The fallacy of “media bias” is playing a large role in the current national crisis.
Newspapers like to claim objectivity (fairness, balance). It serves their interests to be seen as above the fray, the “paper of record.” But clearly, given the wide range of political flavors newspapers and other news sources come in, there are no neutral, objective ones. This paper, for instance, although it makes an effort to balance columns from right and left and run letters from both sides, as received, is clearly (or so it seems to this reader) in favor of rescuing stranded dolphins and of the Cape Cod National Seashore. It’s against the opioid epidemic, but in favor of the arts and of shutting down Pilgrim nuclear power plant.
It seems fair to say that this paper has been more like CNN than Fox on the subject of Donald Trump.
But “bias” is the wrong word for our preferences, implying as it does that there exist somewhere objective, neutral, disinterested stories about those subjects that we could and should be printing. Among the various things this paper favors is gathering and printing facts. But the facts don’t speak for themselves. Facts never do. They must be put together in a story. The story, in the opinion of editors, most worthy of space.
Take the Cape Cod Times’s relationship to the Pilgrim story. The paper ran an editorial in favor of closing the plant. But even in the many front page and Section A news stories it is possible to see evidence of the paper’s perspective on Pilgrim. There is editorial judgment in the choice to run lots of stories on the plant’s problems and to run them prominently, as well in the facts emphasized : that Pilgrim is listed by the NRC as one of the three worst in the nation. That there have been frequent shutdowns. That (in a story on a leaked email) the NRC’s own investigators were quite worried about the plant’s competence. That all Cape and Islands towns and all our elected representatives have asked for the the closure of the plant. And so on.
There is another story. The paper could run more headlines along the lines of “45 years without a meltdown.” Or “Pilgrim employees unconcerned about plant dangers;” “Entergy claims plant completely safe.” All such stories would be fact-based and those who write the occasional pro-Pilgrim letter to the editor might feel that the “what, me worry?” story is the objective, unbiassed one. But they would be wrong in thinking that. Being worried about Pilgrim and not being worried about are both positions, both a part of the struggle over whether the plant will stay open.
The paper’s coverage of Pilgrim is not neutral but neither is it biassed or “fake news.”
This column itself is not biassed. (I can hear the howls of certain readers). Yes, running on the o p-ed page it’s an opinion piece, but that designation is itself a bit misleading, implying “just” an opinion (and that the reader’s time might be better spent reading another essay which is the objective truth). A columnist doesn’t set out to write “just an opinion,” scrupulously avoiding the objective truth, as if it were available. I’m not lying here (honest injun).
Just as a reporter of a news story aims to get it right about a car accident, snowstorm, or the facts about Pilgrim’s latest problem, I’m trying my best to get at the truth of this complicated issue of media bias. (As far as I’m concerned, that’s the whole reason for writing.)
So if there’s no place, no neutral source simply providing the truth, about whether, say, Trump is a danger to the country, what’s a reader to do? What readers have always done: seek the periodical, the writing that feels most trustworthy and most likely to enhance your grasp of reality.