In a political discussion last year I accused my correspondent (politely, I hope) of intentionally seeking out biased news sources. He confronted me with a question that—if I may translate loosely—was “OK, wise guy, where can one find unbiased sources?”
Whatever our philosophical differences, he’d gone right to the crux of the matter. As convinced as I was that his choice of news input had been thoroughly biased, on this larger question I was as stumped as he. As most of us do, of course, I have news sources I trust more than others. But I’d never been challenged to explain why my favorites were not simply those that fit my biases—the same failure of diligence I’d accused him of. Embarrassing.
The question of unslanted political information is a vexing one. Dealing with it poorly not only endangers the promise all fair and liberty-loving people hold dear, but spits in the face of whatever shreds are left of American exceptionalism.
Our founders and writers of the Constitution envisioned a country with unparalleled suffrage for that time, flawed to be sure, but subsequently described with characteristic élan by Abraham Lincoln as “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Thomas Jefferson and others pointed out that vesting the authority of a body politic in its citizenry could not work long if they failed to be informed and to participate. The founders’ reach exceeded their grasp as growing pains made clear that Lincoln’s beautiful expression did not apply to blacks and women. Further, even among the enfranchised, the requirement that citizens be well informed was handicapped immediately, as distressingly played out in the bitter presidential campaign of 1800 in which disinformation was splattered across the land.
Our news sources today are both more immediate and more numerous than ever before. But a constant stream of information doesn’t mean we are better informed, no more than standing in front of a fire hose means our thirst is better slaked. News sources themselves are motivated to get our attention and to stay in business. Moreover, no matter how fair-minded their intent, economy of space and time requires them to decide which news to present and which to disregard. Their choices alone cannot avoid implying this is important and that is not, even if reflected in so unavoidable a way as selecting some news for the front page or the top of the hour. How can it even be possible to make those determinations totally free of pre-existing values about their importance?
Pardon my pessimism, but I’m convinced that the bias problem is and will remain integral to the dissemination of public information. The problem is only negligibly addressed by switching the dial or buying a different newspaper. The frightening truth may well be that having accurate, unbiased, and available information is unattainable. Oh, some types of information exist for which we rarely need to be concerned about bias. But public decisions are awash in values, fears, hopes, loves, and hates such that the accuracy of news, say, on police brutality, minimum wage, political negotiations, Keynesian effects, and estimated throw-weight of Russian missiles is always suspect.
So what do we do? It seems safe to assume that politicians, press, and other possible informants with access to accurate information do exist (thought often even that is not true.). With some exceptions, then, we can say there actually is a reality to be described and persons somewhere who possess that information to describe it. That’s worth saying because there are those who take the position that there is “your truth” and “my truth,” but no absolute truth. I disagree with that hyper-relativistic stand; I’ve not given up on the “fact of facts,” and am unwilling to retreat into a post-modernist, info-nihilist position that there is no truth, just opinions. At any rate, my assumption puts the onus on unbiased transmission of information, not its existence.
Transmission, by its nature, includes a sender, a message, and a receiver. In this post, I’m not concerned here with what a sender should do, but how we receivers can be minimally influenced by senders’ biases. Here are some of the tactics many fair-minded persons take to one degree or another. Perhaps the times, marked by widespread partisan extremes, require that we get better at them:
Opposing sources. Wisely, they seek information from opposing sources, particularly ones they don’t agree with, remembering that the effect of one-sidedness is cumulative. It is not that one must always avoid sources one agrees with, but it is best to treat them as a person given to overweight should treat cake and ice cream. Indulge yourself, but keep in mind the tendency to be caught irretrievably in the vortex, never again to emerge with one’s independent judgment intact.
Faux accumulation. They try to avoid what I might call “cumulative bias,” that is, allowing one biased position to be the basis for the next—thereby assuming the first to be true—and so on until the structure of biased thinking masquerades as a framework built on fact. It is as if previous arguments, even inadequate ones, stand as evidence for ensuing ones, so that the greater number of previous ones, the stronger the faux evidence appears. Written as an equation, this is like 0+0+0+0=4. If that is convincing, 0+0+0+0+0=5 is even more so.
