Riyadh: Sunday 25th August, 2012
Oh the irony: a blogger tackling the subject of political bias in the broadcast media. So before I start, I need to set some ground rules.
This post concerns the growing trend among Broadcast Media Outlets (Specifically 24 Hour News Organisations), to abandon the tradition of impartiality in favour of greater politicisation of reporting. To be specific, the trend among a number of news organisations to present the news from a specific view-point, rather than seeking to cover all sides.
The view of Crabbitat is that this politicisation takes two forms, overt and covert. The examples of Overt Broadcasting bias are organisations like Fox News and NBC which have recognisable political agendas and which take advantage of the highly deregulated American broadcasting environment to push these through their reporting coverage of news events.
The second type of broadcasting bias (covert), is defined here as a Broadcast environment where the news coverage attempts to be impartial and prevents itself as such, but where, either because the broadcast environment is tightly controlled by government (as in Russia) or because the demographic carries a particular national view-point. Examples of these might be Broadcasters such as Al Jazeera English, which is clearly a balanced and independent Broadcaster, but which, due to the overwhelming views of its viewers, will always struggle to present a balanced view of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Other examples might include CNN, whose impartiality is predicated upon its essentially pro-American audience or BBC World, whose target demographic of professional financiers and British Ex-pats is reflected in its coverage.
The basic argument that follows, is that while some level of partiality or “covert bias” is inevitable as a result of different broadcasters existing in specific demographic and politicised environments, this is essentially benign for the most part as long as there is a strong regulatory guiding hand which prevents this spilling into overt politicised reporting (or Propaganda).
Crabbitat contrasts this with Overt politicised Broadcasting such as that of NBC or Fox. The post concludes that the influence of powerful lobbying Broadcast media outlets, exercise stifling political power by tying politicians to increasingly rigid and dogmatic ideological positions and ultimately leads to the suspension of good government.
The Crabbitat Bias:
Crabbitat makes no apologies for expressing the view that overt, politicised broadcasting (and here the most notorious example is Fox News – Though they are not alone), endangers the proper exercise of governance and prevents the evolution of politics along normal lines. Moreover, Crabbitat makes no apology for expressing the view that the more subtle politicisation of broadcasting is less dangerous, though no more desirable) as long as it exists in a regulatory environment which punishes and discourages infractions and encourages sound journalistic principles of impartiality.
My first awareness of broadcasting bias
A couple of years ago I heard an interview with American, right-wing political commentator and activist, Ann Coulter, in which she was asked about her political philosophy, and her regular appearances on the Fox News Channel. I was shocked by what I heard.
I hasten to add, here that I was not appalled or offended. Merely shocked! Here, this supremely confident and completely committed politico, was able to expound views that called into question much of what I had previously understood to be universal and valuable elements of a civilised society.
I knew, little of the Fox, News Network, at that time, having never set eyes on it. I suppose I had an inkling as to what this would look like. I had seen the British Sky News, in action, had seen how it would import something of America’s Brashness and in-your-face style to staid British airwaves.
I imagined it to be further to the right than our own media, but it is important to add here that this belief was in no way borne out by the reality. Fox News is indeed further to the right than all British Broadcasters, just as NBC is further to the left. But I had not realised, was completely unprepared for a broadcasting environment in which there are no impartiality laws, as we have in the UK.
So when I say I imagined a news network to the right of the British equivalent, I was simply not on the same planet as the reality of Fox News. I imagined it to be further to the right because so many of the political arguments which historically have evolved in the US, are further to the right. I did not expect it to be political in and of itself. That was a realm I believed was confined to the print media.
Sure, impartiality is not strictly possible in a world where there are often no black and white choices. All people, particularly interested, informed people, such as journalists, have their own narratives. But this, I had imagined would always be controlled. At the edges, there would be friction. In the UK, for 60 years, the Labour party had complained about bias in the establishment media, while they were joined in the 1980’s by Conservatives. But a mixture of regulation, competition and memories of Propagandist State Broadcast Media outlets in dictatorships ranging from Nazi Germany, The Soviet Union, to military junta’s across the globe, would surely preserve the integrity of western broadcasting integrity.
