America has a long, rich history of biased journalism and Fake News.
Oh, you thought today’s war of opinion journalism between Fox, CNN, and MSNBC was a new phenomenon? Not even close. In our earliest days, the media was used as a cudgel to batter political opponents and sway opinion. Alexander Hamilton started an entire paper just to espouse federalism and to attack Jefferson. Jefferson paid journalists to attack his political opponents. Then you have the man who I consider to be the all-time king of Fake News: Benjamin Franklin. From his early days as a printer to his later years as a diplomat, Franklin outright fabricated stories to move things in the direction in which he needed them to go. He once falsified an entire issue of a newspaper, complete with fake advertisements to push the British to the negotiating position he wanted. In other words, Franklin altered the course of history on more than one occasion by weaponizing the media. Just so everyone understands: there is not a single source of “unbiased” news in this country, and there likely never has been. There are only degrees of bias; it is more a question of how biased it is in a particular direction, rather than if it is biased at all.
We are beset on all sides by agenda driven, opinion journalism fed to us by the 24/7 news cycle and networks. Before I get started, let me preface this by placing into context something that never gets talked about: the Age Gap. Take a look at any media poll in the country, and you will notice a few things. First, Republicans are overwhelmingly more distrusting of the media. Secondly, once you look at the age difference between the parties, you see that once you hit 40+, the percentage of Republicans skyrockets. Thus, if you are over 40, you are far more likely to be a Republican who is distrustful of the media.
I realized something the other day; I am 41 years old, and in my lifetime I believe I have seen the closest this country ever got to “real news.” The definition I use when I say “real news” is an objective reporting of the facts, without any lens of interpretation or opinion. Remember that before 1980, you only saw the news in 30 minute to one-hour blocks, once a day. This meant that there was virtually no time to cover all the news of the day, so the anchors and networks were generally devoid of editorializing. CNN came about in 1980 but did not become widespread until 1991, during the Gulf War. So, if you are over 40 years old, you grew up before 24/7 opinion journalism, and likely consumed news in 30-minute blocks once a day, or by skimming a local newspaper. Remember that although 24-hour news started in 1980, hardly anyone had cable until the mid 90’s. Now, a 40+ year old turns on the television, and they realize they are being told what to think to a degree that is far different than they grew up with, and moreover, they know this because they existed in a time when that didn’t happen, at least not to the extent it does now, which accounts for the disparity in media trust.
The other element that differs between the old days and now is the degree of comfort we possess as a society that has influenced how much we care about the news. In the early days of the country, life was much more of a fight for survival, and lifespans were far shorter. The average citizen just didn’t have the time between farming, hunting, raising numerous children, or starting a business to worry about how biased their media outlets were. Now, we can just plop down in our nice recliner and turn on the news as background noise while we sit in a lovely air-conditioned house. We can issue a contented sigh as we have our own opinions fed back to us by any one of the outlets that conforms to our existing viewpoint.
The uncomfortable reality is that there is no profit in being “unbiased.” Now, we have such an extreme degree of choice in our media, that we want our own opinion fed back to us as forcefully as possible, and articulated in a superior fashion. We want to hear back to us what we already believe, in a more eloquent manner than we can produce, to validate our beliefs. When someone credible or famous appears on a network espousing the same view that Joe Blow has, Joe feels great about himself, thus wanting to watch more, creating a dopamine feedback loop that dispassionate truth can’t match. The sad actuality of the matter is that if there were a truly down-the-middle network, no one would watch. We want to see punditry locked in mortal combat, as a spectator sport, rooting for our pundit of choice to “own” the other side. We all act as if we want principled, reasoned debate, and objective reporting of the facts, but we are all liars. There is a reason shows like that don’t exist, and it’s because we as a people repudiated them in the ratings. If the market existed for such a show, you better believe the networks would happily provide it for us.
Who then is the least biased?
It depends on your version of reality, and the lenses through which you see the world. We all have existing beliefs and a worldview that colors everything we see, thus shaping what we consider to be the ultimate truth. What is concrete truth for me is likely not so for my next door neighbor. I’ve not seen one news show, on any channel, that presents objective fact without any lens of bias. The hard truth is that we don’t WANT unbiased news, that is just what we tell ourselves.
“There are various eyes. Even the Sphinx has eyes: and as a result, there are various truths, and as a result, there is no truth.” - Nietzsche
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