A Philosopher's Blog

Punching Reporters

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on May 29, 2017

While American conservatives have long put forth the talking point that the media suffers from a crippling liberal bias, the rise of Trump saw a notable change in the approach of Republicans to reporters. Most recently, Republican Greg Gianforte attacked a journalist by grabbing him by the neck and throwing him to the floor. Somewhat ironically, the attack on the liberal media was witnessed by a Fox News team. Gianforte has been charged with a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of a $500 fine or six months in jail. It is unlikely that Gianforte, who was just elected to the House of Representatives, will serve any time.

After the attack, Gianforte’s campaign (apparently following the path of lies paved by President Trump) released a statement containing untrue claims (or, more accurately, lies): “After asking Jacobs to lower the recorder, Jacobs declined. Greg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face. Jacobs grabbed Greg’s wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground. It’s unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ.” As the Fox News team noted, Jacobs did none of these things and was simply attacked by Gianforte after trying to ask him questions. Gianforte later issued an apology for his actions which seems to have rescinded the original set of untrue claims about the incident. While attacking a reporter and lying seem to be obviously wrong, this incident is certainly morally interesting.

As should be expected, some people approved of Gianforte’s response, seeing it as a manly blow against the effeminate liberal media. While it is tempting to dismiss the endorsement of violence out of hand, a case can be made in favor of physically attacking the press. The gist of the argument is as follows.

If the press is liberally biased and engages in unwarranted attacks against conservatives, then the conservatives have the right of self-defense against these unwarranted attacks. Since the liberal media controls the media, the conservatives have no viable means of self-defense via the media. However, this does not entail that they thus lose the right to self-defense. They still have the option of resorting to a physical defense by grabbing and punching members of the liberal media when they attack.

It could be countered that Jacobs was merely questioning Gianforte about his position on the Republican health care proposal and not engaged in an attack at all. However, it could be claimed that aggressively asking such questions constitutes an attack that warrants a physical response. But, being asked questions does not put a person in danger that warrants the use of physical force—a person can merely decline to answer the questions.

It is certainly worth pointing out that the notion that the media is liberal is countered by the existence of Fox News and other conservative media outlets. Because of this, conservatives do have a non-violent option of self-defense: they can turn to Fox News and others.

Even if conservatives lacked the venues of Fox News and similar media outlets, it would still be difficult to justify the use of physical violence as a defense against the liberal media. After all, the moral notion of self-defense includes a proportionality factor. If, for example, someone throws a water balloon at me and threatens me with another drenching, I have no moral right to use lethal force to stop them. After all, the danger they present does not warrant a lethal response. Likewise, even if the liberal media is cruelly attacking conservatives, this does not warrant a physical response. Verbal attacks warrant verbal defenses, not punches. As such, this sort of attack should be condemned.

While most people do not approve of this sort of violence, the Republican leadership has offered but a half-hearted and tepid condemnation of the attack, as exemplified by Paul Ryan’s response. Given the importance of the freedom of the press in particular and the importance of avoiding senseless violence in a civilized society, this lukewarm response is certainly problematic. However, it is indicative of how some conservatives now regard core American values. That is, they do not value them.

While the physical violence was the most worrisome, there is also the use of lies to try to spin the incident. The physical attack on the reporter thus serves as a blunt metaphor for the systematic attack on the truth that has become a standard practice in politics. This is especially hypocritical when it comes from people who profess to hold to traditional values and religious ideals.

It could be said that this concern is an overreaction, that is it merely a member of Congress punching a reporter. However, this incident has broader implications about how we, as a people, look at the press, truth and violence. As it stands, lies and violence have been rewarded with high office. Presumably this is the lesson that we wish to teach our children so that they might live down to our lack of principles and ideals.

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The Murder of Truth

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 4, 2016

“When a man lies, he murders some part of the world.”




There is an old joke that asks “how do you know a politician is lying?” The answer is, of course, “you can see his lips moving.” This bit of grim humor illustrates the negative view people generally have of politicians—they are expected to lie relentlessly. However, people still condemn politicians for lying. Or when they believe the politician is lying. At least when the politician is on the other side.

In the case of their own side, people often suffer from what seems to be a cognitive malfunction: they believe politicians lie, but generally accept that their side is telling it like it is. This sort of malfunction also extends to the media and other sources of information: it is commonly claimed that the media lies and that sources are biased. That is, when media and sources express views one disagrees with. What matches a person’s world view is embraced, often without any critical consideration. This sort of thing presumably goes back to the invention of politics; but it also ebbs and flows over time.

