Saturday, July 13, 2013

Unacknowledged media bias

By Frank Moraes

Paul Krugman has posted a couple of articles on his blog defending France. You see, "people" say that France's unemployment rate is high. "They" say that Fance is on the verge of becoming another Greece—or at least Portugal. "They" say that the French are just all screwed up.

The truth is that none of this is actually true. It turns out that the employment situation is actually better in France than in the United States. There is less labor force participation among the young and old, but that is because France doesn't require students to work and encourages early retirement. What's more, France has no trouble borrowing, and actually borrows at a rate below that of Germany.

So why do "they" beat up so much on France? Krugman gets it mostly right except in his caution, "[I]t's hard to avoid the suspicion that it's ultimately political: with their generous welfare state the French are supposed to be collapsing, so people assume that they are." The problem is that "people" assume France is a socialism and therefore believe that it much be failing. Socialism is bad, right? And France even has a socialist president: Francois Hollande.

But it isn't just that everyone assumes that France is doing badly. It is the press—especially the financial press, who tend to be far more economically conservative than the country as a whole. This, of course, is our "objective" press. And note how this objectivity works. It isn't that the press will come right out and lie about France. They would never, for example, report that labor force participation in France for prime age workers is well below that of the United States. That would be false—it is exactly the opposite. So they simply don't report that. Instead, they report that labor force participation in France for the young is well below that of the United States. That's true, but highly misleading. Objectivity!

Of course, I don't think that journalists are trying to be misleading. It is just that there is a natural tendency to assume that things must suck in France. So when some conservative writes an article about the scourge of youth unemployment in France, the mainstream press pick it up in the big way. When a liberal writes an article that shows that this isn't the case, the mainstream press just ignore it. It can't be important because everyone knows it sucks in socialist France.

It can't be said enough: these unacknowledged biases poison our information flow. This happens in a variety of ways. It changes what stories are written. (You can especially see this in the conservative media where important stories simply aren't mentioned and bizarre—often made up—stories get blanket coverage. If you want an eye-opener, listen to conservative radio some time.) It changes the focus of stories to the point where they are highly biased. It severely limits the Overton window of acceptable opinion. (This is done most notably by limiting those who are listened to. For example, in the buildup to war, the cable news stations talked almost exclusively to administration officials and former military officers.)

For a long time, I've thought that explicitly biased news sources were best. For example, every Friday I listen to FAIR's weekly radio show Counter Spin. It has a leftist and anti-authoritarian bias. I mostly agree with that bias. Just the same, I can detect during every show things that are biased and not quite correct, even though they try very hard to be accurate and honest. The same can be said on the right, but the truth is that given the huge amounts of money that have been pumped into conservative media, it is damned hard to find an honest broker on the right. The libertarians do a reasonable job. I think Leonard Peikoff does a decent job of being accurate while grinding his ideological ax.

The biggest problem with the mainstream media is that (on economic and international issues, anyway) they are conservative. But they don't admit this. They claim they are just staking out the reasonable center. And the conservative media use this to convince their audience that they are providing the truth and nothing but the truth. Thus we have the ridiculous "fair and balanced" and "no spin zone" out of Fox News. So bias is a bad thing when it pretends to be objectivity. But bias is a fact and we must embrace it. Otherwise, it will destroy us.

(Cross-posted at Frankly Curious.)

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