About 20 years or more ago I heard a CNN executive from Atlanta address a (non-media) professional meeting. Among other things he talked about the “in-breeding” of the Washington D. C. news corp. His observation was that they all – regardless of their organization – tended to think alike. He said that was not a good state of affairs, but it wasn’t particularly surprising. Nor, he said, was it pre-meditated. They may not have all started out thinking alike. The problem, he said, is that they all go to the same news conferences, hear the same things, and all hang out together. They go to lunch and diner at the same restaurants, frequent the same bars after work and generally talk mostly to each other. So after a while they tend to think alike and believe that everyone in the country thinks the same way they do. They don’t realize they are biased.
At the time this made a lot of sense to me. I wasn’t familiar with the washington press corp, but I had seen the same type of thing happen in other industry and professional groups. For example, in the 70s oil industry employees recognized the problems in an industry trying to respond to an energy crisis which started with the Arab embargo and was exacerbated by the discovery that the U. S. was no longer energy independent. The industry people talked mostly to each other, and failed, I thought, to recognize that other parts of the country had different legitimate interests and points of view. Hence the bumper stickers that we saw in Houston that said “Let the Bastards Freeze in the Dark”. I could cite other examples. Many, if not most, professional groups talk to other like-minded professionals. When I was in graduate school, I was doing research on a particular topic for one of my professors. I discovered a series of articles on the subject in engineering journals, and also a series in finance and accounting journals. Both were discussing the same issues. What became obvious from the commentary and the bibliographies in each article is that the finance people did not read the engineers opinions and vice versa. I ended up reading both, which I decided, gave me a much better understanding of the issues involved than either had independently. None of us are immune from the inclination to talk only to the people who have common backgrounds with ourselves. While it’s understandable, it’s not good and especially when it’s our news media organizations that have a significant role in providing fair and balanced information to voters in a democracy.
What has happened since I heard the CNN executive speak is that there has been a growth of “conservative” news people and organizations. They are – most believe with some justification – intentionally biased. Their existence is obviously a response to the perceived lack of balance in the major “mainstream” media. This attempt to provide “balance” to the “mainstream” media is understandable but it has a tendency to polarize the population. People listen to one or the other, but not both, so they hear only one side. The effect is to polarize, probably unnecessarily, the general population. The mainstream media criticizes these sources as being “biased” – which they are – but fails to recognize their own bias which has led to their existence.
So what is the solution to this problem? First of all, let me say I don’t believe its more government regulation. It’s the mainstream media that created this problem and they are the ones in the best position to solve it. I think there are basically three problem areas that need to be addressed:
- Lack of knowledge
- Balance of political views
- A tendency to want to sensationalize rather than inform
Lack of knowledge:
This should be the easiest problem to address except for the professional intellectual pride factor. Most of our important issues of the day are scientific or economic. They are complex, and require some knowledge to effectively report on them. I believe today’s press corp receives does not receive much, if any, training in the sciences or in economics. What is evident from some stories that I have read in the last few years is that often the journalist has little or no understanding of the subject. We are teaching people how to write effectively, but are giving them very little education on what they are writing about. One might hope that might start in college with the courses that are required, but that’s not the only way to get the knowledge. Short continuing education courses such as “Finance for Non-financial People” could help fill the gap. Some of the people I listen to on the national news are obviously very intelligent, but intelligence is not the same as knowledge. The required knowledge is more than “common sense” and cannot be acquired by osmosis. TV stations tend to hire weather reporters with meteorological training, why should they not d o the same for other areas.
Balance of political views:
Several surveys over the last few years indicate that the majority of the media – maybe 80% or 90% are Democrats. We tend to hire people who think like us, so this is not a particular surprise either. But it exacerbates and perpetuates the problem. Maybe the media companies need their own version of an affirmative action program designed to hire proportionally equal number of people of the two major parties. If the population is approximately evenly divided, why shouldn’t the news media.
This is probably the toughest one to address, but maybe the most important. The media seem to have a bias against civil meaningful discussion of issues. The idea is, I think, that civil discourse doesn’t sell as well as hot-tempered argument with personal insults. The need to draw more viewers or sell more papers is critical to survival in the competitive environment that has developed with the expansion of available alternatives most of us have today. Most media believe – with some justification – that sensational reporting and shouting matches will draw better than civil in-depth discussion of issues. People like to read stories about public figures caught in compromising positions and the sensational “real life” television shows seem to draw a lot of viewers. So while it may be good for their profits to promote sensationalism, the voters need to have more meaningful and thoughtful information on the pros and cons of important public issues. The media often touts their importance in providing the public with useful information, but that may be at odds with their need to be profitable. I don’t have an easy solution to this one, except to encourage the media to exercise responsible citizenship and live up to their moral high claims for access to information for the “public good” which one hears with some frequency.
There is one more thing that I believe influences the medias bias for government action. It makes their life easier. There is some evidence that the less the US Government does, the better off the economy and the citizenry is. But inaction makes the reporter’s job more difficult. Much of the national news is based on what the government did or didn’t do today. If nothing happened in government circles, it’s a slow news day and/or the reporters have to work harder to find something to report. A strong active central government involved in all aspects of the citizens lives may not be good for the citizens, but it good for the news people. I don’t have an easy answer for this either.
I think it’s important that responsible news organizations survive. Technological changes will no doubt change the way news organizations operate, but I think they are essential to do the survival of our way of life. They need to be technology innovative, but it is also critical that operate in a responsible balanced manner.