Improbable perfection. They attempt to avoid a source that is unable even to consider weaknesses in its own arguments. There are precious few positions taken or interpretations rendered for which there are no downsides or, at least, reasonable counter arguments. We can watch for errors made in topics on which we ourselves are well-read, since if our expertise discerns some of the source’s pronouncements to be wrong, we know we should consider that more errors are occurring in topics on which we cannot expertly judge.
Arguments ad hominem. They recognize that shoring up an argument with ad hominem references is a weak argument. We have a human tendency to personalize, as if it contributes content to an argument. Sources that demonize or canonize cannot be trusted to stick to relevant facts when they get a chance to take cheap shots safely.
Conflict of interest. They suspect commentary rendered by persons who have something to gain financially or otherwise. Think Congressional hearings on the danger of smoking or on banking regulations.
Dogmatic belief. They know that although enthusiastic, true believer advocacy for an idea or course of action is not therefore biased, the probability exists for its overlooking contrary evidence or assigning greater certainty than would a disinterested evaluator.
Irrelevant, biasing criticisms. They dismiss criticisms that are used not to inform but to themselves bias or agree with biases. Consider Mr. Romney’s income tax rate and Mr. Obama’s “you didn’t build that” statement, both removed from context and used to smear even though neither was relevant to the issues.
Expert-choosing. They know to ask why one expert is chosen over another to support a news source’s point of view. We expect disagreements among experts, but the field of 95% of experts cannot be represented by the contrary (though possibly still accurate) view of 5%.
Skepticism. They can employ an unhostile “show me” attitude of simply honoring straight talk and unbent facts, even while avoiding cynicism. Perhaps this is the general, overall strategy that runs through all the other tactics.
That list and associated tactics used regularly by many is not remarkable, possibly provoking (and deserving) a “duh” reaction. But its more bothersome shortcoming is obliviousness to the elephant in the room: The list takes for granted that as citizens we are motivated to find accurate, unbiased information and are willing to be fatigued hyperskeptics in order to find the needle of truth in all the haystacks. However, the truth is more likely that we’re willing to settle on a source we can count on to at least massage our tired biases. Staying vigilant is just too much work for citizens who have other important things to do in their lives.
What’s omitted in the list is the weakness of assuming that we actually want unbiased information. My conjecture after spending some time worrying over this matter is that our need to hear our own biases protected and presented back to us is so great that we can confidently postulate that on the whole our stated desire for the unvarnished facts is a psychological cover for not wanting unbiasedness after all.
I have a strong respect for the marketplace as the default mover of goods and services whether its use is in economics or in ideas. Where there is a demand, there will develop a supply at a price. So it is with news sources. My proposition is that (a) if citizens strongly demanded unbiased news sources, then over time they would be supplied, and (b) widespread citizen apathy (or downright rejection) about unbiased sources could be predicted to lead to the situation that we actually have. That is doubtless an insufficient proof for my hypothesis, but it may be a weighty indication.
We know our human need is to hear things we wish to hear and our desire to re-order whatever we hear into an agreement with our biases. Scientific studies of perception suggest not only that we do that, but that to some degree it is impossible for us not to do it. A huge need for truth is needed to overcome apathy, fatigue, and beloved or comfortable biases. We the people are conditioned, socialized, propagandized to seek like minds, especially about controversial issues or ideas. Our upbringing, our gender, our chronology, our ideologies and most of all Madison Avenue (or whatever passes for marketing) push us in certain directions, and rarely is that direction toward a commitment to truth.
Maybe, in the longer run, the long arc of history bends toward integrity of reception as well as transmission (to borrow and adapt shamelessly from Martin Luther King), but I despair in my lifetime of seeing that come to pass.