Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Media Bias of "Some Say"

I caught the documentary "Outfoxed" the other night, which raised a few interesting points about the angles that Rupert Murdoch and his cable network choose to slant the news they present. I agreed with a lot of the content, but I thought what was missing was the idea that other networks are slanted too -- watching the documentary and its careful editing/splicing, you would think that only Fox had an ideological tilt. So I agreed with them that it's laughable to say that Fox is "Fair and Balanced" but I hope they're not saying by omission that CNN, MSNBC, or any other network is.

You know that old joke -- How do you define a pork barrel spending project? It's one that's not in your district. I think media bias works the same way. Media is biased if I disagree with it. Show me a person who thinks CNN or MSNBC covers issues like climate change, affirmative action, and gun control in some sort of "neutral" way and I can just about guarantee the way that person is going to vote in even-year Novembers.

One specific tactic the documentary discussed was the use of the super-vague "some" as a form of attribution. In other words, let's say you think the President's plan is terrible, but as a supposedly impartial anchor, you can't say it. What you do is explain the plan and then offer up something like this: "Some say the President's plan is guaranteed to fail." You can also use "some people," "some experts," "some Beltway insiders," etc. The only key is that you don't *own* the statement yourself, and you don't attribute to any specific person that it can be tied back to.

It's funny, I thought, people do the same thing with their opinions. As I've said a few times before on this blog, one of the most important pieces of advice I would ever give anyone willing to listen is to be extremely hesitant to ever badmouth a colleague (we'll define 'colleague' loosely here, but call it anyone with whom your social or work circles overlap). There are a bunch of obvious reasons not to do it (Golden Rule, creation of ill will, reflects badly on yourself, etc.) but a less-obvious reason is that your opinion of others is fluid and subject to change. Once you go negative about another person, although your opinion might change, the proverbial cat is out of the bag. Other people love to make a huge issue out of it...just think to a time you've said something even remotely negative about a third party and then someone else made a mountain of your molehill (Well, we're organizing a lunch outing, but if we ask Barbara, we can't invite Jerry, because I think he stabs her eyes out via voodoo dolls at night).

Anyway, a totally transparent and cheesy way that people sometimes try to get around this is their own version of the some say. In fact, I just heard someone do this the other day over a meal. Three of us were sitting there, a mutual acquaintance's name came up, and sure enough, I heard something like this: "Well, I've never had a problem with him, but some people say he's a complete prick."

To me, if you're going to do this, you have no spine (and yes, this was called out 'in the moment' so be proud of your author here). First, you should try as best you humanly can to NEVER talk trash about someone with whom you overlap. However, when all else fails, and you're really ready to go for the nuclear option, have the stones to *own* what it is you're saying. If you really don't care about burning the bridge, go ahead and torch it, with your fingerprints on the gasoline bottle.

Trying to somehow have the best of both worlds by voicing your negative thoughts about someone while simultaneously trying not to dirty your own hands is second-rate type of stuff. Think about it, if the person asked about were a true friend, would you frame it like that? No way, at the very least, you'd mention that many think he's a complete prick but you'd then offer up a counter -- you wouldn't just leave it hanging out there with some weasely I've-never-had-a -problem sort of line.

In sum, "Outfoxed" makes a good point in highlighting the shadiness of ANY news anchor (not just Fox!) that uses the Some Say tactic. It's a pretty transparent way to 'go negative' and try to cover your own keeshter at the same time. Supposedly objective anchors shouldn't do it.

I'd like to hold individuals to the same standard.


C R Krieger said...

And here is the Orlando Sentinal with a story about "Checkbook Journalism".  Here is the lede:

NBC’s interview with David Goldman has drawn a scathing review from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee.

I think that Greg is correct in stating that as it gets financially tougher on the MSM, we all need to grow increasingly careful.  Not to let FOX off the hook, or its distant cousin, The Times, or any other Rupert Murdoch venue.

Regards  —  Cliff

Jon and Kate said...

Agreed. Though I will say what makes The New York Times different from television (cable and network news) is that they actually pay reporters to cover events. I'm not saying The Times doesn't have a bias, all I'm saying is that any national/international news that doesn't involve partisan, meaningless wedge issues (Sarah Palin on the left, ACORN on the right) is just editorializing from the paper of record.

To call these television channels "news" networks is preposterous -- they are basically entirely editorializing because it is unprofitable for them to put reporters in the field. Hence "some say" -- a way of reporting without actually having to pay the money to do so.

The New Englander said...

It's definitely a shame that so many foreign bureaus have been shuttered.

And it's good to remember that nothing is *news* when it's just a rehash of what someone else has already discovered or reported. That's why the bloggers v. newspapers debate is such a false choice to me...I'm happy to check out a blog if the author is bringing some wit or original thought, or links to ACTUAL news, but unless the blogger is doing real shoe-leather journalism, it's just something else entirely..