Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Media Bias: Finding Real America

Bias is a defect in the thought process that interferes with a person’s ability to see the truth because it causes us to ignore or downplay facts we don’t agree with, to over-rely on facts we like, and to dismiss valid arguments from sources we don’t like. At its most benign, bias causes us to simply award the benefit of the doubt in favor of things we want to believe. But bias can also cause us to intentionally become dishonest in our analysis. Some people are so overcome with their own biases that they don’t even understand how blind they’ve made themselves, and how much it permeates their thinking. That brings us to Joe Klein.

Joe Klein is a liberal Democrat, though not a leftist. He probably considers himself a moderate, but what Democrat doesn’t? He’s also a journalist for Time. And like all liberal journalists, he periodically needs to assure himself that he’s not suffering from bias. Thus, like so many before him, he’s taking a trip out into “real America,” beyond the talking points, to find out what real people are thinking. But is he really or is he simply feeding his own biases? Let’s look.

He begins by assuring himself that he intends to be honest. He “doesn’t trust the things [he’s] been seeing on TV and in the papers,” and he wants to get to the truth. And what doesn't he trust? Well, he doesn't trust the "talking points" being bandied about on Fox News and MSNBC that tell us the public is angry, and he doubts the polls tell the real story. Indeed, he assures us again, he’s “not going to . . . troll for quotes that reflect the polls,” no, he’s going to “report what he sees” and “let the chips fall” where they may. In theory this sounds fair, except that he admits the polls show a "big Republican year," and it’s unsurprising that a liberal would want to find the “real” (read: contradictory) story to such polls. Indeed, it would be a lot easier to believe this was an unbiased impulse if he had the same desire in 2008, when the polls supported his view. It would also help if he hadn't defined "anger" in purely Democratic terms, which of course he does -- anger at the war and anger at the economy... nothing more.

Having set his goal of finding evidence to disprove the polls, he is surprised to immediately discover that he’s meeting “roughly equal numbers of people on both sides,” despite the polls showing only 40% support for the Democrats. He sees this as significant, but he’s wrong, this is the result of his bias. In a country of 300 million people, that 40% figure means that there are 60 million more right-leaners than left-learners this year, and those left-leaners are all concentrated in the coastal cities. So he should find an overwhelming number of conservatives in Middle America, but he doesn't. Why? Because of the route he selects. He tells us he’s going “diagonally across the country” from New York to Los Angles. A diagonal trip from New York to L.A. lets him avoid the entire conservative South. But more importantly, his diagonal claim is false, he’s actually traveling from New York to Philadelphia to Buffalo to Detroit to Wisconsin before dropping down to Kansas City. That’s not diagonal, it's a tour of big liberal cities. Thus, it’s no surprise that he’s found a large number of liberals. Moreover, everywhere he goes, he meets with local Democratic candidates, which makes finding liberals a guaranteed certainty.

How he discusses these Democrats further exposes his bias. In each case, he starts by personalizing them, something he does not do with the Republicans he meets. Further, anything the Democrats say, he immediately confirms with a quote by some "neutral" person, whereas he immediately contradicts any quote given by a Republican. For example, his first stop is with a Democratic House candidate in Philadelphia. This Democrat is a former paratrooper and prosecutor, and we learn that this guy had the genius idea to make his pamphlets black and white because this would save money AND because people are more interested in reading black and white material. How do we know? Because Klein immediately confirms that “all along the train platform, people were reading” this material. He also points out that this candidate did this over the objections of his staff. Thus, we have a brave, maverick genius.

It takes five more paragraphs before he mentions the Republican (Meehan), whom he does not personalize in any way. Instead, he introduces Meehan by telling us that Meehan claims that people are complaining about the stimulus. But in the next sentence, Klein shoots this down by uncritically quoting a steel worker who says, “don’t let anyone tell you the stimulus isn’t working.” He also points out that the Republican is handing out glossy, color pamphlets, something that would be irrelevant if he hadn’t already pointed out the heroic brilliance of using black and white pamphlets.

And that’s just the beginning. Over the next several entries he:

• Meets with a handful of “model Muslim immigrants” in Detroit (all born in the US and all small business owners), who were Republicans until recently until Bush and Gingrich (who they once met) started talking about Muslims like they are “Nazis.” He then uses a quasi-joke to chide Christians for not getting the “don’t judge others thing.”

• He talks to a UAW couple who hate Palin and love Obama and the UAW.

• He assures us that Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold is a great man.

• He tries to tell us that Missouri Democrat Robin Carnahan has real Tea Party credentials.

