Charlie Gibson, anchor of ABC’s World News, has accomplished more this week than just embarrassing himself and his colleagues; he has foreshadowed the cause of death of the mainstream media. Gibson was asked on a radio interview in Chicago earlier this week to opine on why the media is not covering the Senate’s decision to defund ACORN. The Senate’s decision to withdraw federal funding from President Obama’s former employer came after the organization was caught on video giving tax and legal advice to a man and woman posing as a pimp and a prostitute looking to set up a human trafficking operation in Baltimore. The scandal has been plastered all over the internet and received wall to wall coverage in a few media outlets. Gibson’s take: “I didn’t even know about it” (transcript and audio available here). Gibson’s blatant ignorance of a scandal that any ratings-respecting news anchor ought to be drooling over begs an important question: is today’s media biased, or just living on another planet?
Literally volumes have been written on the bias in today’s media, but bias in the American media is nothing new. Many eighteenth and nineteenth century newspapers made no pretense of neutrality. Before the era of broadcast media, newspapers would often align themselves with political parties and made little effort to distinguish news from editorial. Our modern concept of “journalistic neutrality” is in many regards a product of the professionalization of journalism that occurred following the advent of radio. While neutrality in broadcast media has never really been more than a guise, many Americans can remember a time when it was at least a goal.
Today, the very guise of neutrality that has given the media life through all these years is now causing its death. Through history, Americans have traditionally been quite comfortable with media bias in and of itself. But bias under the guise of neutrality strikes a different chord. It is one thing to say, “I’m a liberal, and here is how I see the news,” or to say, “I’m a conservative, and here is how I see the news.” But to say, “I am an objective observer,” and then spout out political propaganda is an insult to your audience. Bias in editorial is a fair exercise of the freedom of speech; bias in what is presented as non-partisan news is dishonesty in its simplest form.
A Pew Research poll released this week reveals that more and more Americans are questioning not just the bias, but the honesty and integrity of mainstream media sources. According to the poll, only 18% believe that the major news organizations “deal fairly with all sides” of an issue, down 8% from two years ago. Only 29% of Americans believe that news organizations “get the facts straight,” and 70% of Americans believe that news organizations go so far as to “try to cover up [their] mistakes” (see full results). No wonder so many are turning to the “new media” for their information.
It is telling to observe that as Americans turn away from the mainstream media they are turning to sources of media which are not less biased but rather more upfront about their bias. What bugs Americans about the mainstream media is not the bias, it is the dishonesty. If shows like Mr. Gibson’s hope to compete with the “new media” the first thing they need to do is to start openly admitting that their mission is to promote a certain political agenda. They may lose the one or two viewers that didn’t already know this, but they might gain some respect. It would also be the first step to regain the trust of the throngs that have tuned them out.