I watched Rock Center the other night and Ted Koppel presented a story on the media. Koppel presented Fox News as hard right and MSNBC as hard left. This left the impression that he and network news anchors like Brian Williams were centrist pure journalist. I am fond of Ted Koppel, when I briefly worked at ABC News in DC Koppel was gracious and even sat down for an interview with me. Koppel’s argument however is specious and colored by his own bias as a elite network journalist.
The kind of bias that is perhaps most dangerous is the biases that are hidden. Journalism used to be the domain of a small number of elites. Three network news anchors from NYC would present the news each night. This news was the filtered news from mostly liberal elites in New York and Washington DC. This small group socialized together, read the New York times as gospel, and generally thought alike. When I worked at ABC as an intern and editorial producer in the late 1990’s I knew of only one Republican and he was generally derided and had no power or influence. John Stossel, a converted libertarian, also at ABC News said that Peter Jennings used to avoid him in the halls and openly shunned him. One of the editors openly cursed Republican lawmakers with impunity for all to hear at the television assignment desk. There was and is a group think among the network news media elite. This bias and group think produces an arrogance of certainty. Ronald Reagan once said: “Well, the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they’re ignorant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.”
Roughly half of Americans identify as conservative in political thinking, so the stage was set for a rise of conservative press. With the rise of technology the dissemination of news and thought has been democratized. Bloggers like Matt Drudge began to emerge and through the power of the internet gained influence. Entrepreneurs Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes saw an opportunity to capitalize on demand for more conservative oriented programming and launched Fox News. Fox News has been incredibly successful and crushes the competition in almost every time slot. Fox News is not all conservative opinion shows either. Shawn Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and John Stossel give commentary but Shepard Smith, Chris Wallace and Meghan Kelly present the news in an unbiased fashion. I don’t know the politics of Chris Wallace or Shepard Smith and overall I think they are very fair in presenting the news and moderating commentary. Even on the opinion side Fox makes an effort to bring in multiple views with many liberals given time. Clearly conservatives have more prominence on Fox News but even among them I would only call Shawn Hannity a mainstream Republican conservative. Stossel is libertarian and liberal on many issues and O’Reilly is more of a populist independent that can go either way on issues. Conservative media personalities such and Sean Hannity and Stossel aren’t pretending to be unbiased journalists, they present themselves as commentators with a clear philosophy about the world. The viewer or listener can decide if they accept that philosophy and that decision will influence how they perceive the content being presented. I won’t comment much on MSNBC because I don’t watch it very much but they generally have liberal commentators. Again I have no problem with commentators as long as they present themselves that way. Viewers must decide what they accept and don’t accept.
Ted Koppel lamented the turn in media and presented opinion news as shrill and preaching to the choir. This is paternalistic thinking and assumes that the rest of us are incapable of filtering the news ourselves and listening to arguments objectively. We all have biases- let’s celebrate that we have more access to information and thought than ever before.