Impartiality, the BBC and Gilligan
As far as I was aware or had thought, you might occasion upon a broadcast media story in a civilised western democracy which crosses the line of impartiality but that this would be picked up and retracted. The self-flagellation required of the BBC in the wake of the Gilligan Enquiry, was evidence enough of this. When the independent enquiry found in favour of the British Government, it led to sackings at the very top of the BBC, a wholly reviewed and revised culture and a week of public self-analysis carried out, at times with brutal honesty carried out across its various broadcasting mediums.
This was accountability at its very best, where individual editors and anchors as well as policy makers were forced to publicly re-examine their previous assumptions. The findings of the Gilligan Enquiry are seen by many, now as deeply flawed. The Government won that day, but it lost credibility all the same. In contrast the BBC, which at the time, appeared mortally wounded and exposed, has not only survived, but, in the context of the serious economic cuts to all elements of the British Public Sector, has fared reasonably well.
Journalistic integrity, Vs Journalistic freedom
To be clear these are not the same thing. In Britain, we have developed until recently, great pride at the integrity and impartiality of our broadcast media. We point to the BBC World Service and how, for tens of millions of people living in tightly controlled State environments, the BBC is the one way they can access truth and differentiate this from what their government is telling them.
But this is not Journalistic freedom. Freedom, is the ability to write what you want to write. Freedom, is the freedom to exercise your own judgement as to when a story is properly fact checked or whether it carries a politicised narrative.
All journalists are required to provide a narrative. But freedom, is something enjoyed by writers of fiction. Broadcast journalists, are supposed to limit themselves to facts, and inform their narratives through balancing these according to what evidence supports or appears to support these.
This, is the first defence against media bias. It is called Professional integrity.
And in almost all nations of the earth, integrity is monitored and regulated through statutory guidelines. Some of these are essentially instructions to follow the Government’s line, but in properly formed democratically elected polities, these regulations form a framework to balance and protect Journalistic integrity in the broadcast media.
We often confuse this regulatory framework with protecting media freedoms, because they do protect media organisations from State interference, but their ultimate aim, is to protect the public from too much Media freedom. To control broadcasters, and prevent them from abandoning impartiality and integrity.
Thus, we see, in Britain, overt politicised propaganda limited to the queasily naff, five-minute British institution of the post news Party Political Broadcast.
These, five-minute slots exist exclusively during elections and are tightly regulated. Each party gets their chance, and each gets the opportunity to rebuke the other. Most importantly, they are routinely mocked. I have never met a single person who has ever admitted to being swayed by a Party Political Broadcast. Indeed, I am struggling to think of anyone who has ever admitted to watching one. The National Electricity Grid used, in the days before satellite TV and the internet, to report an electricity spike the moment they came on, as people, having watched the news and awaiting the weather forecast, would lower the volume and put the kettle on while the politicians were having their say.
Propaganda, therefore, where it existed in mature Liberal Democracies, was tightly regulated, fairly distributed and, crucially, understood by the public at large, to be nothing at all to do with the reporting of the news, generally or elections.
It was the equivalent of a parent allowing a child to run around outside for five minutes before bath time. It was strictly controlled freedom.
Or so I thought.
The realignment of the Broadcast Media for the new Media Century
This tightly controlled and regulated media environment, was only ever particular to only a few nations, and was in fact much despised by many politicians, particularly (though not exclusively) some on the right of the political spectrum, who view it as statist meddling; an example of the left, co-opting and nationalising the airwaves to ensure its voice is heard. There are even plenty who regard this regulatory impartiality as being a sham, a cunning lie duping the people into consuming a steady and unremitting diet of left-wing centred bias since the air waves were first opened.
Ann Coulter, was among these people and wasted no time in making this view clear in her interview. She was being interviewed on a BBC current affairs program called Hard Talk, which consists of a hard-hitting one-to-one conducted by a senior and respected investigative political journalist. It is a-political, and seeks, through rigorous questioning to get to the heart of a given personality’s philosophy or actions and look at these in the context of the debates they have had. It interviews, Politicians, economists, philosophers, spies, civil servants, or campaigners as well as journalists and it is frequently compulsive viewing for the way senior and often extremely substantial people of all political views and from all across the globe are obliged to lock horns with the interviewer.
