Bias is hard to measure because, like beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder. But the Pew Research Center tried to put numbers on it and they’ve codified what everyone already knows. Bias is an art, not a science, and their conclusions won’t settle many arguments.
The folks at Pew set out to determine the network with the most obvious bias, what Pew calls the most “opinionated.” The winner, and hence the loser in the race for the viewers the advertisers covet most, is MSNBC.
Pew finds that fully 85 percent of MSNBC “content” is commentary, not news. It’s fitting that the cable network with the longest name and the fewest viewers is the most opinionated.
The network of Chris Matthews, where the newsroom is overrun with creepy crawly things on the scout for legs to crawl up, spends less on newsgathering than CNN and Fox, and depends on rants and raves to attract an audience of rant-lovers and rave aficionados. CNN spends twice as much on actual newsgathering than MSNBC, and Fox, reviled on the left as merely a source of gasbaggery, spends about three times as much as MSNBC on reporting and editing actual news.
The Pew Center, which is hardly a coven of right-wing soreheads — and in fact leans somewhat to the left — hired a team of researchers with a weakness for masochism and a taste for truculence to listen to 700 hours of cable-news programming and read 15,000 columns, essays, op-eds and other printed rants over a five-year period, covering a presidential election (2008) and mid-term congressional elections (2010).
The survivors of this exercise discovered that over those five years, actual coverage of the news — sending reporters out to dig for facts and interview the makers of news, unhappy as they might be for editors and managers — declined sharply. Why spend money for reporters when you can find people willing to talk for free in return for getting their faces on the small screen?
The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, gentleman, scholar and Democratic senator from New York, said that every man is entitled to his own opinion but nobody is entitled to his own facts. The senator died just in time, on the eve of the dawn of modern media, where readers and viewers congregate, like a flash mob, only with those who share their facts and opinions.
Such readers and viewers don’t want to know what anyone else thinks and live in terror of running across an opinion they don’t share, or learning something they didn’t know.
Facts have given way to “factoids,” a word invented by Norman Mailer to describe something that sounds like a fact, smells somewhat like a fact, but actually isn’t a fact. Mailer called it a factoid. CNN sometimes labels small and insignificant facts as factoids in its graphics, perhaps ignorant of the meaning of Mailer’s word — television has always been suspicious of getting the story right lest it interfere with a story line or the available film — or perhaps, in a fit of repentance for its sins, it comes clean.
Perception is reality, as Washington is always reminding itself, and in the media no less than in politics. The organs of the mainstream media are still trying to peddle the threadbare argument that there’s no political bias in the stuff they sell, but everybody knows that’s bunk.
Fox is reviled on the left because it broke the network monopoly on the news. Now the big networks are in the swim with everyone else, and the Internet has given a “news” platform to everyone with a laptop and a chair at Starbucks.
One day soon a visionary entrepreneur will establish a network with a model to give the “news” not without fear or favor, but with lots of fearless favor. Viewers will subscribe by ticking a box saying whether they want a conservative or liberal version of the news, and the network will oblige through the magic of digital media. This could even be extended to sports coverage: Redskins fans could get a game story of a Redskins victory, Cowboys fans would get a story of the same game as a Cowboys victory. Everyone will be satisfied that he has the real story.
Facts are already irrelevant to some conversations. Mae West once showed a new piece of jewelry to a friend. “Goodness!” the friend exclaimed. Miss West replied: “Goodness had nothing to with it.” Just as facts have nothing to do with the rants and raves of Digitalia. No one needs a professor to tell him that.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.