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Bias Then and Now

October 27th, 2009 - 12:52 pm

Thirty-forty years ago, when living in Rome, I used to buy seven newspapers every morning.  There was no pretense at “objectivity” by any of the papers.  Each represented an interest.  Il Corriere della Sera was the Milan industrial/financial establishment, La Stampa was Fiat, l’Unita’ was the Communist Party, and so forth.  Each had a very clear point of view, and each pushed the “news” that was most congenial, and spiked anything that didn’t fit the paper’s “line”.  I figured that if I read it all, somehow “the truth” would emerge from the conflicts between the various accounts, and I believed that my judgment was good enough to sort it all out.

Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t.  Some of the really big events remain obscure to me, like the bombing of the Bologna railroad station and the “anarchist” bombs in Milan.  Every now and then somebody gets convicted for them, and actually goes to jail, but then the case gets reopened and somebody else gets convicted, and on it goes.  This is particularly frustrating when it comes to the scandals that brought down the political class in the eighties;  it’s clear that many innocent people were convicted.  There are many important cases in which I still don’t know who was guilty, and who was framed.

But I digress, the point here is the press.  In those years, Watergate was happening over here, and I was very proud that American journalists were, as I then thought, simply reporting the facts about the Nixon Administration, and eventually Nixon had to resign.  I thought that showed a dramatic difference between our press and theirs.  One night at dinner, some Italian journalists said to me “that’s nothing;  we could bring down the entire system here if we wrote what we know.”  So I asked them why they didn’t.  They said “because we don’t see anyone or anything better.  So it makes no sense to bring this down.”

I didn’t like that at all.  I didn’t think it was their job to out think the destiny of the country, and I said, “but your job is to report the news, not to make political decisions.  Just tell the people the truth, and they will figure out what they want to do.”

I was wrong about the American press.  Watergate was highly political.   But even so, there was plenty of room in our leading newspapers for real reporters, and a single newspaper could carry stories that were variously good and bad for the two parties and for politicians of different political stripes.  You didn’t have to buy seven newspapers to try to figure out what was true.  And it was generally considered bad form for newspapers to carry stories that were blatantly political.

That notion of “bad form” had its parallel in the universities.  My favorite professor at Pomona College, 1958-1962, got very angry one day in class when someone asked him about his private convictions.  “I teach history,” he said.  And that was that.  We never knew his politics or his religion, and it would have been bad form for him to tell us, or even to teach in such a way as to make it obvious.  And as the journalists came out of that sort of university environment, many journalists took pride in concealing their politics.  Some of them even refused to vote because they thought they should be untarnished by political action.

All of that is gone, as we all know.  As in so many other ways, Italy was a political laboratory for us, and we now have to read the equivalent of my seven newspapers.  We read blogs, posts, tweets, videos, and messages of all sorts.  And we try to sort them out, sometimes getting it right, sometimes not.  We have to read all this stuff because all pretense of objectivity–which is to say, of simply “reporting” rather than making political judgments–is gone.  The best we can hope for is “balanced,” by which a news medium gives us “both sides.”

Like the Italians in the seventies, we have accepted bias as a fact of life, and while both “sides” complain about the “other side’s” politicization of the news, hardly anyone complains about the process itself.  Indeed, most energy and money are directed at monopolizing the “information flow,” shutting up or shutting down the other side (the recent White House jihad against Fox News being the most recent case in point–the attempted exclusion of Fox people from the White House pool is a textbook example), and seizing upon any excuse to vilify anyone who is taken to be wrongheaded.  But it’s only part of a much bigger transformation.  On the one hand, Soros pours money into web sites, on the other, Murdoch expands his media empire.  Some of these enterprises make some money, but for the most part they are losers.  Profit is certainly not the point.  It’s all about politics, just as in Italy thirty-forty years ago.

I don’t see any short-term “solution” to this state of affairs.  It might be nice to have a generally reliable source, but most politicized consumers would probably find it boring, which means losing money.   The only hope is to change the culture, which means, above all, changing the universities.  Our elite students are mostly products of super-politicized colleges and universities.  They’ve been trained by professors who not only do not conceal their politics, but often impose their ideology on the students.  A few years ago there was a poll of Ivy League professors in the humanities and social scientists, which produced a tiny handful of conservatives in a sea of liberals and leftists.  Not even a pretense of “balance.”  Unless that changes, there is no chance of producing a new generation of reporters.

Of course it’s not all bad news.  Along with the politicization of most everything, we got good food from Italy.  When we moved back to America in the late seventies, it was virtually impossible to get our favorite pasta in Washington, and you could forget about decent espresso.  Now it’s all here.  Online, in fact.  And it’s great.

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