Ms. Coulter, may not have known this and proceeded to attack the line of questioning as demonstrating an inherent leftist bias at the BBC. But I doubt she didn’t know. For she waited until her regular attendance on the Fox News Channel was referenced. What she was, I suspect, doing, was anticipating the charge that Fox broadcast’s a wholly right-wing interpretation of the news by seeking to suggest that this bias is built into all broadcast news media organisations.
It would be a few months before I actually watched Fox, for myself, and realised suddenly the gratuitous professional slur, this charge represented to any journalist who has ever considered impartial broadcasting to be their stock-in-trade. Yet, it simultaneously opened a world to me which I had not known existed.
In one sense, Coulter was very wrong, to tie any British Broadcaster with the Fox Network’s approach. Whether or not a given journalist operating for the BBC, or any other network, wants to convey a politicised and bias perspective, there are strict laws in place which are supposed to prevent them. I have no doubt that every single journalist who has ever worked for every single Broadcaster, has had political views of their own. But just as clearly, the stringent regulatory environment in most western democracies means that it is not easy for them to express these.
In the words, of Dennis Murray, former distinguished Northern Ireland Correspondent for the BBC, “Of course I have opinions, but I leave them at home each morning with my other suit.”
In the highly sectarian and divided society that is Northern Ireland, for Dennis Murray to have maintained both the respect and trust of all sectors of that community speaks for itself. There is an expression for this: Professional Integrity.
Yet, the approach taken by Dennis Murray and others like him is not new, or radical or surprising. And it is not absent from the much older newspaper industry, which has never in Britain, been subject to the same regulatory environment as the broadcasters. Whether we are taking about Murray or any other reporter, the approach to journalistic reporting evolves around the same basic principles:
Report an event; explain what is known to have happened; explain what is likely to have happened but is not yet wholly clear, having first checked with as many sources as possible; explain the likely sequence of events which will now follow as a result of this.
This, in a nutshell, is all a reporter is required to do. Yet, it is a media approach which is under siege.
- Firstly, all Broadcasters, and States have had to come to terms with the fact that in an era of internet freedom, they are not the only purveyors of the news. Moreover, it is rare for a modern democracy to view a single state media outlet to be enough. Far better, to make this compete with other broadcasters, supplementing the media environment with regulated impartial bodies providing more responsive news in an increasingly media driven global village. The quid pro quo comes in the way politicians become increasingly exposed themselves but may find their message lost in so doing.
- Secondly, Fox News and NBC, exist in deregulated as well as competitive media environments. They are not subject to impartiality laws, and have the financial and political clout to ensure that they can combat most subjudisy laws in the US. Moreover, they have friends among politicians, who benefit immeasurably from being able to get their point across without it being ruthlessly cross-examined or other views given equal primacy.
Thus, there is plenty to recommend highly partial journalism.
It allows communicators to communicate, ideologues to spread their ideologies, scientists or theologians to preach their findings and business to sell their products.
In a world where bloggers or Twitterers allow individuals to look for their own news, there is a danger to all these vested interest groups that they are effectively saturated out in the unregulated media storm. Something must be done.
It is this need which informs the political thread of an institution such as Fox News. It provides a stable platform for politicians of the right in US politics to preach to Americans directly. Moreover, those same Americans are not then fed an opposing view, given the same credibility. Instead the views which run counter to Fox’s own political standpoint, are discredited.
In short, a combination of factors born of the new media age has led to the Fox phenomenon. Critically, however, the two most pressing of these are deregulation of the media and competition. Fox provides the narrative it does because there is a market for it. And in providing this market with an unadulterated, and unquestioning ideological Narrative, Fox, not only perpetuates the ideas of their demographic, but institutionalises it.
Or to put it another way, Fox takes a right leaning person and provides them with an ideological underpinning to their views.
This is a wholly symbiotic and self-perpetuating media phenomenon, simultaneously reinforcing Republican ideology to the extent that it becomes dogma and bolstering these views against the ebb and flow of political popularity and discourse.
