The Media is Definitely Biased... and It's Still Worth Protecting
After years of government service in the law enforcement sector, I’m well aware of the dangers of “conflict of interest”. I couldn’t begin to count the times that I’ve been shocked at the accusations that I or the agency I work for were somehow twisting facts to make them go toward an interest that we might have in seeing an investigation turn out a certain way. For someone who has always prided themselves on trying to do what’s right, this is a frustrating accusation. But it’s easy to see why these accusations are so quick to fly. We all want to know that we’re going to get a fair shake, that any decision made for or against us will be made based on facts and not on who knows who. At the end of the day, that’s what being an American is all about: the idea of a fair shake.
When your agency is involved in an investigation, the “conflict of interest” allegation is often thrown around before any decisions are ever made, before you’ve even had the chance to allow a connection to unduly influence an investigation. But these allegations are most frustrating when they come from the media. How often has a media outlet preemptively pointed out that an investigatory agency, politician, or any other decision maker has some conflict of interest (no matter how remote that conflict might be)? The irony of conflict accusations from the media is that they, more than anyone, have a built-in conflict of interest. This is true of whatever the subject of their story may be.
The Press, after all, is not funded by taxes. They are a for-profit industry. Like any other profit driven organization, they have to make money. They do that by selling newspapers or gathering enough viewers to sell advertisements on their newscasts. If a story is sensational, the media makes more money. They have a vested interest in stories being sensational, whether or not the actual facts justify the story being heavily publicized. This is a dangerous thing. The public often looks to the Press to help them understand whether an issue is serious enough to merit their concern. When this trust is abused, much harm can be wrought. When a story is sensationalized beyond what the facts merit, the consequences can be grave. In the worst cases, riots and unrest may result.
This built in conflict of interest is not the only dangerous bias associated with the media. In many cases, the people reporting the news simply want to see the facts reported in a manner favorable to their own point of view. One need not look far to evidence of this bias. This too does a great disservice to the public. The incredible power wielded by the members of the media carries with it a great deal of responsibility to be fair and unbiased. An individual reporter’s political views should not influence the way they report a story, in the same way that a police officer’s political views should not play a role in who they decide to arrest.
That the Media is biased nowadays is a given. One need only look at two different news outlets covering the same story to see that one (or both) of them is catering their presentation to a specific side of the political spectrum. It’s easy to be frustrated with the media right now. While there are many honest, ethical reporters, there are also many who daily damage the credibility of the profession. This danger is even more prevalent thanks to the rise of the “citizen reporter”. A generation ago, anyone who wanted their news stories to be heard needed an outlet. They needed a newspaper or a newscast to print or air their story. Despite the very real issues of media bias, the news industry is still, at the end of the day, a profession. A newspaper or station is supposed to hold their reporters to a certain standard. If that standard isn’t met, a subject that is treated unfairly can theoretically appeal to the news organization to hold their reporter accountable. But the advent of social media and the advancement of the proliferation of the internet has changed all that. Now, anyone with a blog or a Facebook page can “report” on issues. The line between professional reporter and amateur blogger is a blurry one, and one cannot always assume that a “reporter” is held to any kind of standard whatsoever. There are many reasons to be concerned about the presence of bias in the media profession these days. The public is right to be skeptical, even angry at the profession.
But I would argue that no matter how justified this suspicion may be, the fourth estate is worth protecting now more than ever. As a government official, I’ve often been frustrated by the conduct of an active and robust media. But there have also been times that I’ve been equally frustrated by the lack of a robust media.
My first job in government administration was as a police chief in a small Kansas town. Isolated and on the Colorado border, the town had no television media to speak of. The only real local news outlet was a small paper that was published a few times a week. I very quickly noticed that they weren’t known for digging deep or hitting hard. Like many aspects of small town life, the fact that we all had to live together and see each other at the grocery store influenced the way the paper reported. As a new, young police chief, this was alright with me. I didn’t have to worry about anyone playing “gotcha” in the same way that many of my big-city counterparts did. But, I eventually came to see that while their lack of tenacity may have been comfortable for me, it wasn’t good for my community. At one point, an investigator from the local prosecutor’s office made unauthorized use of the county’s law enforcement record system to get information he wanted. Although there was a fuss about it in the local government, there was no real mention of it in the paper. There was certainly no aggressive digging or follow up to determine whether he was guilty of the accusations or whether he was ever held accountable. The vast majority of citizens in our little town counted on the paper to keep them informed. With no information forthcoming from the press, the offender won an election and became the sheriff of the whole county. Sometime later, I learned that the sheriff’s office had served a search warrant at the home of one of our city commissioners. They’d found drugs there, but no one was ever charged. Having worked with that agency on drug cases before, it was clear to me that someone would have gone to jail if the owner of the home wasn’t a city commissioner. This wasn’t technically illegal, but it was obviously highly unethical. Once again, the response of the local paper was silence. The citizens didn’t know, so they couldn’t do anything about it.
Our governmental system has various tools of accountability built into it. If what the sheriff had done was illegal, either I or some other government official could have done something about it. But rules are never a good substitute for common sense. It’s easy to skirt the edge of written laws and get away with things. The beauty of democracy is that we don’t just subject our leaders to rules, we subject them to common sense as well. In our system of government, we don’t have to wait till our leaders technically break a rule to hold them accountable. If something they do doesn’t pass the smell test, we can vote them out of office.
But we can only do that if we know that they’ve done something wrong. Democracy only works if a populace is informed. A free and robust press is essential to democracy. You can’t have one without the other. There are many reasons to be frustrated with the media today, but their role in our democracy is more important than ever. If democracy is to work, a free and robust press must be part of the equation. Of course, there are issues with the press today, just as there are issues with all the various parts of our democracy. But it continues to be a vital part of our democracy that absolutely must be protected.