Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Is There a Fact of the Matter About Bias?

Here is part of a message from John Gallagher:

I have yet to meet a conservative who does not believe that the media has a liberal bias. Conversely, I have yet to meet a liberal who does not believe the media has a conservative bias. Could media bias perhaps be a matter of perspective? I stand all amazed when a conservative tells me that The Arizona Republic is a liberal rag. From my perspective it is quite the opposite; I see them bury stories that are embarrassing to the Bush administration in a small paragraph on page Z28, the same story that a real newpaper like The Los Angeles Times would give full length coverage on the front page. I suppose this is just my liberal bias.

Thanks for writing, John. Note that my allegation of liberal media bias is restricted to the elite media outlets, and does not pertain to the media in general. The media in general may well have a conservative tilt if every outlet is taken into consideration: every website, weblog, AM radio station, small-town newspaper.

You raise the interesting question of whether bias might be solely in the eye of the beholder. I say No: there is a 'fact of the matter.'
Consider the following:
1. Falwell believes that homosexual practices are immoral.
2. Falwell is homophobic.
3. Falwell knows that homosexual practices are immoral.
(1) is free of bias. (2) displays liberal bias. (3)is an example of conservative bias. Each of these claims is objectively true, and not a matter of perspective or 'perception.' Now consider
4. The West Bank is disputed territory.
5. The West Bank is occupied territory.
6. The West Bank belongs to Israel by divine covenant.
It is obvious to me that (4) is unbiased, while (5) and (6) evince pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli bias respectively. Now consider:
7. Al-Qaeda operatives beheaded N. Berg.
8. Al-Qaeda operatives murdered N. Berg.
My claim -- which I intend to be objectively true and not subject to reasonable debate -- is that (7) is purely factual and free of bias, while (8) reflects conservative bias. 'Murder' implies wrongful killing, and the judgment of wrongfulness, though fully justified given my way of thinking, goes beyond the facts. Finally:
9. O'Reilly thinks that illegal immigration ought to be stopped.
10. O'Reilly is a xenophobe.
(9) evinces no bias whatsoever, while (10) shows liberal-left bias. Moreover, the bias displayed in (10) is irrational based as it is on a misunderstanding of 'xenophobe,' while the bias in (8) is rational inasmuch as good reasons can be given why that particular beheading was morally wrong.

Now suppose there is a newspaper that consistently says things like (2), (5), and (10) as part of its reportage (as opposed to its editorializing), but never says anything like (3), (4), or (8). I would say that such a newspaper has a liberal bias, and that this is a plain fact that does not itself express any bias.

Will you agree with me on this? If not, then I will wonder whether you accept the possibility of arriving at objective truth, or whether you are instead some sort of relativist. If the latter, then I will have to trot out my anti-relativist arguments. And if you do not agree with me on the foregoing, there would probably be no point in discussing whether the New York Times, or any particular media outlet, is biased to the Left.