• In Iowa, he delivers an ugly attack on a Sarah Palin speech. Actually, he hides behind “quotes” from his wife so he can pretend he’s not doing the savaging.
And what about the Republicans he meets?
• In Wisconsin, he meets a “deeply conservative” man who doesn’t like the Republicans because they aren’t conservative enough for him. Oddly, this “conservative” stresses that he’s pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage and he thinks Obama’s “doing what he can,” he just suffers from inexperience.

• And in Ohio, he meets with Senate candidate Rob Portman, who he describes as “a conservative, no question, but not one of the lunatics--he's solid, sane and civil.”
I think Klein is being genuine in his belief that he’s looking for an honest assessment of America. But his biases blind him. He seeks out big, rustbelt cities and avoids conservative areas, he seeks out Democratic candidates wherever he goes, he humanizes the Democrats he meets because he likes them, and he defines away any conservative he meets who doesn't share his views as a “lunatic” or cynical. These are classic examples of bias, and they blind him to the truth that he hasn't found real America, he's set out to confirm his prejudices.

And he’s not alone. The Economist has a guy who does the same “road trip” thing. His route is from New York City to upstate New York, and his view into “real America” comes from his talks with a New York City lawyer with whom he travels to the lawyer's villa in Italy twice a year. I’ve seen reporters go to Maryland, suburban Los Angeles or suburban San Francisco/Oakland to find “real America.” When they venture to places like the South, it’s usually inner city Atlanta or the only Democratic districts in Texas. And whenever they meet someone who expresses things they don't like, they simply dismiss them as unrepresentative crazies. It's easy to confirm your own views when you go where people like you hang out and when you dismiss anyone who doesn't fit your views.

But attacking Joe Klein isn't my only point. Conservatives are equally guilty of this type of bias too. Too many have blinded themselves to the "real world" because they hang out with people who think like they do, they only listen to people who tell them what they want to hear, and they pick out the things they want to believe. Ignorance is never a plus, and bias-induced ignorance only sets you up for disaster. We should all ask ourselves at all times, am I really considering the evidence, or am I just reinforcing my own biases?


Tennessee Jed said...

This was an excellent assessment and you should send it to Klein just to see if and how he would respond. Still, I have to ask "what makes you believe Klein is being genuine?"

LL said...

Everyone has bias and is prone to pre-judge. And in normal times (no, I won't define "normal") it matters a lot less.

We're broke, and the Democratic Party plans to keep spending like drunken sailors in a whorehouse with somebody else's credit card. That is the issue. And biased or not, the numbers speak for themselves.

StanH said...

Joe Klein is a liberal hack for decades, as I know you know. He’s a propagandist not a reporter. I think a sound way to think when you read anything, I believe it comes from the days of Yellow Journalism, and W.R. Hearst, with a comment that goes something like, “don’t believe anything that you read.” Always expect a certain bias from the author. The dangerous part is people like Klein will not admit their biases, they use the hijacked terms of being moderate, dispassionate, just the facts ma’am I’m a reporter…barf! Any more I just point and laugh at the Klein’s of the world, they add nothing to the public discourse, but a slanted radical left point of view. Good read.

Unknown said...

Time Magazine still exists?

BevfromNYC said...

Excellent as always. I'm with LawHawk though. I didn't realize that Time still existed, so I applaud you being able to read it. I dropped both Time and Newsweek after the inauguration. It was just too much Obama as Messiah stuff.

You make excellent points about bias on both sides. We do need to do a gut check often to keep ourselves honest. Hey, spend an afternoon at HuffPo sometime and you'll get a heavy dose of Liberal. Believe it or not, there are people who comment rationally and civilly. If you can get through the background noise of ad hominem attacks, there are people who will listen to a well reasoned argument.

And just as an aside, someone should tell Andrew Breitbart he is doing the Conservative causes no big favors these days.

Tam said...

It is my bias that keeps me from getting TOO excited about November. Or maybe I should say it is my bias that adds a little anxiety to my excitement. Everyone I know and talk to and read share my views, so of course it feels like a tsunami is coming. At least I recognize it, right? And at least I don't go around all preachy-preachy pretending not to have biases saying I KNOW the REAL America.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Great point! I think I will forward it to him!

I think he's being genuine because I honestly don't see him as a liar. There are others who are clearly liars, who would spin like a top and then pretend that they weren't, but I don't get that feeling from Klein. I get the feeling that he's being genuine in his desire, but that he just doesn't understand how much he lives in a bubble.

AndrewPrice said...

LL, Everyone has bias, absolutely true. But if you start paying attention, you can spot your own biases, or at least understand them. And I think it's always important to make that kind of assessment because bias blinds us to missed opportunities and it blinds us to danger.

I've seen it time and again in law where a lawyer decides that a particular argument is great and they just pound that one to exclusion of all others even though the judge/jury has clearly indicated they aren't buying that argument but they are interested in a different argument the attorney is ignoring.