In the United States, the 2016 election has created a high tide of lies. While there is a rough justice in saying Hillary and Trump are both liars, it is trivially true that we are all liars. As such, it is important to consider the number and severity of the lies people tell when assessing them rather than merely pointing out the obvious truth that everyone has lied. On the face of it, Trump has a commanding lead in the realm of untruth. This should not be a surprise, given that the ghostwriter of “Trump’s” Art of the Deal attributed to Trump the tactic of the “truthful hyperbole.” As I have argued before, truthful hyperbole is an impossibility because hyperbole, by definition, is not true. While Trump has told many spectacular untruths, one of his most impressive is the narrative that he was the one who finally settled the birther movement and that Hillary started it. Given Trump’s role as the point man for the birther movement, this assertion is beyond absurd; but it merely assaults truth in general, rather than being aimed at undermining institutions that are supposed to committed to the truth. Unfortunately, Trump has also engaged in such undermining. Being in a field dedicated to the truth, I find the attacks on truth and the casual acceptance of lies anathema. As should anyone who values truth and condemns lies.

While it is tempting to some to place all the blame into Trump’s hands, Trump is merely following a well-worn path to the battle against truth. A key part of this battle is the sustained attack on the media, broadly construed. In the United States, attacking the media for an alleged liberal bias goes back at least to the time of Nixon. While it is reasonable to be critical of the news media, a sweeping rejection based on alleged bias is hardly a rational approach by someone who wants to think critically.

Trump has, however, added some new twists to the attack on the media. One is that he expanded his attacks beyond the allegedly liberal media to engage any reporter who dares to be critical of him—even people normally beloved by conservatives. In this regard, he has broken outside of the usual ideological boundaries. However, this seems to be the result of his personality rather than an ideological commitment on his part—he cannot not respond to any criticism that gets his attention.

It could be replied that Trump is merely engaging a dishonest, lying media—a media that has crossed ideological lines to join forces against him. This would require accepting that these reporters are liars and that they are manufacturing the evidence they use in their reporting—such as videos of Trump saying and doing the things they claim he does and says. While this is not beyond the realm of possibility (we could, after all, be in a Twilight Zone episode in which the twist is that Trump is the only honest man facing a vast conspiracy of liars of all political stripes), the more plausible explanation is that Trump is the one saying the untrue things.

Another concern is that he has engaged in a level of vitriol against the media that has not been seen in recent presidential politics. In general, he seems to have two main tactics for dealing with claims made about him that he dislikes. The first is to simply deny the claim. The second is to engage in intense ad hominem attacks on the source. Since fact checkers like Politifact expose Trump’s untruths, he has accused them of being biased and part of the conspiracy against him. While he is willing to engage in name-calling against specific people, he also engages in sweeping insults against the press in general. His attacks are taken quite seriously, so much so that Committee to Protect Journalists has issued a statement that Trump is a threat to the freedom of the press.

It could be replied that Trump is merely giving the media what it deserves and his attacks are true—the reporters are “nasty”, “sleazy” and “not good people.” It could also be claimed that it is true the press is engaged in a conspiracy against him.

While there are no doubt some “not good” reporters, they do not seem to be as awful as Trump claims. Of course, Trump is known for his hyperbole and saying untrue things, so this should not be surprising. In fact, it would be out of character for Trump to describe things as they are. He seems to be locked permanently in hyperbole mode: everything is great or garbage, with little or nothing in between.

As someone who writes horror adventures for games, I like a good conspiracy theory and routinely work them into my fiction. However, if the media is engaged in a conspiracy to elect Hillary and defeat Trump, they would seem to need to go back to conspiracy school. The fact checkers check her and the media relentlessly cover stories that are harmful to her chances, such as the undying email scandal. The media, via its massive and free coverage of Trump, helped him win the candidacy and they unceasingly keep him in the spotlight. Ironically, this excessive coverage of Trump is a frightening sign of the media’s role in the erosion of truth—the focus on what is spectacle, rather than what is significant. There are also those in the media who do manufacture claims or present things in ways that cast shadows over the truth—they, too, should be held accountable for their role in murdering the truth. Be they on the left or the right.

