Saturday, December 10, 2016

Can We Trust the Media?

“I have about as much faith in our media as I do in the fairy godmother!”
It was with some consternation that I read those words in an email message from a boyhood friend and a devout conservative Christian with whom I have often exchanged emails in recent years.
What about the media, though? Can we trust it?
The media under attack
It is quite evident that here in the U.S the media has been under attack in recent years. The President-elect was, and continues to be, quite critical of the media—but then he won the election perhaps partly because of all the free publicity he got from the media.
Talk radio and other right-wing commentators regularly criticize the mainstream (or “lamestream”) media, claiming that there is a definite, and despicable, left-wing bias. Conversely, from the left there is frequent denigration of Fox News.
In addition there is the perplexing problem of the proliferation of media sources that promotes the polarization of the public. Consider, for example, “Modern Media Has Turned the USA Into the Divided States of America,” which was posted (here) this year on July 4. 

The media under control
Last month June and I attended (for the third or fourth time) the Bennett Forum on the Presidency, sponsored annually by the Truman Library Institute. This year’s panel featured Douglas Brinkley, Jane Mayer, and David von Drehle.
Mayer pointed out that “media” is closely related to the word/concept “mediate,” and one problem in the current political climate is that the President-elect doesn’t want there to be intermediates. Thus, he often communicates directly to the public, bypassing the media, by means of Twitter.
On Dec. 5 the President-elect tweeted, “If the press would cover me accurately & honorably, I would have far less reason to ‘tweet.’ Sadly, I don't know if that will ever happen!”
Then on Dec. 7 Trump said tweeting was better “than dealing with dishonest reporters.”
Back in November Robert Reich posted “Trump’s Seven Techniques to Control the Media” (here). He begins, “Democracy depends on a free and independent press, which is why all tyrants try to squelch it. They use seven techniques that, worryingly, President-elect Donald Trump already employs.
The first and last of Reich’s seven techniques are “Berate the media” and “Bypass the media and communicate with the public directly.
The media bias check
Just last week I discovered a website called Media Bias/Fact Check (find it here). It claims to be “the most comprehensive media bias resource on the internet”—and as far as I know, it is.
MBFC themselves, designates the media/new sources by one of five categories: left, left-center, least biased, right-center, and right.
As one who has argued that the major newspapers and TV networks are basically trustworthy, I was a bit nonplussed to see MBFC list almost all of them as having “a slight to moderate liberal bias.” This how ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC are all rated—as well as NPR.
The only major newspaper that was in the “least biased” listing was USA Today—although Associated Press, Reuters, and United Press International were also in that category. And I was happy to see that Snopes and Wikipedia were also similarly listed.
The New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times—as well as the local (for me) Kansas City Star—are all listed as “left-center.” The only major national newspaper that was “right-center” is, according to MBFC is the Wall Street Journal

MBFC does say however, that the left-center media “are generally trustworthy for information.” That’s surely more than can be said about the fairy godmother.


  1. It appears to me that all the sweeping generalizations about the media being biased are . . . well . . . biased.

  2. The real problem with Americans and the media is that many Americans simply don't think deeply enough or study the media they use close enough to know what the bias is, to understand it, or even to get informed, which they could, had they done some really serious reading/listening/comparing. So they end up simply accepting and echoing what their favorite politicians/talking heads say about the media.

    Another problem is that the right views any medium as liberally biased if it doesn't censor out all liberal viewpoints.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Anton. The problems you mention are troublesome.

      Thomas Jefferson wrote that a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy--although those are not, it seems, his exact words.

      I am concerned about the democratic future of our country, for it certainly seems as if we do not have a well informed electorate now.

  3. I like the media that supports my preconceived ideas. I think that's a common human characteristic.

    1. I do like Clif's insight. Drew Curtis has a book which captures the concept aptly, "It's All FARK!". I am glad to see that you include a range in you media trademarks which include BBC and NPR. I try to spread my input out to include more international sources, as well as listening to my left-wing and right-wing friends on FB.

      Growing up, there were two papers which most ex-pats read for national news, one left and one right. We also tried to listen in to shortwave to Voice of America (VOA), British Broadcasting (BBC), Armed Forces Radio Television Service (AFRTS), Voice of Kenya (VOK), Radio South Africa (RSA), and Sauti Ya Tanzania (SYT). That was a wide spectrum of points of view. The most trusted were VOA and BBC, but all needed to be heard.

      In the end, it helps to remember that it is all Fark. But given that, how does the average citizen get their news? Probably by listening to a favorite personality on one of the TV networks. Mine is Gary Lezak.

    2. I think you are right, Clif--and that is the reason we need to read/listen from time to time to media we don't particularly like.

    3. I was not familar with Drew Curtis and his book "It's Not News, It's Fark: How Mass Media Tries to Pass Off Crap As News" (2007).

      I'm afraid that is too cynical for me. It sounds too much like my friend's comment about the fairy godmother.

      I checked about VOA and was happy to see that is listed as "least biased."

