October 29, 2009

Propaganda Is Not Bias

I’m guilty of blurring the line between bias and propaganda. While I make the distinction clear in my chapter in 21st Century Communications, I’ve been less clear on my widely-read Media/Political Bias page.

While I’m in general agreement with Greg Sargent’s blog post today, I’m not happy with his use, or the current general use, of the term “bias.”

If one consciously engages in the act of systematically delivering interested messages that circumvent rational argument, then one is practicing propaganda. Such messages are not an indication of bias because bias is inherent in our cognitive and cultural systems. One does not employ bias on purpose. Biased is something you are, not something you do.

I do not care to get into a snit about which is worse, MSNBC or FOX. Both cable networks (and CNN, too) have found unique ways to pass off blathering punditry as journalism, and all three have failed to live up to journalism’s primary purpose: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing. All three spend much time everyday proving Neil Postman correct.

One of things I want readers to take away from my discussion of bias is that political bias in the news media (and, yes, it does exist) is just one of many types of bias and, perhaps, not the most important in understanding journalistic behavior. The theory of structural bias, I believe, predicts equally well what MSNBC and FOX will do, and why they do it, despite the conscious efforts of the networks to carve up the political world into a simplistic right-left dichotomy.

Howard Beale said it best: “This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing! We are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off! Turn them off right in the middle of the sentence I’m speaking to you now! TURN THEM OFF…

5 Responses

  1. Tim 

    It seems obvious to me (and has for many years) that most news orgs have two types of bias: business and political. Even a “centrist” bias can be based on business and political considerations.

    Can a business and political bias be “free” of propaganda? Perhaps, but a difficult product for humans engaged in the business of giving citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing, which is an ideological political goal judged separately by the producer and consumer.

  2. Tim 

    For decades “professional” journalists denied the inherent ideological biases of the newsroom were important while at the same time admitting the inherent biases based on gender, race/ethicity, and class were important.

    Journalists’ Ideology

    As was the case in 2004, majorities of the national and local journalists surveyed describe themselves as political moderates; 53% of national journalists and 58% of local journalists say they are moderates. About a third of national journalists (32%), and 23% of local journalists, describe themselves as liberals. Relatively small minorities of national and local journalists call themselves conservatives (8% national, 14% local).

    Newsroom Diversity Should Include Ideology

    “Conservatives” Are Single-Largest Ideological Group

  3. Tim 

    If language is never neutral, speaking always purposeful, and persuasion always present, then how is news not some form of propaganda? And, if it is, does it always carry the connotation of being harmful/misleading/wrong?

    Public Journalism and Deliberation

    Although the press has strengthened representative democracy in America, it has done little to enhance public deliberation. In fact, by emphasizing partisan political maneuvering, journalists have sometimes suggested that public talk is irrelevant to the power games that constitute “politics.” By concentrating on elections, they have implied that citizens act through the ballot box alone. Their heavy use of polls has helped to define “public opinion” as the response of detached individuals to preformulated questions. Their fixation on divisive issues and controversial figures has polarized opinion and made citizens weary of political debate. Finally, their relentless search for scandal in government has given all politics an odor of disgrace.

  4. acline 

    Tim… Can’t really respond right now. Caught the swine flu. But I’ll return to this asap. Quickly: I want to avoid any potential equation of propaganda and rhetoric. The latter is a tool of the former. But, yes, news discourse, I think, can be thought of as a form of propaganda — especially regarding its construction of a false position of objectivity.

  5. Tim 

    Andy, hope you feel better soon! Take care of yourself and I look forward to your return.

    re: “construction of a false position of objectivity”

    Yes, absolutely! Along with democracy cannot survive without a (professional) press, it’s the only profession mentioned by name in the Constitution, and requires professionals because it’s like brain surgery.