All of which underlines the obvious: the news audience, if not news
itself, is getting more polarized. But categories like Pew’s “liberal,”
“conservative” and “neither” imply that our society is as simplistic
about media bias as we are about politics (when in fact both involve
nuanced positions), and they overlook the most significant bias out
there: moderate bias.
As anyone following health reform knows, centrism is a
political position too. And you see moderate bias — i.e., a preference
for centrism — whenever a news outlet assumes that the truth must be
“somewhere in the middle.” You see it whenever an organization decides
that “balance” requires equal weight for an opposing position, however
specious: “Some, however, believe global warming is a myth.” (Moderate
bias would also require me to find a countervailing liberal position
and pretend that it is equivalent to global-warming denial. Sorry.)
Moderate bias also grows from a related phenomenon: status-quo bias.
Journalists, like anyone, have a built-in bias toward believing that
what was true yesterday will be true tomorrow. Establishment news
outlets grow cozy and comfortable with other establishments. One reason
some journalists insufficiently questioned the run-up to the Iraq war
and underestimated the housing bubble was that they listened to their
usual, credentialed sources — and the history of the past decade is the
history of the experts being wrong.
And especially in the top ranks of journalism, there’s class bias. If I
wanted to look at potential conflicts of interest in reporters covering
bank bailouts, for instance, I’d be less concerned about their party
affiliation than whether they’re based (like me) in New York City,
where the economy lives and dies on finance.