The New York Times In America

November 9, 2003

It's Not Just the Media. These Days, Everybody's Biased.

President Bush asserts that a media "filter" is keeping out the good news from Iraq; conservatives denounce the liberal bias of the CBS mini-series on Ronald Reagan; a Columbus, Ohio, sportswriter blames "East Coast media bias" for an Associated Press college football poll that ranked the Hokies of Virginia Tech over the Ohio State Buckeyes. Today people pronounce "media bias" as if it were a single word.

In the press, mentions of media bias have quadrupled since Mr. Bush's father was president, with more than 95 percent of them claiming a liberal or leftist tilt.

True, controversies about media bias seem to erupt every quarter century or so. But the current debates are different from earlier ones, and not just because they talk about "the media" rather than "the press." "Bias," too, has changed its meaning over the past 50 years.

Until the 1950's, bias was more or less a synonym for partiality or partisanship, which was generally opposed to accuracy and objectivity. It usually implied a deliberate effort to distort events.

That was what Harold L. Ickes, Franklin Roosevelt's interior secretary, had in mind in 1939 when he attacked the press for being biased against New Deal programs, blaming the venality of publishers in thrall to advertisers for their alleged partiality. And isolationist senators were using bias in the same way a few years later, when they launched an investigation into the "interventionist bias" of Hollywood movies like "Mission to Moscow," Michael Curtiz's paean to America's wartime ally.

In the postwar years, people began to use bias less in reference to deliberate distortion than to unconscious predilections that could color perception. The new sense of the word owed a lot to the popularization of psychological notions of "group perception" and "groupthink." In a famous 1954 experiment, the psychologists Albert H. Hastorf and Hadley Cantrill found that Dartmouth and Princeton fans had different perceptions about who had initiated the rough play at a controversial 1951 football game, even after they were shown films of the game.

The civil rights movement firmly established the notion of bias as unconscious prejudice, to the point where the protestation "I'm not biased" came to sound suspect. That was when people took to using it to refer to actions as well as attitudes before then, a phrase like "housing bias" would have made no sense.

By the late 1960's, press critics were adopting that sense of the word. A 1969 editorial in The Wall Street Journal discounted Vice President Spiro T. Agnew's contention that a clique of newspaper owners and broadcasters was out to discredit the Nixon administration. The real problem, it said, was the "unconscious slant" introduced by the "prevailing liberal tendencies of the national media."

That's a theme conservatives have emphasized since the 1980's. Complaints about bias today are far more likely to be accompanied by calls for diversity of opinion than by appeals for objectivity (a word that Fox News had no use for when it coined its "fair and balanced" slogan). Modern conservatives talk about objectivity not as an ideal to strive for but as a dangerous delusion.

"Being a journalist is not like being a surveillance camera at an A.T.M., faithfully recording every scene for future playback," L. Brent Bozell of the conservative Media Research Center has written. "Journalists make subjective decisions every minute of their professional lives."

The modern view of the word bias shifted the focus of criticism from those who own and run news businesses to journalists. If reporting is inescapably colored by subjective preferences, then you can gauge the bias of the media just by tabulating journalists' party affiliation. "Media bias" became a phrase like "racial bias," blurring the distinction between thoughts and deeds.

That picture of bias has enabled media critics to argue that the interests of balance are better served by openly partisan commentary than by traditional "objective" reporting. As Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, puts it: "Anyone listening to Rush Limbaugh knows that what he is saying is his own opinion. But people who listen to the news on ABC, CBS or NBC may imagine that they are getting the facts, not just those facts which fit the ideology of the media."

In fact, ABC or CBS is far more likely to be described as biased than Mr. Limbaugh or for that matter, the very liberal Michael Moore. That would have puzzled Harold Ickes, who reserved his most caustic attacks on 1930's press bias for partisan columnists. But today bias is applied only to those who won't own up to having an ax to grind.

Conservatives may have made adroit use of the new sense of the word, but it was basically a liberal creation, like the celebration of diversity that accompanies it. The idea that bias can work on us unconsciously is lodged in the American psyche by now, but it is easy to exploit in a selectively self-serving way.

If objectivity is an illusion, we are free to disbelieve any report we find inconvenient or uncongenial on the grounds that it is colored by a hidden agenda (an expression that entered the vocabulary about the time "media bias" began its recent tear).

Partisan polarization always leads to the creation of parallel universes. Saddam Hussein was involved in Sept. 11; President Bush and Dick Cheney engineered the war to secure Iraq's oil. The Princeton players were a bunch of hooligans; the Dartmouth players were roughneck louts.

Geoffrey Nunberg, a Stanford linguist, is heard regularly on NPR's "Fresh Air" and is the author of "The Way We Talk Now."

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