Interestingly, it could also be argued that worries about the erosion of truth are overblown: while Trump seems to be going for a gold medal in untruths, this will have no real impact on the world. This claim does have some appeal. After all, doomsayers predict that so many things will lead to dire consequences and very often they are quite wrong. I certainly hope this is the case, that in the 2020 election cycle we will be back to our normal levels of untruths and the attacks on the media will be back to being a matter of rote rather than rage.


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The Media, Gotcha Questions & Tacos

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 27, 2012
English: Sarah Palin speaking at a rally in El...

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It has long been a common practice on the right to accuse the media of having a liberal bias. Sarah Palin added a new spin on this approach by popularizing the notion of the “gotcha” question. As might be imagined, politicians continue to avail themselves of the notion that the media is out to get them.

In some cases the media does act in ways that seem to indicate that certain folks are out to get politicians. For example, CNN’s John King started off a presidential debate by asking Newt about what his second wife had said about his alleged request for an open marriage. While Newt handed King his rump on a platter, Newt also launched into an attack on the media.

On the one hand, Newt made some legitimate criticisms about how the media folks tend to bring up matters that are salacious yet lacking in actual merit as news stories. In the case of Newt, his character is relevant. However, as Newt points out, the story of his infidelity is old news and bringing it up at the start of the debate does seem to be rather uncalled for. This does, as one might imagine, raise some interesting questions about media ethics in regards to the timing of stories as well as the focus the media folks place on certain stories.

On the other hand, the media did not make up the story-Newt did, in fact, behave in ways contrary to his own currently espoused morality. Newt’s claim that the media makes it difficult for decent people to run for office seems to be questionable in that the professional media merely reports what people do and, as such, decent people would have no such sordid tales in their background. For politicians to complain that the media folks are reporting what they do and say is comparable to Meletus’ anger at Socrates for making evident his failings. The misdeed lies not with the person who reveals the misdeed but with the person who commits it.

More recently, East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr. was asked by the press about the alleged harassment of Hispanics by members of the town’s police force. In reply to a very straightforward question about what he would do about the situation, he said he   “might have tacos.” As might be imagined, this did not go over very well.

While he did say he took responsibility for his actions, he also blamed the media and accused the reporter of asking a “gotcha” question. However, the question hardly appears to be anything that would legitimately count as a “gotcha” question in that it is not loaded, overly complicated, confusing, or otherwise trap-like in content. Also, the media folks presented his claim in full context. If they had, for example, asked him what he would have for dinner and then edited that in as his reply, then he could justly accuse the media of being unfair. However, he was asked a straightforward question and his reply was presented in context. As such, the only one he has to blame for his words is himself. Perhaps the biggest gripe that politicians have with the media folks is that they so often make public what politicians actually say and do (“how dare they report what I said!”). That, however, does not seem to be anything unfair or unjust on the part of the media. Rather, that seems to be their job.

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Negativity Bias

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on October 29, 2011
Karl Pribram and colleagues have presented evi...

Hard wired for negativity.

While scientists have only fairly recently gotten around to studying cogitative biases, philosophers have been teaching about them for centuries-typically in the form of various logical errors. However, it is good that the scientific attention to these biases is serving to attract additional attention to them.

Everyone of us is, of course, loaded down with all sorts of cognitive biases. Some scientists even claim that such biases are hard wired into the brain, thus making them part of our actual anatomy and physiology. If so, it would seem to suggest that people might be more or less biased based on the specifics of their hard-wiring. This would help explain some of the variation in people when it comes to being able to reason well.

While we all suffer from cognitive biases (and other biases) we do have the capacity to resist and even overcome such biases and reason in a more objective manner. As this takes effort and training (as well as the will to want to think critically) it is not very common for folks to try to overcome these biases. Hence, bad reasoning tends to dominate.

One standard bias is known as negativity bias. While some people are more prone to focus on the negative than others, apparently we all have an inbuilt tendency to give more weight to negative information relative to positive information. This would help to account for the fact that people tend to consider a single misdeed to outweigh a large number of good deeds.

Of course, people do also have other biases that can lead them to weigh the positive more than the negative. For example, people tend to ignore or downplay negative aspects of people, causes, and things they like and weigh the positive more heavily. This often involves embracing inconsistency by applying different standards relative to what one likes or dislikes (see, for example, how Fox News and MSNBC evaluate various political matters).

