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By Jay Cost

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On the Objectivity of the Press

Regular readers know that I am less than satisfied with our political press. One particular problem I have is its claim of objectivity. The press is not objective. What's more, it offers disguises to conceal its lack of objectivity. Sometimes these disguises are quite poor; when they are, we can see press bias for what it is.

Let me say at the outset that what follows is not a typical, the press-is-a-biased-shill-for-the-GOP story, or the-press-is-a-biased-shill-for-the-Democrats story. I am going to remain agnostic on the issue of ideological bias.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes "objective" in several ways, the most relevant of which is:

Of a person or their judgement: not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts; impartial, detached.
Philosophically, I do not think this quality is attainable. It is naïve to believe that anybody can be wholly free from the influence of personal feelings. I would agree that one can achieve functional objectivity - in which one is still influenced by one's personal situation, but possesses a measure of detachment.

The press is not objective, even in this relatively limited sense. It has its own set of private interests. News stories reflect its attempts to maximize these interests. This implies an absence of objectivity in the sense that I have defined it.

Political activists on both sides accuse the press of ideological bias. In many instances, these critiques frame the question of bias in ways that cause us to miss it in its other forms. After all, left-right ideology is only a single dimension of American political life. It is surely not the case that all interests can be represented on a single dimension. If we put aside the question of ideological bias, we can go on to ask if there are any private interests that the press has, and whether those interests are reflected in its "objective" work.

Like any professional group, the press has an interest in maximizing revenue and minimizing costs. This induces many different biases. For instance, the press has an interest in, and therefore a bias toward, conflict. The public is attracted to conflict, so the press focuses on it excessively. It also has a bias in activity, change, dynamism, whatever you want to call it. Things must be "happening" in a press story because this attracts the attention of the public. It has a bias toward stories with good visuals because the public is attracted to them. As for minimizing costs, the press faces space and time constraints. This induces a bias toward the simple over the complicated, the straightforward over the subtle, consensus of opinion over diversity. Stanford political scientist Shanto Iyengar has argued that the press evinces a bias toward "episodic" framing rather than "thematic" framing. That is, its news stories tend not to place events in their broader contexts, focusing instead on a particular, isolated event. One can appreciate how episodic framing maximizes conflict and dynamism while minimizing the time or space needed to convey it.

Generally, the press has a set of preferences just as any professional group does. Like any group, these interests are narrow in that they are not the interests of the public at large. Just because they do not "fit" on a left-right "line" does not mean that they do not exist.

Personally, none of this upsets me. Private interests are inevitable in all professions. What I object to is that today's press consistently claims that this interestedness does not exist. The claim of objectivity implies exactly this - that the member of the press who has crafted the story is not present in the story, has no interest in what the story ultimately argues, and is reporting matters "as they are." This is not the case, and so I find that the press often makes use of rhetorical disguises to hide the interests it has in a particular story. Sometimes, the disguise of objectivity can be fairly thin. When it is, we can see clearly the motivation of the press in the story.

One of the thinnest disguises I have seen in a long while came in Wednesday's edition of Politico.com - in an article by Kenneth Vogel entitled "Rivals try to deflate F. Thompson's campaign." The entire article should be read for the whole drift to sink in, but I will just quote the first few paragraphs.

Fred Thompson has had a relatively easy ride as he has flirted with a bid for the Republican presidential nomination. His strategists have found traction promoting him as the heir to Ronald Reagan -- and a conservative alternative to the top tier of the GOP field.

But the ride is starting to get a bit bumpy.

Opponents and their researchers have begun working -- mostly behind the scenes -- to highlight perceived soft spots in his conservative bona fides.

And Thompson will have to neutralize questions on the campaign trail and in the media about his centrist votes in the Senate, his stances on litmus test conservative issues including abortion and -- perhaps most significantly -- his work as a lawyer and lobbyist.

Thompson's biggest challenge will likely be cementing his image as a conservative country lawyer fixin' to shake up Washington -- before his opponents brand him as an influence peddler and trial lawyer.

As you read the article, you realize that, in fact, Mr. Thompson's political opponents are not trying to "deflate" Fred Thompson's campaign at all. There is not a single political opponent, or advisor of an opponent, quoted. In fact, the only person quoted is Thompson spokesman Mark Corallo. And so, the article is actually a story of conflict between Thompson and the Politico! The reference to rivals is simply a rhetorical trick to place the attacks in the mouths of others. The fact is that the Politico authored a piece that offered a litany of reasons why Fred Thompson is no good for conservatives, and then allowed Thomspon to respond to each of them. It created a conflict where - at least for now - it does not exist.

What frustrates me here is not that the Politico decided to go after Fred Thompson. Even though the immediate motivation for the piece was presumably narrow, it serves a broader, more noble purpose: Thompson should be thoroughly vetted, just as all of the top tier presidential candidates should be. What frustrates me is the thin disguise that hides the interests of the author. It insults the reader's intelligence. I would not expect the Politico - or any outlet - to go out of its way to declare its personal interests in the story. To frame the story in a way that implies that it is not the Politico's interests that motivates it, but rather the interests of other candidates upon which the Politico is simply reporting, is aggravating to me.

Generally, these sorts of disguises serve as attempts by the press to obscure the fact that it wields significant political power. The press claims merely to be observing, objectively reporting what is happening without interference or participation in the process. But because this is not the case, the press exercises political power.

What political power does the press exercise? It is the same power I have discussed all week, the power to set the agenda. The press exercises power over all of us by influencing us on what subjects we will, and will not, consider; and how we will, and will not, consider them. They do not influence what we believe per se. But they do influence what we are thinking about, and also the way in which we frame current events. This is one reason why conservatives and liberals blast seemingly liberal or conservative newspapers for ignoring certain stories and promoting others, for framing issues in one way and not another way. This is a reaction to the press' role to set the agenda.

We can see in this Politico column the power of the press. Because the press has the ability to decide what we shall and shall not discuss, and because it has an interest in conflict - we are discussing whether Fred Thompson's political record conflicts with the policy preferences of the GOP base.

-Jay Cost