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Bias in the Eye 

Published May 22, 2008 at 5:09 p.m.

A piece by Conor Friedersdorf at Doublethink Online, which is affiliated with the conservative America's Future Foundation, argues that media bias is inherently liberal because liberalism makes for better storytelling:

Contra the least-thoughtful conservative critics, there isn’t any eliteliberal conspiracy at work. Bias creeps in largely because thenarrative conventions of journalism are poor at capturing basicconservative and libertarian truths. An instructive example is rentcontrol. A newspaper reporter assigned that topic can easily find asympathetic family no longer able to afford its longtime apartment in agentrifying neighborhood. Their plight is a moving brief for a rentceiling…

The right, in other words, has a problem with narrative. Thestubborn facts of this world contradict pieties left, right, andlibertarian, occasionally forcing each group to revise its thinking.But the core critiques of liberalism intrinsically resist the narrativeform. Who can foresee the unintended consequences of governmentintervention in advance?

The post drew a response from Kevin Drum at Political Animal, who says the "left and right tend to rely on different narratives.  Liberals traffic heavily in guilt and personal tragedy.  Conservatives specialize in fear and self-interest;" and Megan McArdle, at the, who calls Friedersdorf's argument "terrific" and laments the shortage of "dedicated conservative and libertarian journalists specializing in narration."

Not too long ago, a couple former colleagues at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, George Kennedy and Glen Cameron, offered a theory I found hard to argue with, namely that there is a "built-in bias" in journalism that doesn't have anything to do with political ideology.

Kennedy and Cameron pulled data from a 2002 study by Indiana University of 1,000 practicing reporters and editorsthat found that the typical American journalist is a white guy, 41years old, college educated and earning about $43,600; about a third define themselves as political independents. In other words, middle-class, middle-aged and, in many cases, middle-of-the-road.

Moreover, because even journalists who admit to being liberal don't go so far as to question the fundamentals of American politics — the two-party system and free-market capitalism — "the case for bias in the workplace is weak." Instead, they suggest, it's the nature of the work itself.

This built-in bias lies in the very job description of journalism to remain apart from the power structure, to question and when necessary challenge authority, to expose injustice and wrong-doing, to protect the powerless from the powerful . . . So the societal role of journalism is to be critic rather than cheerleader, questioner rather than accepter of authority, watchdog rather than lapdog. The paradox is that the products of that role, that job description, are at once what society requires and what it criticizes. Journalists welcome the role but resent the criticism.

Friedersdorf's solution for conservatism is for conservative journalists to put more traditional journalism into the craft as the movement does into  commentary and analysis. "[T]he right must conclude that we're better off joining the journalistic project than trying to discredit it," he writes. "Making this judgment means exhibiting confidence that we are correct more often than not. It means believing that our arguments are not meerely relevant, but true. It means trusting that, when examined, the facts and stories of the world will bear out our ideas."

I think Friedersdorf makes a good point — that conservatives have relied more on the cudgel than the marshalling of compelling facts in the mass media in an effort to sway the citizenry. I'm not, however,  sure better conservative journalism will translate into either better conservatism or more of it.

I'll leave it to George Packer to explain why. Oh, and David Sirota.

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Brian Wallstin


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