Interestingly, this bias seems to occur at neurological level. The brain actually has more neural activity when it is reacting to negative information than when reacting to positive information. Assuming these results apply generally, we are actually hard-wired for negativity.

The defense against this involves being aware of this bias and exhibiting even greater caution in assessing negative information-especially when it involves negative information about something we do not like. For example, folks who dislike the Tea Party will weigh negative information about them more heavily than positive evidence and will tend to make little effort to determine whether the evidence has been properly assessed. The same holds true for folks who dislike the Occupy Wall Street movement and its spin-offs. They will take any negative evidence as being quite significant and ignore or undervalue positive evidence.

This bias does help explain a great deal about how people see political events and assess them.

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Birthers & Graders

Posted in Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 29, 2011

Obama recently released his long form birth certificate in the hopes that this would finally end the birther thing. Trump was quick to claim credit for this and to cast himself as doing something very important. While he no doubt hopes to be able to milk the birther thing a bit more, he realizes that crazy cow is just about dry. As such, he seems to have decided to switch his focus to the matter of Obama’s grades.

While the idea that Obama was hiding his grades was thrown out there quite some time ago, it did not seem to ever have quite the draw of the birther movement. However, Trump’s maneuver might create a “grader” movement which focuses on Obama’s college grades. Trump and others seem to be suggesting that there is some sort of controversy in regards to this matter.

On the face of it, this seems to be a complete non-issue. While the birther thing was absurd at least it had some tenuous link to relevance in that the president has to be the right sort of American citizen. There are, however, no educational requirements for president. As such, nothing in Obama’s academic records would seem to have any possible bearing on his legal qualifications for the office.

There could be, of course, some embarrassing or problematic things revealed by a person’s transcripts. For example, Obama might have some bad grades or it might be found that he missed some sort of requirement. However, it seems unlikely that his academic transcripts would reveal anything that would actually damage him.

Of course, the “graders” take the view that the fact that he has not released his transcripts shows that there must be something damaging or something he wants to hide in them.  However, the most reasonable explanation as to why he has not released his transcripts is because there is actually no requirement that he do so. While some jobs, such as mine, require a person to provide their transcripts to their employer, there is (as noted above) no such requirement for the president. In the case of my job, I do not have to reveal my finances to my employer and I do not. This is not because I have something to hide, it is simply because it is not something I am required to do nor does there seem to be any good reason for this. Likewise, there does not seem to be a compelling reason for Obama to release his transcripts.

The “graders” will, of course, raise the point that if he has nothing to hide, then he should release his transcripts to settle the controversy. Of course, what they seem to not get is that there really is no controversy outside of the one that they have created in their own minds.

If the “graders” start getting media attention on par with the birthers, then I suspect that Obama will decide to release his transcripts. After that, one can only imagine what people will start demanding that he reveal.

China is Here…and There

Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 19, 2010
National emblem of the People's Republic of China

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China, being a “communist” state does not have an independent news media. Instead, they are still following the old Soviet model of having one official news agency, namely Xinhua.

As one might expect, Xinhua is biased heavily in favor of the Chinese government and follows the official line in all things. However, on matters on which the Chinese government has no official position, Xinhua seems to be capable of providing decent coverage.

What is perhaps most interesting is that China is pushing Xinhua as an export and offers its news services to countries at a significant discount. As such, it does have  a certain appeal to nations that want such a service but are lacking in funds. Of course, they also have to accept they are buying China’s official line in regards to the news.

For folks who are concerned with objective (as far as it is possible) news, Xinhua only has minimal appeal. It can be useful as a means of seeing the official position of the Chinese government and can provide sort of a counter weight against news agencies that are weighted the other way (thus giving a possible glimpse at the middle by factoring in the “gravitational pull” of each bias). However, to folks who like their news biased, this will be a fine choice. As Fox News (and to a far lesser extent MSNBC) shows, there is certainly a market for “news” that makes no bones about having a definite slant and political agenda.

However, I suspect that Xinhua will need to move away from being a mouthpiece of the state if it is ever going to be a truly reputable news agency. Then again, if the foes of the media are right, perhaps there are no reputable news agencies at all and thus Xinhua just provides yet another bias to pick from (left, right, etc.).

