Is the press biased? Editorial views can influence news coverage

A couple of weeks ago, an election was held to fill a vacancy in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.  The seat had been held by the Republicans since 1979, and pundits saw this election as a key test of President Trump’s popularity and its effect on GOP candidates.

The election could be settled if a single candidate out of the 18 running received more than 50 percent of the vote.  Otherwise, there would be a runoff on June 20 between the top two vote getters.

The Democratic candidate received a bit more than 48 percent, far more than any other candidate, but not enough to avoid a runoff.

For the Democrats, it was a victory, but bittersweet for failing to send a strong message about Trump’s declining popularity.  For the Republicans, it was a near miss, but one which could well be reversed in the runoff.

Here are the headlines of news reports, not editorial comment, about this election in several major national media outlets.

Washington Post: “Republicans avoid big loss by forcing runoff in Georgia House race.”

New York Times:  “Democrat just misses victory in Georgia House race.”

Wall Street Journal: “Democrats falter in bid for outright win in Georgia House race.”

Associated Press: “Georgia House race to high-stakes runoff as Trump wades in.”

The Washington Post and the New York Times editorial pages strongly oppose Trump and generally support Democrats.  In contrast, while the Wall Street Journal seems lukewarm about Trump, it is faithful to GOP conservatism.  The Associated Press provides news reports to media of all political stripes.

From these headlines, it seems clear that a newspaper’s editorial stance can influence the slant it puts on a news story.

Readers can get the message.  If you support the Republicans, you can easily see the New York Times headline as coming from the opposition.  Because of that newspaper’s standing in the media main stream, it becomes ripe for attack by conservatives who believe most such newspapers are biased against them.

This sense of alienation from what some conservatives call the “lame stream” media has helped promote openly conservative and right wing resources like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.  They are safe and comfortable havens from what is seen as a biased main stream.

With each side having its own preferred media outlets, while spurning the others, the political gap deepens.  Each side believes it has the facts right, while the opposition distorts the truth.

This is not so much a question of so-called “alternative” facts as it is a matter of selective coverage.  Of course, there’s a certain amount of downright fabrication on the right and unbalanced consideration of opposition views on the left.  The result can lead to the conclusion there’s much “fake news.”

The harm of inherent bias is considerable, because a free and fair media is essential to the American system.  If the people rule, they must be informed to make good judgments.  They cannot depend on government, which is often not responsible to the public.  Instead, they must depend on the media to inform them and convey their views.

Trump dismisses interest in his tax returns and says only the media, apparently a minor player in his view, seeks them.  Not only do the polls show he is wrong, but the media represents that public interest.  The media is not an end in itself, but is the public’s path to participation in the political process outside of elections.

A recent example, not involving government, demonstrates the power of a free media.  The New York Times revealed that Fox and Bill O’Reilly, its star personality, had paid $13 million to settle complaints of sexual harassment by O’Reilly.

Fox had not fired him, despite these payouts.  It fired him only when the complaints were made public in the media.  The media forced Fox to honor what it called its “consistent commitment to fostering a work environment built on the values of trust and respect.”  Where was that “commitment” before the Times’ revelations?

The problems with news bias may explain the relative success of local newspapers compared with some major papers.  Local outlets, like the one you are reading, focus mainly on covering local news for people who may have no other reliable source.

Of course, local papers may reveal bias, but they are more likely to recognize their survival depends on fair reporting for all readers, regardless of ideology.

In the end, readers and viewers have their own responsibility to keep open and critical minds when reading or watching the news.

 

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.