A Bias for Bias

By Gwyn Lurie   |   January 23, 2020

A story you may have missed while you were busy celebrating the holidays was the December 31 closing of the gargantuan (half million square foot) “Newseum” – just steps from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue – after 11 years and ten million visitors. Various news outlets decried the poignancy and irony of the 450 million-dollar Newseum closing its doors forever. The implication being that unbiased news is dead, and that even the building where “real” reporting was enshrined if not mummified – journalism’s Cooperstown – could not sustain itself in this era of fake news and alternative facts.

But I submit that journalism is not dead and will continue to provide an invaluable service and will continue to morph and endure. Moreover, journalists and journalism have always been biased – and likely always will be. It’s just the form and obviousness of journalism’s bias that has changed.

Successful biased reporting in this nation is older than the nation itself. In fact, some of our most beloved Founding Fathers were actually highly partisan newspaper men: Ben Franklin wrote biased news under multiple pseudonyms and was one of the first publishers to mingle advertising with content (I guess it was always about the Benjamins). For creating this inherent conflict between reportage and remuneration we, perhaps appropriately, rewarded Franklin with his face on the hundred-dollar bill as well as the half dollar.

Similarly, Declaration of Independence signer Sam Adams was a major instigator of the Boston Tea Party via his oxymoronically titled newspaper “The Independent Advertiser.” However, we overlook Adams’ bias because we’re all fairly pleased with the result. For that, history has rewarded Mr. Adams with an even higher honor perhaps than it gave Mr. Franklin: his image on his eponymous beer – made even more well known by being served at Obama’s famous “Beer Summit.”

Two more of the most revered names in America and in journalism – Hearst and Pulitzer – are today the names behind two of the most prestigious and coveted journalistic prizes. But before that they were actually two founders and main perpetrators of inflammatory, saber rattling yellow journalism – that many believe accelerated the ignition of the Spanish-American War. Was the war of sensationalism between Hearst’s New York Journal and Pulitzer’s New York World so different from today’s pro-wrestling smackdown between Fox News and MSNBC?

So far as I can tell, the Golden Age of Journalism is always calculated as the current date minus three decades. When I began my career at ABC News in New York (okay, it was 32 years ago!) it was presumably one of those Golden Ages.

While the notable journalists I worked with at the Network (Roone Arledge, Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel) took seriously their “journalistic responsibility,” reporting “the truth” was never that simple.

While we were all still basking in the post coital afterglow of the reporting that led to All the President’s Men, even at that prestigious news outlet what led the evening broadcast were frequently stories from “above the fold” at one or two national newspapers earlier that day – namely The New York Times, the Washington Post (and occasionally the Wall Street Journal). And what got those stories above the fold in the first place was most often the handiwork of a handful of powerhouse PR firms. And so it is that the line between re-ported, pur-ported, and dictated has gotten, if anything, more squiggly over time.

One does not need to go back very far, even here in Santa Barbara, to see the destructive toll of editorial bias on our region’s oldest broadsheet.

Of course, there is almost always reporter bias, as Susan Sontag pointed out in so many of her essays, by virtue of where the reporter points his or her gaze, tape recorder, or lens. Earlier this year the President tweeted out a photo of Nancy Pelosi becoming, purportedly, unhinged in a meeting. Though other angles of the same event showed Ms. Pelosi looming over and excoriating our commander in chief – the internet’s latest version of “Is the dress gold or blue?” – interpretation says more about the viewer than the actual story.

Speaking of the internet, the bigger issue I see confronting journalism today is not so much bias – which has always been and will always be – but the dissemination of news being largely controlled by what Sacha Baron Cohen coined “The Silicon 6” made up of information oligarchs: Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Susan Wojcicki (YouTube), Sundar Pichai (Google), and Jack Dorsey at Twitter – none of whom seem to have any discernable interest in the responsibility that comes with the reporting and dissemination of news.

Facebook’s recent decision not to make any attempt to verify fake news has perhaps the most serious implication for the future of “news.” Unlike Pulitzer and Hearst whose journalistic institutions reformed their sensationalist ways and took on the responsibility that comes with governing the 4th estate, the Silicon 6 info gatekeepers have a louder and wider megaphone than any six people have ever had, but so far all staunchly refuse to hold the enormous platforms they created to any sort of ethical standard. I pray they have ethical revelations, as Hearst and Pulitzer did.

So, what’s the solution?

This is where local journalism, harvested in small batches and provided by journalists steeped in the community, comes in. First of all, local news arguably explores the issues that most affect your daily life – your water, air, food, and immediate quality of life issues. But also your personal security, feelings of connectedness, and sense of belonging. The psychologist and educator Abraham Maslow called this our “hierarchy of needs.” Unless we’re feeling secure about our most immediate and most local needs, it’s hard to move on to the enormous national and global issues upon which so many believe it’s hard to feel our effect.

Another great thing about local news is its generally not big enough to attract hacks, bots, and flacks. Local news is current events and opinions in its original unwashed farmer’s market format – freshly yanked from the ground.

It is in the spirit of providing you with the most unadulterated news possible – so that you can make important, informed decisions for yourself – that I invite you to join us at the Montecito Journal Candidate Debate for County Supervisor between Laura Capps and Das Williams on January 27 at 6 pm at the Music Academy of the West’s Hahn Hall. Questions will be asked by debate moderators Gwyn Lurie (me) and Jonathan Bastian of KCRW, as well as by Montecito community leaders – and by YOU. So please send us your questions for the Supervisor candidates to info@MontecitoJournal.net.

And please be there to hear what the candidates have to say and determine for yourself who can best represent Montecito in the governance of Santa Barbara County. Your County Supervisor will affect some of your most immediate and most local needs. It matters.

I’m Gwyn Lurie and that’s my bias.

 

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