Events no longer determine the political ascendancy, ideology does.
New Media and political evolution.
And so we have a new media for a deregulated age. Increasingly the role of CNN or the BBC in exporting soft power to the world will be redundant. In a world where the news is effectively entertainment, that is to say, in a world where it happens to others, rather than to ourselves, it is possible to view the world purely in terms of ideology. Only when we are the ones who find ourselves in the path of the Tsunami or the Revolution, are we required to take decisions based on forces that do not conform to our own ideological conditioning.
Thus, in America, a strong, country relatively immune to instability, it is possible to see the world in terms of right and left, good and evil, right and wrong. To those of a metropolitan or internationalist streak, for whom the Democratic Party offers appeal, there is MSNBC, a preachy left of centre polemical ‘News’ media providing a broadly sympathetic analysis on Democratic initiatives and policy. While for those of you who favour your politics through the filter of a Republican bent, there is Fox News. Of course, there are CBS or CNN, each of which broadly espouses a form of folksy neutrality, if that is for you. But that is the point of deregulation. Freedom for the consumer. You choose.
Only, that is not what happens. Polarisation has never led to freedom. It leads to conflict. Overt partiality does not lead to greater understanding. It leads to the Northern Irelandisation of political discourse. Instead of politicians debating at the margins of where they disagree they speak in broad ideological sweeps. Suddenly, it becomes less a debate on when in a pregnancy cycle, a foetus is deemed to be a live, and becomes instead, a battle between fundamentalists on both sides. Instead of a politician discussing the areas of a healthcare bill which he believes are wrong, the whole bill becomes, for men of the right, an exercise in socialism.
In other words, politicians are no longer free to debate what they really think. Instead they behave tribally; calling the policies or principles of their opponents ugly names.
And, worst of all, this is for the most part, a grotesque and dishonest betrayal of what politicians actually think.
Moreover, it is good that politicians should have contradictory, nuanced and evolving views because politics is supposed to respond to a changing world in which people themselves act in clearly contradictory ways.
We change as people. I myself wanted some truly stupid things at the age of 16 and will doubtless consider my own views to have been stupid by the time I reach 70 (many would argue that if only I’d recognise it earlier, I might be a happier blogger). And this is not flip-flopping or a U-Turn, but evolution and responsiveness. Moreover, sometimes it is brave. And one thing we all want from our leaders is that they should be brave.
After all, what is considered to be right-wing and left-wing implicitly changes over time.
One hundred years ago, in Britain, to be in favour of free-trade economics was to be Liberal, while to be in favour of protectionism was to be a Tory. While to be against Empire was to be a dangerous subversive.
In America, it is now Democrats who are likely to obtain the votes of the disenfranchised and poor. Yet, the first Republican President was Abraham Lincoln, he of the Emancipation Proclamation, Gettysburg Address and the victor in a war asserting federal primacy over individual States Rights. No Republican would argue in favour of the Federal State now, just as no democrat would countenance either the continuance of slavery or the rights of states to secede unilaterally from the union.
Both Parties have shifted positions to such an extent that they are almost reverses of what they formally espoused. And to have reached these contradictory positions, Republicans and Democrats have had to make brave and often self-destructive decisions. For, Republicans to have moved from the Laissez faire Economic Liberalism and quasi Imperialism of Teddy Roosevelt, required the failure of successive Republican Presidents to deal with the depression of the 1930’s and the opportunism of Richard Nixon in providing a home to the Southern Democrats when they abandoned Lyndon Johnson over Civil Rights. It required them to co-opt the preventative moral engagement in foreign affairs trumpeted by Democrat Woodrow Wilson, and letter by Franklin Roosevelt and Kennedy, (again an achievement of Nixon, whose fate may have been to have been known as the founder of the Modern Republican Party, were it not for Watergate).