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There Was the News

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 24, 2010
Front page of The New York Times on Armistice ...
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The news, it seems, is in danger. The most obvious sign is the fact that printed news media is not doing as well as it once did. However, other forms of news media are facing challenges as well.

One obvious factor is the web. Newspapers, which were having a hard enough time competing against TV, have not fared very well against this medium. Part of this is simply the way advances in technology work (when was the last time you heard a town crier or received a telegram?). Part of this is due to the  disease of “freeitis” that infects the web. For some odd reason, many of the folks driving the expansion of the web were able to sell business on the idea that they could make money by providing stuff for free. While this has helped Google (they make good money putting ads among all that free content), this has not worked out so well for the news providers. After all, it makes little sense to pay for news that you can get for free on the web.  Amazingly enough, few of the geniuses behind this realized that free stuff generally does not generate much in the way of profits without there being stuff that is not free.

Obviously enough, news companies need to find ways to monetize the news on the web. While it will be difficult to cure people of freeitis, it can be done. People will, after all, pay for content. The success of iTunes, Kindle and so on have shown this. However, the news folks will need to step up to the challenge.

Another factor is consolidation. Most of the media is now owned by a very few large corporations and this has helped reduce the number of news sources. While this allows large news companies to exist and gain the advantages of having considerable resources, it does tend to thin out the alternatives. This can, as some have claimed, lead to media bias due to a lack of diversity.

This challenge is a tough one. After all, getting the news can be an expensive operation and this seems to require that news companies be large. For example, a small town newspaper or blogger probably cannot afford to send journalists to Iraq to cover the war or even to Washington to report on politics there. That said, smaller news operations can do well, provided they find a niche. Interestingly enough, local bloggers and news has been doing quite well in some places. After all, CNN is not going to cover a local clam festival in Maine or the local events in Tallahassee, Florida.

Yet another factor is that the news business model is based primarily on advertising. As such, the news has to provide what will attract an audience. One effect of this is the existence of partisan (biased) news services. Fox News  and MSNBC rather clearly present a political agenda and even CNN has been accused of a liberal bias.

But, someone might point out, Fox News is doing great. How is this a problem? The problem is not that Fox News and others are not providing content. Rather it is that they are not really providing news. While a degree of bias is unavoidable, there is a clear and meaningful distinction between news reporting and commentary masquerading (often very poorly) as news. We are in an ocean of news, but it is a case of  “water, water all around…but not a drop to drink.”

In terms of fixing this, the fix lies with mostly with us. The media folks give us what we want and if we want pseudo-news, that is what they give us. As such, we need to be more critical of the news and push the media folks towards being fair and balanced. We also need to push for higher quality content.

It might be wondered why this matters. That is, why worry about the news? Why not just let the news media become partisan fluff and let the blogs take over?

One selfish answer is that most bloggers need the news. After all, it is rather hard to write about current events, politics and so on without a source of information. Like most bloggers, I shamelessly make use of the news. I am, however, careful to credit my sources and provide links to the originals. I also make a point of subscribing to news magazines even when I could get the information for free.

That said, much of the information in the news is provided to the news companies by governments, businesses, press agents, and non-professionals (like the iReporters of CNN). In reality, news companies devote few resources to investigative journalism. As such, bloggers and their kin could do a lot of what the news folks do now (that is, get emails from politicians and companies).

However, the professional news agencies do engage in journalism and investigation that the bloggers and their kin lack the resources to do. Additionally, the professional organizations have (or often have) credibility that arises from a review process that bloggers and the kin generally cannot match. Naturally, their are bloggers who are professional grade and news organizations do make serious mistakes (and suffer from bias). Interestingly, bloggers who become professional grade often transform from being just bloggers to true news folks and editorialists. As such, what might occur is not so much an extermination of the news in favor of blogging, but an evolution of both blogging and news towards a somewhat new form of information and commentary. After all, the traditional news folks have moved towards the web and many bloggers have started moving towards the roles played by the traditional news folks.

Another answer is that the news, despite its problems, is a critical part of democracy and having informed citizens. It is no accident that the founding fathers provided protection for the press and also recognized the importance of the news. The folks in the media often serve a vital role in exposing problems and dangers-such as corrupt politicians, dangerous products and so on. As such, the news folks are an important part of our society and social system. Professional news and professional commentary are well worth preserving. While times seem tough now, I have confidence that this is primarily a transition and evolutionary phase for the news-rather than a slide into extinction.