      BBC, though, like most U.S. mainstream media was listed "Left-Center." But they also said, "The BBC is an outstanding journalistic source. They have just a slight left of center political bias."

    4. I forgot to mention that Gary Lezak, whom I had to look up, is the "chief meteorologist at NBC Action News, home of KCs most accurate forecast."

  4. Local Thinking Friend David Fulk had trouble getting his comments posted here this morning, so he sent the following comments by email and asked me to post them here, which I am happy to do.

    "Clif is right. People like media that support their views. It is common when hearing something you don't like or agree with, to simply label it as liberal.

    "Fake news is now a reality. When a fake news report one likes is disputed/debunked by a fact-finding organization, then s/he discounts that organization...and likely calls it liberal.

    "When PEOTUS Trump discounts the truth so it serves his agenda, then his actions as a role model empower others to also not worry about truth. How will we truly be able to discern what is truth and what are the facts?

    "It is a dangerous new day."

    1. Thanks for your comments, David.

      That is one of my main concerns now: we now live in what is being called a post-factual or a post-truth society.

      That, indeed, makes this a "dangerous new day."

  5. Leroy, I should be grading instead of thinking about your blog. But it's so important. Thanks for the link to MBFC. I will use it. I have read quickly through it and find its methodology thoughtful and intuitive. I think Anton's observations are not unwarranted. I think that, again based on a single reading, it could do a better job of defining these various ideologies it seems to recognize so easily. I do not easily recognize them, except where they disagree with me (see Clif's comment, which I agree with). On that point is there value to looking at written documents like the RNC and DNC platforms (it's an engaging exercise, at least for students who've never heard of such things). Ever devoted a blog to such an exercise?

    I have been talking about critical thinking and its contributions to individuals' pursuit of a meaningful life for 31 years at Jewell (I learned this from colleagues like Dean Dunham, Ann Marie Shannon, Jim Tanner, and Ken Chatlos, to name a few). I think--and this again echoes my agreement with Anton's statements--that such levels of analysis, reflection, and activation of one's convictions stand at the heart of ethical (e.g., political, economic) decision-making.

    But I am also aware of what a small and apparently shrinking social demographic it is in America that care about and actually try to do such things, and that includes especially Christian folk. I fear that such admonitions to the masses to be thoughtful, reflective, critical, etc. fall on the ears of people who are just trying to get through the day, pay for medical bills, retain a job, and get their kids athletic scholarships so they can afford college. And whatever comes along that promises such things is the first (and uncritical) choice. No amount of fact-checking is going to change that fact. It's what got our PEOTUS elected.

    1. Thanks so much, Milton, for taking the time to write such meaningful comments--and that was more fun than grading papers, wasn't it! (Grading is the only part about no longer teaching that I don't miss.)

      I looked at the platforms of the two Parties late this summer, and may have made a brief reference to the platforms in a blog article. But I have not written a whole blog article about platforms--and perhaps will not consider doing that until 2020 (if I am still writing blog articles then).

      We do see the distinct difference between the way college graduates vote and the way people who haven't gone to college vote. So people like you and your colleagues, whom I have also known and admired, have done a good job in helping to nourish people who can engage in critical thinking.

      But, alas, the numbers are too few. And, as you say, so many people are so stressed out by their work and daily responsibilities that, unfortunately, they don't have time to think broadly or critically.

  6. Thinking Friend Eric Dollard makes good comments on almost all of my blog articles, and today is no exception. Here is what he shares now:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for bringing up this important topic.

    "Someone once said that the reason the media is somewhat liberal, or left of center, is because facts tend to liberal or left of center. Perhaps, but it is interesting that the best informed and educated citizens tend to be liberal or left of center (e.g., newspaper reporters and college professors).

    "I rely on the long-established media sources as I think they try to maintain high journalistic standards. This includes The New York Times, the Washington Post, the two Chicago newspapers--one more liberal (Sun-Times) and the other more conservative (Chicago Tribune), and the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). (I would also include The Kansas City Star.) The WSJ does a very good job with investigative reporting, although I often disagree with what I read on its op-ed pages.

    "I do believe that the 'mainstream' media is too timid and too easily intimidated. And this timidity is just what Mr. Trump wants."

    1. I agree with you, Eric, that "the best informed and educated citizens tend to be liberal or left of center."

      But when I listen to talk radio, I often hear colleges being strongly criticized because of the prevalence of leftist professors.

    2. Here are further pertinent comments by Eric:

      "'Leftist' professors often have inconvenient facts and figures; they are the ones, along with journalists, who do most of the research.

      "I am amused by right-wingers who label the mainstream media in the U S as 'liberal or left-wing.' It is actually centrist. The true left-wing media in America is very small (e.g., The Progressive has only 15,000 subscribers), although the 'iberal' media is larger (e.g, The Nation, Harper's, or Mother Jones).

      "I use these political labels with some hesitation since labels are so widely abused. Nonetheless, I would label Trump and his supporters as 'right-wing'; the Cato Institute, the Koch brothers, Rand Paul, etc. as 'ibertarian'; and David Brooks, Peggy Noonan, the Chicago Tribune, etc. as 'conservative.' For the most part, the Republican party is composed of right-wingers and libertarians; unfortunately, there are relatively few true conservatives."