In one famous instance of what bias can do, Einstein rejected the Big Bang theory (even though his data showed it to be the logical conclusion) because that argument was advanced by a Catholic priest and Einstein was anti-religious.

Even in the current environment, we need to make sure that we aren't setting ourselves up for failure in a year or two. So I would say that examining our biases are always important.
In the modern sense, we need to be sure that our bias

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it. I like the statement -- never believe anything you read! :-)

I actually disagree with you a bit on Klein. I think he sees himself as a moderate liberal with an open mind. I think he just doesn't understand how closed his mind is and that he's only a moderate compared to the people he knows on the far left. Keep in mind, his world is New York City and Washington, which are large, pro-government, liberal cities. And even then, the circles he travels in are all left leaning. So he is the kind of guy who can repeat the famous statement: "I don't know how Nixon got elected, nobody I know voted for him." And he could do that with a straight face.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Apparently, but it ain't what it used to be.

Unknown said...

Andrew: Sometimes I think if I live long enough, I'll see everything come full circle more than once. When I was a student at Berkeley, I hated Time because it was a right-wing rag (like the Los Angeles Times). Now it's a left-wing rag. If I wait long enough, maybe it will move to the right again. Or not.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, Thanks! :-)

Bias is one of those things that's just part of human nature, but we're also smart enough to consider where/why we might be biased and to assess whether or not we may be blinding ourselves. I think that's the key to all success. In fact, almost every great disaster in history -- from the fall of empires to the sinking of the Titanic came about because the people involved assumed that certain things couldn't hurt them, etc.

In politics, you see how damaging it is all time. When Obama took over, the left believed that America was ready for a new-socialist America because they wanted to believe, no matter what the evidence. And even now, their bias is blinding them to why they're in trouble or how they need to fix it.

Many on the right are determined to repeat this mistake. They blindly accept candidates who aren't really good conservatives, who don't have good track records, and who send up huge red flags because they make the right sounds. How does this help us when they freak out on us in 2011 or implode in 2012? Many also don't want to hear anything but good news, and they want their views confirmed. But how does that help us make an effective strategy?

I think it is an historical truth that bias almost always leads to disaster, defeat and failure.

AndrewPrice said...

Tam, That's very wise and very rare!

I'm actually amazed(disturbed) at how many people I run into who really think "everyone I know thinks like me, so everyone must think like me." These seems like such a basic fallacy that people wouldn't fall for it, but they do all the time.

I think a healthy dose of skepticism is always called for in all things because, as I've noted in the comments above, bias is never good -- it leads to poor strategy, poor thinking and blindspots that basically doom whatever it is your doing.

By the way, as an aside, in terms of the election, I'm cautiously optimistic because I know that events have a way of changing almost overnight, but right now I do believe the objective evidence is coming in (with more coming each day) of a huge tidal wave.

It's going to be an interesting election night!

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I suspect Time is not long for this world anymore. Its content is horrible, I would never have paid for this thing. It looks and feels cheap, and it provides neither insight nor news. What does that leave?

Melissa Amateis said...

Terrific piece. Thanks for this.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Melissa! I'm glad you liked it! :-)

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew, as always, a great article.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Joel, though I fear I've ruined my chances of getting an invite from Klein to any future Time events. Very sad.

BevfromNYC said...

Okey Dokey. Off topic...I just saw to Christine O'Donnell on Hannity. I don't normally watch his show and I know it's a friendly forum BUT I liked her. She's whip smart and right on message. She smartly has decided to not participate in any more national interviews and stick to local news interviews and local debates with her opponent. FYI - She's not unseasoned. She ran against Biden in 2008. Well, I like on first blush.

AndrewPrice said...

We'll see Bev.

Writer X said...

Who buys TIME anymore?

Joe Klein is really only looking for a way to make himself feel relevant. He'd be better off writing for TIGER BEAT.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, LOL! Yeah, he probably would. I actually think this whole road trip is necessary to sustain the delusion. He knows intellectually that he's biased and that he lives in a serious bubble. This is his way of confirming to himself that his bubble really is representative of America.

I see this from many liberal writers. They always feel the need to prove to themselves that only knowing people who are left-leaning Democrats or outright socialists doesn't mean they don't know what's going on in the country.

And doing a road trip like this makes it very easy to confirm that you were right the whole time. It's very comforting to them.

Ed said...

Wow, Klein really is kidding himself if he thinks hugging the great lakes is going to show him middle America. Nice breakdown!

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ed. I think he's kidding himself. If he wants to meet real America, he's gotten get out of safe liberal areas. . . all those seas of red on the election maps.

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