Unbiased Media

Whether there is systematic bias in the media and what points of view this supposed bias favors is a contentious, snake pit of a topic that I’m not about to dip my toe into (although here’s the conclusion of somebody seemingly reputable who’s “looked into the numbers”). I frankly don’t know, and the usual bias — left-wing or right-leaning — that people talk about isn’t something I have any thoughts to contribute to in this post. Insofar as I’m curious about the level of neutrality in media coverage, I’m interested in a narrow topic that’s neither obviously liberal or conservative: copyright.

On the Media, a National Public Radio show, had an interview in which the host, Bob Garfield, prompted and got a confirmatory answer from his guest, Mike Masnick, that the controversy generated by the proposed bills PIPA and SOPA had not received much press on television. According to Masnick, this is because these bills very much have the support of the major TV and cable news networks, some of whose owners helped to draft the language found in the legislation. Masnick goes so far as to say that reporters employed by these organizations have been muzzled as they “really can’t cover [PIPA and SOPA] because [their] corporate parents really don’t want this to become an issue”.

Issues regarding intellectual property laws and their enforcement in the public eye revolve around the opposing banners of “property” and “free speech”, of “creators” and “users/pirates”, of “American ingenuity” and “coddled thieves of foreign origins”, and of “culture” and “technology”. In this last instance, media companies — including TV networks, music execs, publishers, and newspapers — stand in for the role of Culture, or content creators and cultural producers. These are companies with the most to gain if intellectual property rights are strengthened. Unsurprisingly then, many of them have officially supported bills like SOPA.

Does this affect the content that these companies put out? Employees for these companies, more than being mere employees, are content creators themselves. As such, even if the organizations exert no pressure whatsoever on their staff, these reporters, artists, and authors still “have skin in the game” and will project appearances of impropriety.

For example, couldn’t one argue that Bob Garfield was too soft in the interview immediately following Masnick’s where he talks to Steve Tepp, council for the business lobbying group the US Chamber of Commerce and a defender of SOPA? Why did he let Tepp’s claim that the bills are about protecting US interests against “foreign criminals” who are “exploiting the American people” go unchallenged? Such loaded phrases! How can the legislation be billed as “for the American people” when some of the very same “American people”, e.g. the Wikipedia community, are protesting against it? Why single out “foreign criminals” when foreign sites hosting copyright materials are daily visited by Americans? Criminals are criminals; if Tepp wants to call people who infringe copyright criminals, go ahead; why mix in “foreign” unless to draw from the well of xenophobia? More importantly, why didn’t Bob Garfield raise an of these natural objections?

So here’s my question, “if a person works for an organization whose interests are clearly aligned with one side in a debate, how does he know these interests, as well as his own, are not creeping into his coverage of the issue?” Please note that I’m not insinuating that people are, in fact, being biased, or even that it’s impossible for them to be unbiased. Instead, I take people’s claims of objectivity at face value and ask how they know that they’re not acting to protect the very works that they are producing, works that enjoy the protection of copyright? If I suspect that I can’t perfectly liberate myself from the biases I hold as a content consumer, how do they know that as content producers, they’re not as shackled as I am?

No obvious answers seem convincing. The most conspicuous straw man is that content producers have reputations — their own or their organizations’ — to worry about. They can’t give free reign to their biases because then they would destroy their reputation for objective reporting, and nobody will listen to them from this day onward. However, reputation — almost by definition — is not something that can be earned in one day and so it’s not something that can be destroyed in one biased piece, or even a series of biased pieces (especially when the biased pieces are interleaved with balanced writings on other topics). The second obvious, but unpersuasive, answer is that content producers/reporters are watched by their consumers/readers who may “call them out” if they allow their prejudices to shine through their work. But unless the bias is egregious, readers are unlikely to speak with one clear voice and correct the reporter’s prejudice. Moreover, the reporter/reader’s relationship is based on trust to a large extent. If readers can independently confirm and evaluate all of a reporter’s work, then they wouldn’t have needed the reporter in the first place.

By and large then, content producers have to police themselves. How do they do that? What rules do they have for watching their own motivations? How can I write by the same rules?

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