  7. I agree with Sarah Palin that "lamestream" is a good name for the media. And I agree with Hillary Clinton's old gaffe about "a vast rightwing conspiracy." The press did an abominable job in this last election, and has tended that way for some time. It's just not for the reason Palin gives. Our media is owned by giant rightwing corporations, and news, especially during elections, has been heavily censored. A simple case in point, global warming. Trump considers global warming a Chinese hoax. Democrats ran on a platform that prioritized a massive effort to fight global warming. Guess how many questions those top reporters at the four debates asked the candidates about global warming? Not a single one. Serious coverage of related scientific issues seemed largely absent during the election on regular news. I was very frustrated when right after the election CNN ran a story about how bad things are with the environment. Where were these supposed truth-tellers during the election?

    Which brings me to Media Bias/Fact Check. This is a nice try. They seem to have a fairly good distribution of understanding on who is liberal (MSNBC) and who is conservative (Breitbart). However, to casually label everyone on either extreme as biased is a profound case of false equivalency. They gave a nod to the problem by having a separate set of lists for scientific journals versus fake news sites, but that just glosses over a problem with mainstream sites. Their methodology section spells out how they combine scores for left/right views with scores for technical bias, and then lets viewers vote on sites on top of that. Have they never heard of internet trolls? Not to mention low information readers? A much more useful metric would be an internal ranking in each of the five left-to-right groups from least to most biased. The sources in the middle are not superior to those on either side, they are just in the middle on viewpoint. Give me two or three top ranked liberal and top ranked conservative sites so I can compare them to what I have been reading to see how they compare. We need to know what the best minds on all sides are thinking. What the parent companies of most media outlets care about is profits, not prophets. Even PBS frequently ducks big questions for horse race analysis. How else do you get Warren Buffett and David Koch to pony up generous contributions?

    The Washington Post just ran an article labeling Donald Trump as a fascist. Does that mean the Post is biased? Or does it mean that Donald Trump belongs in an amazing category for a prominent American politician? To think about it for yourself, here is the link:

    1. Let me extend my comments with a link concerning global warming I just read. It is on Daily Kos, one of those biased liberal sites, but it in turn links to one of those science sites, Nature, where a summary of the source article can be read for free (or in total if you have access to Nature). The article concerns an apparent feedback loop recently discovered where warming permafrost will release increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the air, which, or course, will increase global warming. Here is the link:

    2. Thanks for checking out and responding to what I wrote about the Media Bias/Fact Check website.

      It is true that they allow readers to indicate how they rate the various news sites -- but MBFC does not base their ratings on those votes. They may use votes to re-examine their ratings.

      I was disturbed at how MBFC rated Baptist News Global, which I look at daily, as Right. I thought that was not a correct rating, and I wrote them to tell them why I thought it was wrong. They reviewed the site and changed it, correctly I think, to Left-Center.

      So the rating are not set in concrete, but it seems to me as if MBFC is fair and basically trustworthy. They are expecially helpful in getting information about news sources that one knows little about--although, like everyone else, they are not infallible.

  8. A Thinking Friend who is a regular reader of The Economist wrote,

    "MBFC rated The Economist as “Least Biased,” which didn’t change my view of The Economist, but made me think more highly of MBFC!"

  9. The problem with the media, especially radio and TV is that they sensationalize the trivial and trivialize the sensational. Keep that in mind as you watch and you'll be amazed how aptly that describes what comes over the airwaves. Applies to the weather reports also.

  10. I think one's attitude is vitally important here. If we get all riled up just because we see/hear something (In many cases designed to rile people up.) and proceed to rant/rave without waiting and seeing how that "news" plays out - we fall, without firing a shot, to the propagandists' aims. Joseph Goebbels was absolutely correct in his understanding of that!

    I think, given time to react/counter-react, "the media" can be - provisionally - trusted. Sometimes the most important/damning stuff takes years for historians - also not immune to bias - to sort that "stuff" out.

    The scientific method was invented just so as to cleanse human inquiry of all sorts of blunders, and ego-driven/$$$-driven lies, but it sometimes takes time to double check/sort things out.

    Another complicating factor is the current - seeming - rise to electoral power of "the conspiratorial mindset." Serious studies have found that this mindset is powered by the idea that if it can't be disproven - it MUST be true; since "all mainstream sources" are corrupted.

    That latter is common when enough people get upset with how things are and desire to "know" whom to blame and what's better/ideal.

    Another aspect of this mindset is to respond to debunking of the last pop "theory" with passionate embracing of an even more outlandish/obscure "revelation."

    In my experience, this sort of attitude is that the complete absence of evidence to support a "theory" (belief) is popular - simply because it is so difficult to offer evidence to counter it. Not to mention that it could, conceivably, be true.

    This brings to mind Jesus' remark that every off-hand comment will be held to our account; not just legalistically important statements and to which part of the altar they are sworn on!

    Hope that helps!