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Fox Fight

Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 26, 2009
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While Fox News presents itself as “fair and balanced”, it has recently been the target of intense criticism from other media folks as well as the Obama administration. Naturally, it is important to put this into an historic perspective: administrations have had such tiffs with the media in the past and media organizations have had spats against each other as well. As such, there is really nothing new here other than the players in this particular fight.

The main criticism against Fox News is that it is suffers from a clearly biased perspective. Some critics go so far as to assert that Fox does not really report the news, but that it merely serves to present a political agenda under the guise of reporting. Naturally, folks point out that other media organizations are liberally biased and Fox’s supporters assert that Fox is merely being honest.

While perfect objectivity is impossible, there are clearly degrees of objectivity and fairness. Some journalists are true professionals in this regard. While they are honest about their own views, they are able to consider other viewpoints fairly and present relatively unbiased reports and analysis. Others are clearly true believers and make no attempt to consider alternative views, except to assert how wrong they are. The folks at Fox seem to largely fall towards the unprofessional end of the spectrum. Of course, the same can be said of some other news organizations. For example, MSNBC seems to have some rather significant liberal bias.

I have watched Fox and have tried to be objective in my assessment of their handling of the news. While I do expect the commentators to express opinions (that is their job), the bias is clear and evident. Of course, folks who agree with the Fox agenda will generally not see this bias-they will think that Fox is telling it like it is. This, of course, does provide grounds for dispute and it can be argued that Fox is not biased and is, in fact, the only news agency that is getting it right. Showing bias does, after all, require establishing a baseline of objectivity/neutrality and that point is contested territory.

However, even if a baseline for objectivity is in dispute, a relative baseline can be established. By comparing Fox to the other news agencies as well as independent sources, it is possible to get a picture of relative bias. On this measure, I suspect that Fox will still seem biased.

Also, even without using a baseline, a degree of bias can be discerned by the way the reporters report. To use an analogy, consider the paper I have my Intro to Philosophy students write. One part of the paper is a summary of the Apology and the goal is to clearly, concisely, accurately and in their own words convey the key points of that dialogue. The objective is not to comment, criticize, assess, speculate, or otherwise evaluate and it is rather easy to see when a student deviates from summarizing. The same sort of standard can be applied to reporting in order to check for when a reporter has ceased reporting and is now commenting and presenting a view. The second major part of the paper is an argument section and in this section the students present their position on the issue and argue for it. This, of course, corresponds to news commentary and editorials. However, this is quite distinct from summarizing or, by the analogy, reporting. While journalists do go beyond reporting, they do so in various degrees. The more this is done, the greater chance there is that bias is involved-especially if the commentary has a consistent ideological leaning. The folks at Fox seem to have a significant tendency to go from reporting to commenting without making it clear that they are doing so, thus suggesting the possibility of bias (or at least a failure to understand the distinction between a report and an editorial).

Now, in regards to the administrations fight with Fox, they are ironically helping Fox out. After all, Fox’s viewers will tend to be against Obama and the administration’s words and actions serve to reinforce the views of such people. While Obama and his people have the right to decide which news shows they visit, it does not seem appropriate for the administration to get into this sort of brawl with Fox, even if Fox is distorting facts.

A final remark I have, inspired by the wrestling episode of South Park, is that perhaps Fox is like the WWF of news: it puts on a morality play to entertain the viewers and merely pretends to be a real news agency, just as the pro-“wrestlers” pretend to really be fighters.

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Media Bias & Error Part 2

Posted in Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 19, 2009
Cover of "Leviathan (Oxford World's Class...

Cover of Leviathan (Oxford World's Classics)

As noted in my previous post, a recent Pew Research Center survey found that 29% of Americans believe that news organizations get their facts straight while 63% claim that news stories often are lacking in accuracy.  26% also claim that news organizations are careful to avoid politically biased reporting. 60% of those surveyed claimed that the news organizations are politically biased.

In my previous post, I considered that one explanation for these views is that the media is biased and error prone. Of course, it is also worthwhile exploring alternative (or additional) explanations.

One possible cause of this view is that fact that folks on the right have been claiming that the media is biased since about the time of the Nixon administration. This trend has continued and it is likely that this charge has influenced the views of some people.

