02 August 2012

Guest Post: Bias in Mainstream Media

Bias in Mainstream Media:
Being a Natural Consequence of a Democratic Constitution

Many people complain that mainstream media have a pro-government bias.  But, if there is such a bias, why would it exist?  I offer a theory.

First, let us notice that workers in mainstream media (henceforth MSM) and workers in government can both gain when they find ways to cooperate.  A MSM reporter can help a politician by writing a friendly story.  A politician can help a reporter by giving newsworthy information.  Both can gain if they fall into a pattern of mutually supportive exchange.

But, contrary to that, the relation between MSM and government does not always look like a scene of peaceful exchange.  MSM publish hostile reports as well as supportive reports.  The political scene is divided into factions, we know.  Each faction has players from both MSM and government.  These factions war with each other.

Nonetheless, unless I am mistaken, there seems to be a sense in which the factions fight among themselves over one single thing: What will government do?  The factions contend over how powers of government – powers which are implicitly taken for granted – will be employed.  By engaging in this fight, the factions seem to imply they believe government should have powers such as those over which the factions fight.  We observe something like a family fight in which family members battle each other while remaining loyal nonetheless to the overall family.

We may wonder: What common interest binds these political factions together?  Consider the constitution of a democracy.  In the US the Constitution separates the media from the formal structures of government.  But still the process of democratic government requires the media.  It could not work without the media.  This type of government has voters who elect representatives who go to capital cities and pass government laws.  Voters care, really care, about what the government is doing.

This democratic process creates a large demand for news and views.  The demand in turn creates an environment with profit opportunities.  In this environment well-managed media companies may support staffs of editors, writers, and reporters.  So even though the democratic constitution does not provide explicit ways to pay media workers, still it creates an environment in which some media workers will be able to make a living.

Now, after presenting most of my argument, let me clarify what I mean by “mainstream media” or “MSM”.  Hopefully it is already becoming clear.  By “MSM” I mean those media organizations in which a substantial part of the work entails reporting on the process of democratic government.  Another part of MSM work entails reporting problems of a particular sort in society: those problems for which it is presumed that democratic government might be employed to alleviate the problems.  MSM are employed with the question: How will we govern ourselves?

I have tried to argue that MSM workers are employed by the process of democratic government, although not in a relationship of direct government employment.  I suppose there is a tendency for employees to feel loyal to the structure which makes their jobs possible.  This is how I would explain a pro-government bias in MSM reporting.

Writers from MSM will bicker among themselves on what they believe government should do, whether A or B.  But implicitly the MSM writers from all factions seem to agree: We (meaning the government) must do something.  MSM seem to avoid the proposal that democratic government should be strictly limited, and should not have power to do either A or B.  There may be no paying role for MSM on an issue outside the power of government.  Thus we should not be surprised to perceive pro-government bias in MSM.

1 comment:

  1. Good post, Rich. A few points:

    I think your first paragraph begs the question a bit. I don't, however, think that this takes anything away from the points you raise.

    The central question described in the fourth paragraph is indeed the most common question at issue. I'd argue more forcefully that the existential question is explicitly taken for granted. Like I've asserted previously regarding soviet-style communism, I think that, for many (if not most) people, this question has been answered. It could be that asking this question is seen, in the legal analogy, as relitigating a settled question.

    You also address the institutional purpose of the media. I largely agree with you here. I think our governmental institutions do create the profit opportunity that then leads to media companies, but I don't think this differs from the implicit and explicit governmental allowance of markets, a point with which I'd expect you to disagree.

    I think you glance off of a central issue (to me) in the last paragraph. In a properly functioning democracy, 'we' does refer to the government. Bryan Caplan has virtually made a career arguing that this ideal is impossible, but I think he's simply wrong.

    As far as the media's indifference to the question of whether the government 'should not have power to do either A or B,' I think that, besides the relitigation issue I mentioned above, there is also a question of practicality. 'This is the world we live in,' or a similar sentiment.