For Democrats, the path has been equally brave. Effectively the de-facto and perpetual party of opposition between the end of the Civil War and the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, their only three terms in office during this time were each single term affairs. But Democrats, were about to reap the benefit of the Keynesian economic revolution. Roosevelt’s New Deal is discredited by many (it is not even taught in Texas Schools, despite being the mainstay of American Economic policy for over a decade), who point to the Second World War as being the spark that launched the American Century. But the New Deal made the Democrats something they had never been before, a party of intervention. It was the same moral optimism which characterised Roosevelt’s presidency and which underpinned his pragmatic levering of America towards support for the British. In a sense, the success or failure of the economics of the New Deal is led important than the effect it had on a generation of Americans, who felt once more the dignity and courageousness of work and the optimism of the American Dream.
Democrats were now the party of youthful optimism, and it was this which would catapult Kennedy to power and ultimately inform the presidencies of LBJ, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Obama; Quite a journey from the Democratic Party which sought an early end to the war in the election between Lincoln and McClelland in the mid 1860’s.
Yet if it is not only natural, but good that politicians and political parties move and evolve, this begs the question, as to whether the slavish propagandizing of media outlets serves to enhance this inevitable political evolution or inhibit it?
Would the Fox News of 1862 have been passionately Republican as it is now? Would NBC be as preachily Pro-Democrat in defence of Jim Crowe as it is now in support a woman’s right to choose? Would they have evolved with the parties, or prevented their evolution along natural and sometimes courageous lines?
It is the opinion of Crabbitat that the evolution of a partisan broadcast media, inhibits the freedom of politics. For every freedom given, one is removed elsewhere.
Take, for example, the Civil Rights Legislation of Lyndon Johnson. Is it possible to imagine the NBC of the day, opposing LBJ on this? Modern NBC would no more stand against racial equality than it would Stand in favour of Slavery. Yet, just because the die is now cast, does not detract from the colossal divisiveness of this decision at the time. It split the Democratic Party, losing them the Solid South for the first time in a Century. The Cotton States would return to the Democrats only once, since, when voting for Georgian Peanut Farmer turned 39th president of the United States, Jimmy Carter. Thus, a highly politicised news network such as the modern NBC, would surely have been deeply torn. The courageous decision of LBJ would have to be doubly courageous if made today.
Take another example. Could President Nixon have visited China, if forced to respond to Fox News before going? It is now seen as a foreign policy triumph that isolated the two foremost Communist Nations from one another and hastened the end of the Cold War. But, just as this was far from certain before Kissinger first boarded a plane to Beijing, so it was also a very brave decision which could have backfired spectacularly. Memories were still fresh, of the Cuban Missile Crisis and before that the Bay of Pigs fiasco. The Shadow of McCarthyism still hung over American politics. For a Republican to talk to Communist??? Could Fox have supported that. Could Kissinger have gone without it?
I would contend that they could not.
The media environment in America prevents genuinely imaginative, brave or maverick decisions in a way it did not, then.
And, as we approach the denouement of a Presidential Election, we see this clearly in the slavishness of the two main American Political Parties, to their respective constituencies. Neither Obama, nor Romney appears truly to be engaging the other side, as Regan, or Clinton managed to do. Rather, both candidates are engaged in shoring up their respective bases.
Obama, has barely bothered to justify his policy, universally known as ObamaCare, judging that its merits will bring out voters who benefit and that it has already lost those who do not. In the Mean time, Romney, who is required to retake States from the Democrats in order to wrestle victory, has shied away from a centrist vice-presidential nominee, and toward a charismatic and attractive Tea Party Favourite, Paul Ryan.
This decision could yet turn out to be political gold. He is guaranteed to win a beauty contest against current vice-presidential incumbent Joe Biden and it is speculated that he possesses superior debating skills. Yet that alone cannot win a presidential election. Romney is decidedly less charismatic than Obama and television will cover those debates far more closely.
Viewed in this respect the decision to select Ryan as Vice Presidential nominee, seems calculated to energize the Republican base, who have never warmed to Romney. Or to put it more specifically, to energize Fox News, who have predictably treated this decision as a wonderful good news story.
The calculation from both parties, appears therefore to consolidate the base. Obama can no longer energize floating voters, by the impressive ebb and flow of his moral tone. Romney cannot hope to energize floaters on the power of his rhetoric. All they can do is hunker down, and reinforce their core support and hope that the news media do the rest.
