Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Flat Earthers and Nobel Prize Winners

by Libby Sternberg

On MSNBC's Morning Joe program today, journalist/author John Heilemann, whose views I usually find thoughtful even when I disagree with him, made a remark about the "flat earthers" who voted against the debt ceiling deal in the House.

To call someone a "flat earther" means you think they're stupid and uninformed, even rigidly dogmatic. So I'm guessing he wasn't using the term as a compliment.

Joe Scarborough quickly responded by asking Heilemann if he thought the same of the liberal New York Times columnist (and Nobel Prize winner) Paul Krugman who, in his blog yesterday, wrote:

"I guess I have to be explicit at this point: yes, I would vote no (on the debt ceiling vote)."

Scarborough's point, I believe, was this: People who voted "no" might have done so because they were making thoughtful decisions on the future of this country, based on what they believe to be true. You can't say they're stupid for doing that without presenting evidence, especially when you're not willing to say the same about someone like Paul Krugman. In other words, you can say you think they -- the Tea Partiers and Paul Krugman -- are wrong, but you can't say they're stupid unless you're willing to call everyone with that point of view stupid, even those on your side of the ideological divide.

To me, Heilemann's comment was an example of media bias, attributing base motivations to people he disagrees with, but unwilling to attribute the same motivations to those he usually agrees with.

When I tell people the mainstream media is often biased against conservatives, it always feels like such a cliche that I'm almost embarrassed to say it. But it's true. And it's not a nefarious plot. It's just human nature. I've seen numerous polls/surveys over the years that demonstrate most journalists do not identify with conservative viewpoints. Here's some info from one such survey done in 2008 by the Pew Research Center in their annual "State of the Media" report. Take note of how the journalists' views compare with the percentages in the general public:

"As was the case in 2004, majorities of the national and local journalists surveyed describe themselves as political moderates; 53% of national journalists and 58% of local journalists say they are moderates. About a third of national journalists (32%), and 23% of local journalists, describe themselves as liberals. Relatively small minorities of national and local journalists call themselves conservatives (8% national, 14% local).

"Internet journalists as a group tend to be more liberal than either national or local journalists. Fewer than half (46%) call themselves moderates, while 39% are self-described liberals and just 9% are conservatives.

"Among the population as a whole, 36% call themselves conservatives – more than triple the percentage of national and internet journalists, and more than double the percentage of local journalists. About four-in-ten (39%) characterize their political views as moderate, while 19% are self-described liberals, based on surveys conducted in 2007 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press."

Now, I don't think you can extrapolate from that survey that journalists who hold "moderate" or "liberal" views deliberately try to skew stories against conservatives. But I do think it's only human nature to try to share information you think is vitally important. And if you're liberal or even moderate, those priorities might often be different from those of conservatives. I often think, in fact, that bias shows itself most acutely in story selection and headline writing.

I have great admiration for journalists who see their job as being a watchdog on the powerful, regardless of who holds that power and what their ideology is.

No comments:

Post a Comment