Bias Pt II

I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

George Orwell, Why I Write

The reason for the trend of journalism towards page-views and sensationalism is, on the face of it, due to the mechanics of the business. Subscription based outlets tend to focus on the long-term health of the brand, making subscription based publishers more likely to deliver content with more accuracy and depth. Single-view businesses like blogs focus on the impact of every single article, having to attract as many page-views as possible to make money. This makes those types of publishers more likely to resort to sensationalism in their pursuit to strengthen the magnetic pull of every piece of their content. But the mechanics of the business is only a surface level symptom, itself being a result of an underlying shift.

There is no such thing as unbiased journalism. Journalism that you might consider unbiased is simply biased in your favor. It’s difficult to detect bias when the content reflects your specific outlook on the world. Even in cases where the facts are reported in a dry, mechanical manner, the very selection of what to report in the first place is a judgement call by made by the journalist, reflecting their conception of what they deem important for the public to know – or what will generate the most eyeballs. Since the journalist cannot report everything that ever happens at once, they will have to select, they will have to judge and pick the material they are going to publish, and that very act of filtering out the material introduces their own particular bias, whether driven by an ideology or by money.

And therein lies the underlying cause. Yellow press doesn’t have an overt ideology – beyond that of the subconscious leanings of its journalists – it is driven primarily by page-views, by the need to make money from selling more ads. Sure, the writers and producers may enjoy what they’re doing, they are certain to be interested in their industry and possess knowledge of it, but their work does not have an ideological core, they are not trying to promote certain ideas or accomplish specific goals. Without an ideology, their selection process is based on what’s interesting, not on what’s important, since the criteria for the latter does not exist.

Not only does this form of journalism lack ideology, it is actively opposed to it, seeing the lack of it as an advantage rather than a fault. Politicized writing is said to be biased and untrustworthy. The reader is warned to be on the lookout for writers trying to sell them their ideas, to be on the guard for journalists with a strong point of view. Such writing, they say, is surely bad for the readers, trying to push ideas and opinions into their defenseless heads. Politicized writing is equated to propaganda and brainwashing. The reader, they say, should be left alone to make up their own minds from “balanced”1 and “unbiased” coverage.

There is no doubt that politicized writing varies in quality. On one end of the spectrum lie cheap propaganda, sleazy spin and the rants of crazy conspiracy theorists. This is typically what is being presented as media with an ideology to push. In reality, the typical offenders, like FOX News in America (or their mirrors on the political left, the “side” here being irrelevant), are actually publicist media sold under the guise of partisan media. Their reporting isn’t based on values and principles, nor on political goals and objectives, it’s based on market trends. What they’re selling isn’t ideology, but distraction wrapped in cheap confirmation of pre-existing biases.

On the other end of the spectrum lies something completely different. From the earliest political philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, to the Stoic teachings of Aurelius and Seneca, to the timeless poetry of Dante and Milton, to the heartfelt prose of Goethe and Schiller, to the religious insights of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and the political commentary of Huxley and Orwell2 – among many others, not merely philosophers, but poets and novelists – all great writers were teachers who taught their own understanding of the world to their readers, who gave them sight through the light of their ideology. Their writing wasn’t a distraction made to pass the time, and their prose was not crafted for idle enjoyment – it was an earnest attempt to express the injustices of this world and to carve a way past them to the ideal world beyond. That is what real writing founded on well developed ideology looks like.

On contrast, modern journalism gives no lessons and provides no guidance. It analyzes, yes, but it doesn’t interpret, it doesn’t lead. It pretends to give you just the facts, leaving it up to you what you do with them, but the facts were already pre-selected for you. The aim of populist writing is to provide a distraction under the guise of information, to provide a means for people to kill time under the illusion of a useful activity.

The lack of overt bias doesn’t lead to good reporting, it leads to purposeless populism. Writing without a purpose, writing without a goal that one can measurably progress towards assumes the familiar quality of yellow journalism, striking hard and fast to grab one’s attention, to get one to view the page for a few seconds, and the advertising along with it. You won’t find any lessons here, nor guidance, nor any fuel to inspire you. At best, it will leave you empty; at worst, it will make you angry and fill you with a fog of rumors and speculations.

  1. What is being “balanced” anyway? Truth and falsehood? Fact and rumor? Style and substance? There are only two reasons for why you’d want to balance conflicting ideas: either you believe that both ideas have validity and that opposing views can both be true, or you don’t believe that but can’t be bothered to do the research to find out which one is right, leaving that work for the reader.

  2. The “and” used in the list is stylistic rather than comparative. All great minds stand alone and are not defined by an “and”.

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Further Reading

Proust wrote that the true voyage of discovery is not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold a hundred universes that each of them beholds. Thus, in the words of Ruskin, what good books give us is not mere knowledge, but sight.

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