It is not uncommon for a week or defeated opponent to retreat to this tactic. But the fact that both candidates have done so points to two features of this campaign that are unique in modern memory.
- This is not so much a Presidential vote as a party vote: Republicans have sought to ensure Obama was a one term president from day one of his term, sabotaging any piece of legislation with his name on it. The days when Americans rallied around a president in times of need are over.
- Personalities do not count in this election: Romney, by common consensus does not have a personality, or rather, not one capable of competing with the highly televisial Obama. Obama’s style struck me as somewhat vapid and evasive in 2008 (so-much-so that I had to go out and read one of his books just to establish what he actually stood for. When I realised that he was essentially a third-way Social Democrat, in the mould of Tony Blair, I began to think he would need to find some substance for his second campaign), and will not motivate floaters a second time.
Paradoxically, when we are told that we live in an era of Television personalities, the news environment pioneered by Fox, has led to a political environment devoid of personal appeal. Romney has ditched any reference to his pragmatic (and at times, impressive record in office), preferring to leave his base guessing as to the identity of his policy make up. Instead, he focuses on his record in business as a venture capitalist. His refrain, is that he tried Government “but didn’t inhale. Obama, mean while, gives the impression of a man, simply wanting it to be over so he can get on with a second term of foreign policy initiatives allowing him to define his presidency on relatively apolitical ground.
What are we likely to see though, if neither campaign will major on policy or personality? The answer, I suspect, are two campaign strategies based upon, wait for it; Ideology.
You don’t see much ideology on Broadcast TV. You never have; and with good reason. Ideology, is about political ideas. It makes no concession for pragmatic, political decision makers, policy decisions or mature reflection. And, Crucially, it lacks human perspective. Ideology is either dryly academic, or unremittingly bitter, the stuff of vendettas and personal feuds. Ideology never forgives. No human can live up to the ideology and so all are traitors. Ideological politics are the politics of the TV soap like Sunset Beach. It is infantile.
Ideology is important. It underpins all politics, but it is never centre stage. Why now, should this be different?
The answer is actually simple. Fox and NBC want an ideological contest; Fox in particular. A pragmatic political battle between two worthily pragmatic politicians will only empower politically impartial organisations like CNN. But an ideological battle triumphantly empowers the ideologue. Even the candidates themselves are destined only to become slaves to the ideology or face the venomous repost.
Fox wants a faceless campaign because when the candidates themselves lack the charisma and freedom to manoeuvre, the propagandists who get them elected become the unelected power brokers.
Shortly before the news of Romney’s announcement of Paul Ryan as Vice Presidential nominee, reignited Fox, a minor story involving a Romney aide suggesting that his own record in office would ensure decent healthcare along the lines of Obamacare drew the scorn of Ann Coulter. In a moment of anger she said on Fox, “When you Guys have been working so hard to get him elected, he has to sack her after this.” It was a rare, unguarded acknowledgement that Fox is really a political propaganda network, rather than an impartial broadcast media outlet guided by principles of journalistic impartiality.
But while it came as no surprise, it reminded me of a refrain from the Sun Newspaper in the wake of a Conservative Party Victory in the 1992 UK General Election. “It wos the Sun Wot Won it!” was its Mary Poppinsesque Headline.
It heralded a high water line in the power and prestige of the Rupert Murdoch Empire. No politician in Britain has since seriously considered winning without Murdoch’s support.
Yet in the deregulated environment of the US, the sinister prospect is emerging, of a return to ideological allegiance politics, which will disguise the fact that real power will lie, not with elected officials but with unelected and unaccountable broadcasters.
As the Republican Convention kicks off, Fox will do everything in its power to assist Romney in getting elected. But woe, betide the man should he find once in office that hard-line Republican doctrine does not in itself answer the problems of America.
There will be no room for pragmatism in Fox’s analysis of his first term. Yet if he loses, he will once again be cast by Fox, as the looser who betrayed the Republican cause. Nowhere will Fox accept or even countenance the idea, that their commitment to ideological Republicanism, rather than pragmatic Republicanism, can only ever win the love of an ideologically pure rump.