Sunday, October 4, 2009

Mass Media Anxiety Syndrome: A Conservative Neurosis

For many decades conservatives have complained about media bias. Media bias is nothing new. In the early days of the republic the newspapers were affiliated with parties. There were Democratic Republican newspapers and there were Federalist newspapers. In the 19th century that continued. The New York Times was, in the 19th century, a Republican newspaper. No one complained that Republican newspapers were biased toward the Republicans and Democratic newspapers were biased toward the Democrats. Rather, it would have been strange if the newspapers tried to be objective.

In the 1890s Adolph Ochs bought the Times and claimed to have invented a new approach to news: objectivity. The Times would state the facts. Of course, as Kurosawa's classic Japanese movie Rashomon shows, there is no such thing as objectivity. There is such a thing as falsifiability, which means that it is possible to find evidence to prove a theory wrong. But asking human beings to be objective in the sense of shedding all psychological biases, selective perception, perceptual distortion, fundamental attribution error, prejudice and many other biases that riddle all perception is asking them to be gods. People are not gods, and the New York Times is not objective.

Perhaps we can say that, like many other forms of snake oil that were for sale in the 19th century, the New York Times is one. It claims to sell you objective news, but its claim is fraudulent. Either that or all of cognitive psychology, philosophy and organizational theory for the past 75 years has been mistaken.

So the New York Times, the television stations and magazines are biased in favor of the Democrats. That is not very surprising. What is curious is that at some point all of the Republican newspapers, including the Times, became Democratic, and none of the Democratic newspapers became Republican. Part of the reason may be that the Democrats assumed a majority in the 1930s, at which point the labor laws drove up costs for less successful newspapers. Because the Republican papers were less successful, labor law had the unforeseen effect of shutting down many Republican newspapers such as the New York Herald Tribune. Whether that is so or not I don't know, but one outcome of the New Deal seems to have been to strengthen the Times, which had supported the same policies. In turn, many regional newspapers either copied the Times and became Democratic or else because a majority had turned Democratic Republican papers found it difficult to survive.

A similar explanation applies to television stations. An organization theorist named Arthur Stinchcombe pointed out that when organizations form around the same time they frequently have similar structures. Like architecture, organizational policies reflect period fads. The television networks first succeeded in the 1950s (although their parent radio networks first succeeded in the 1920s). By the 1950s the nation was largely "Progressive" and social democratic. Hence, these ideas have been dominant in the television world as well.

Another explanation might be the aggressive occupation of American cultural institutions by left wingers. This has been especially true of universities. As journalists increasingly came to be trained in American universities, they began to parrot the ideology in these benighted institutions. Thus, it may be that socialist journalism parallels increasing socialism in the professions and business.

I continually hear and see conservatives and Republicans complaining about the bias in various Democratic Party organs, whether it be the Times, PBS, the networks, etc. The widespread anxiety about Democratic bias is misplaced. The media is Democratic, so bias is to be expected. Are we outraged that Ahmadinejad doesn't like us or that China is obsessed with Taiwan? I think not. Becoming agitated every day about the Democratic bias of Democratic news sources is neurotic, a neurosis that I call Mass Media Anxiety Syndrome, MMAS.

As with any anxiety-related disorder, one treatment is to act to overcome the anxiety. In other words, Republicans and conservatives should not be complaining about the Democratic bias of Democratic news sources, which are not, never have been, and cannot be objective. Rather, they should be asking themselves the following questions:

1. Why do I read Democratic Party news sources? If all Republicans stopped reading the Times, it would likely fold, or else be severely crippled. If you are a Republican or a conservative, why are you reading the Times? You help the Democrats by reading the Times.

2. Why are there so few Republican news sources? I can think of Reason Magazine, City Journal, National Review, and one or two others. Why haven't the Republicans found a way to get funding for Republican newspapers and radio stations?

One of the contributing causes of MMAS is likely intellectual laziness. I do think that the Republicans have been intellectually lazy in failing to support Republican news outlets, and lazy about finding a way to start mass media outlets of their own.

In other words, don't get mad, get even.

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