that (31%).

    Obama acknowledged the vital role of the press in a free and open democracy. Trump has not.

    My reasons for pessimism have little to do with policy. I’m concerned because Trump does not seem to live in a fact-based world. He also does not appear to possess any ideology. Finally, he is fundamentally untrustworthy. His only attribute is that he managed to win a very close election in an unconventional way. IMHO this puts him in a very tenuous political position. He only got 46% of the popular vote and has a 40% approval rating. His ability to exert any sort of influence on his Republican majority comes directly from his public support. He now OWNS Obamacare and he is in an impossible position. He has to repeal it to satisfy his base and conservative Republicans. But he will not be able to replace it with something better unless he is willing to spend a lot more money. Conservative Republicans won’t allow him to do that. Instead the replacement will offer less coverage to fewer people. The same stories that dogged the implementation of Obamacare, will dog its replacement. Those who lose coverage will be angry. Trump’s approval rating will lose another 10 points. That will leave Trump at the same point Bush was in 2006 when voters took away his majority.

    This is the consequence of running a campaign pledging to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something better – without sharing any of the details of what “better” meant.

    The reality is that Obamacare isn’t his only challenge, just his first one.

    A bunch of lawyers just filed suit in NY courts today asking a judge to prevent Trump from collecting ANY money at ANY of his businesses from ANY foreign individual or government. This could be his first big court battle which he will likely lose.

    He has also decided to pick a fight with the media. The media reaction is to dig deeper into his affairs. The result is going to be a cascade of investigative reports on past problems and current conflicts of interest. He could have resolved those conflicts of interest by divesting and publishing his tax returns. He didn’t and now will suffer the consequences.

    I’m not even covering the potential repercussions of the multiple investigations going on regarding his Russian connections. He has also picked a fight with the intelligence community responsible for those investigations. This is the same intelligence community that leaked like a sieve during the campaign.

    This has NOTHING to do with partisanship. This has EVERYTHING to do with the way that Trump has decided to govern.

    Combine that with the now unified opposition that he is facing from a resurgent women’s rights movement and it is hard to see how he is going to be able to improve his approval ratings any time soon. It is easy to see how his approval ratings could continue to slide. And finally, history has already proven that approval ratings at or below 30% are toxic for sitting presidents regardless of their party.


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