Another possible cause is that people are generally poor at critical thinking and hence generally do not consider their own biases. If someone is unaware of his own biases, then they will tend to see the world with an uncorrected distortion-that created by their own biases. As such, even an objective and accurate report will strike them as either inaccurate or biased (or both). To use an analogy, when students come to talk to me about a bad paper grade, they often insist that their papers are quite good. Even when I show the fallacies, grammatical errors, missing material, factual errors and such in their work, they sometimes still insist that the papers are good. In some cases I am sure they are quite sincere they truly think their papers are fine pieces of work, despite the fact that they are not. Likewise, someone who sees the world in a biased way and is not aware of his bias will tend to see anything that disagrees with his view as mistaken.

Interestingly, Thomas Hobbes wrote about this tendency. He notes in his Leviathan that people tend to regard a failure to agree with them as a sign of provocative  disagreement. As such, when folks see a news story that simply fails to agree with their beliefs, they will tend to regard it as biased, inaccurate or both.

Adding to this is the fact that sources outside of the mainstream media are highly polarized, both left and right. This enables folks to easily find sources (often blogs and web pages) that “confirm” and “support” there views. This, in turn, can contribute to their belief that the news media is inaccurate and biased. For example, folks who think that Bush was behind 9/11 can find sites to back them up and “confirm” their conspiracy theory. As another example, folks who think that Obama is not a natural born American can find sites to “support” their views.

While it is a good idea to find outside sources and use them to check on the mainstream media, it is important to make sure that these sources are credible and accurate. That can, of course, be rather challenging.

My view is that it is wise to be critical of the media (or any source). However, it is equally wise to critical of one’s own beliefs. After all, if the media can be biased, so can we.

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Media Error & Bias

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 18, 2009

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 29% of Americans believe that news organizations get their facts straight while 63% claim that news stories often are lacking in accuracy. This is a change from the results of a similar survey in 1985. In that survey, 55% regarded news stories as accurate while 34% took them to be inaccurate. The change from 1985 to 2009 has been a gradual one with people increasingly regarding the news media as lacking in accuracy.

Another interesting finding is that 26% claim that news organizations are careful to avoid politically biased reporting. 60% of those surveyed claimed that the news organizations are politically biased.

Obviously, the fact that people believe that the news organizations have problems with accuracy and bias does not prove that these problems exist. After all, what most people believe and what is actually true are two distinct things. However, it is interesting to consider why there is such distrust of the media.

One obvious possibility is that the media is prone to error and is also biased. Obviously, folks in the media make mistakes and there have been some rather famous (or infamous) cases of the media fouling up. Perhaps the best known example of this was the incident involving Dan Rather and the infamous memo.

Of course, whether or not the media has significant problems with accuracy is something that can be tested. The method is, in theory, quite simple: take the claims made by the news folks and test them objectively to see if they are accurate or not. Naturally, the implementation of this testing would require an objective testing agency.

In regards to media bias, the natural thing to do is to turn to the experts. Unfortunately, the experts disagree. For example, Eric Alterman argues that the liberal bias is a myth (What Liberal Bias?) while Bernard Goldberg contends that the bias is a fact (Bias). Fortunately, bias can also be investigated. One way to do this is to consider news reports and assess them in an objective manner for favorable and unfavorable slanting. What the news organizations report also can indicate possible bias. For example, if a new organization regularly covers misdeeds by Republicans in depth while providing little coverage of comparable misdeeds by Democrats, then there are grounds for suspecting bias.

It is, unfortunately, well established that the news media is influenced by the government and this results in biased reporting. During its first four years the Bush administration spent a quarter of a billion dollars on fake “news” about Medicare, Iraq, Social Security, and No Child Left Behind. It should be noted that the Clinton Administration was also active in manipulating the media.

In some cases biased reporting is purchased. For example,  between 2004 and 2005 three editorialists were exposed for taking money directly or indirectly from the Bush Administration to promote its policies and programs. Armstrong Williams received $200,000.

Another infamous example of government manipulating the news is how in 2007 FEMA held a “press conference” in which FEMA staff members asked the questions. The White House spokesperson replied by saying that the practice was not employed by the White House and was not something that was condoned. This reply was reported uncritically by the White House Reporters, despite the fact that the White House has done the same in the past. This might indicate incompetence on the part of reporters rather than bias, though.

Thus, the media does make errors and does suffer from bias. Of course, the question remains as to the amount of errors and the degree of bias that each specific news organization suffers from.

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