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War Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card February 04, 2002

The Best in the World Can Still Be Lousy

The news media -- print and broadcast -- do a lousy job of letting us know what's happening in the world.

We get a very powerful blast of news about a few events (Princess Diana is dead, for instance), a vague, muddy set of rumors about a few other events (somewhere in Afghanistan somebody is doing something very loud and dangerous), and no clue at all about most of what's going on in other people's lives in faraway places.

Do you have any idea what's happening in Tunisia?

Of course not. People in Tunisia have only the vaguest idea, and they actually care.

The trouble with the news media, of course, is that we have the best news system the world has ever known -- fast, worldwide coverage of anything we care enough to cover -- and yet we still can't get past the human factor.

Everybody is biased. You can't possibly tell a story of any kind without it being affected by your preconceptions, your attitudes, your biases. No one is immune to this.

If American news were reported by a truly diverse cross-section of American citizens, then we'd have a decent chance of having everybody's biases cancel each other out. There'd still be an American bias, of course, but among the different news sources we'd get every slant of American opinion.

Too bad it doesn't work that way.

Unfortunately, you see, the American news media has become a monoculture. As Catholics are in Vatican City, as Muslims are in Mecca, as Mormons are in Provo, so politically correct liberals are in the newsrooms of America's television networks and newspapers.

There are non-liberals here and there, or liberals who actually notice some of the absurd contradictions within the "philosophy" of political correctness. But they learn to keep their heads down in order to keep their jobs -- or their air time, their column inches.

There are token conservatives, too, but they are always there as columnists, giving opinions, not the news. There are also token attempts at balanced coverage, but with the exception of Fox News on cable, the balance is always an illusion.

Bernard Golberg, formerly a top reporter and analyst for CBS, noticed this many years ago and commented on it privately within the network's news division. His complaints met with some sympathy, but nothing was ever done about it.

So about five years ago, when an outrageously biased report mocking Steve Forbes's flat tax was aired, not as commentary, but as news, he went public with his complaint, writing an essay about it for the Wall Street Journal.

No one has thinner skin than newspeople. It's ironic, but the people who feel virtuous when they savage big important people are the biggest babies when somebody utters even mild criticism of them.

Goldberg has written a book, called "Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News." Unfortunately, the first couple of chapters deal mostly with how Goldberg was treated after he broke ranks and went public. It's full of self-justification and, especially when he is denying being a disgruntled employee with an axe to grind, he sounds like a disgruntled employee with an axe to grind.

That's too bad, because the rest of the book is actually a pretty fair beginning in a long-needed effort to expose just exactly how the news is shaped by the biases of the media culture that creates it.

So skim the self-serving opening of the book, and get to the meat of it.

There are a few things he misses -- for instance, in the news magazines, you'll notice that the liberal point of view always gets the "clincher," the last word, whereas in newspaper stories, where the writer can never be sure where the story will get cut, the liberal view is front-loaded and any alternative views are pushed way, way down the article.

And because he is, himself, a liberal, he still misses some of the areas where news coverage is especially biased, simply because he hasn't yet heard the other view himself.

That's the problem we all have, actually. How can we possibly set the story straight, when our only source for information is the biased news media itself?

That's why I read books and magazines that offer well-researched, reliable in-depth stories. But I can't read everything, and time and again I've found myself parroting the party line only because I never had a chance to hear anything else.

Or if I did hear it, I heard it from the mouths of jerks or idiots. The media mavens just loved to put Dornan and Novak and Buchanan on the screen, because their presence meant that the conservative view was always being offered by extraordinarily unattractive people who occasionally said things so crazy they completely discredited the things they said that were true.

While on the liberal side, you always have the smiling benignity of Brokaw, Jennings, and Rather giving you comfort as you agree with them.

Goldberg points out that the liberal bias of the media is not a conspiracy, that it's simply a result of the fact that the people in the media never actually meet anyone who doesn't agree with them.

That's sort of true, but it seems to imply that it's an accident when liberal bias shows up.

Sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn't.

I have some friends in the DC area, and several years ago they reminded me of a then-recent pro-abortion rally in the nation's capital. It had been widely covered all over America.

"Did you know," they said, "that not long afterward there was an anti-abortion rally that attracted much larger crowds? A huge show of public support. Did you ever hear about it?"

Not a word. And do you know why? Because the news media ignored it.

Somebody made the news judgment at the Washington Post that the anti-abortion rally wasn't important, though the pro-abortion rally had been. The same judgment was made at all the networks and at the major papers that keep a staff in Washington.

Unanimously.

Not an organized conspiracy, but not an accident, either.

What else are they hiding from us?

Goldberg points out that all through the Reagan and Bush years, we were inundated with stories about the homeless. None of the stories pointed out that the vast majority of the homeless are addicts and schizophrenics (or that the schizophrenics were on the streets because do-gooders had decided that it was not "humane" to keep them in mental hospitals, and so they were turned loose to mumble and shout on the streets until they froze to death in some winter storm).

But oddly enough, even though there were exactly as many homeless addicts and schizophrenics as ever on the streets during the Clinton years, we never got a single story about them.

We're getting them again, though. They didn't even let a month pass by in Bush's presidency before we started getting those stories.

Were these reporters and news editors blind? During the Clinton years, didn't they see the homeless? Of course they did. They just didn't want to do anything to make their boy look bad.

I believe in democracy. I believe in letting the people decide.

If the people are systematically lied to, the power to decide has been taken out of our hands.

We're in a war. It matters that we know what is happening and why.

And if you think that the media have suddenly changed their ways and the war coverage is completely impartial, think again. The habit of lying and concealing and slanting, the habit of believing everything said by liberal sources and mocking everything said by conservative sources -- that doesn't just go away because there's a war on.

Copyright © 2002 by Orson Scott Card.


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