Media is Biased Toward Simplicity, Sensation

Ask a liberal about bias in the media and he’ll say that it favors conservatives. Ask a conservative and he’ll say it favors liberals. Everyone is a victim, everyone the object of a conspiracy.

But the liberals can find mediums that tilt to the left; they are not really victims at all. The conservatives can find mediums that tilt to the right; there is no widespread conspiracy against them. It is for this reason that those who criticize the press for its political slant miss a larger, and more important, point.

It is, simply put, that there are more serious biases in the media than the political. In fact, there are two of them, and neither left-winger nor right-winger nor centrist can easily find a medium that avoids them.

The first is a bias toward simplicity. A variety of factors are responsible, perhaps none more important than the floundering U.S. literacy rate. A quarter of all American adults are now functionally illiterate. Another quarter, says the National Adult Literacy Survey, have "still quite limited" ability to read, write and comprehend.

As a result, reporters and editors too often find themselves catering to their audience by stripping their information to the bone, presenting it without regard for complexity or nuance, which is to say, without regard for the proper shadings of reality. And on TV and radio, which allow listeners but a single moment to grasp the news as it sails through the air, sometimes even the bone is chipped away.

This is why the media devote so much time to car crashes and two-alarm fires and so little to pending legislation and proposals for tax reform. This is why so much analysis of President Bush’s State of the Union Address concentrated on his style of presentation, rather than the substance of the ideas. This is why so many reports about Enron tell the human interest tales of individual, defrauded stockholders and so few portray the bigger, more important picture of corporate corruption and deceit. This is why it leads if it bleeds and lags behind if it engages the mind.

Second, there is a bias toward sensationalism. Again the list of reasons is long, but at the top is the decreasing U.S. attention span. It has gone so far as this: In 1968, the average sound bite from presidential candidates Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey on the evening newscasts of the three major networks was 43 seconds long. In 2000, the big three let George Bush and Al Gore speak for less than eight seconds at a time, barely long enough to start — forget about completing — a thought.

With consumers of news becoming less and less attentive, journalists find themselves resorting to more and more lurid stories to entice them. They are telling of crimes increasingly brutal, of sex increasingly deviant, of behavior increasingly anti-social. They are passing off aberration as the norm, staging the side show in the main tent and insisting that it belongs there. They are screaming to get people’s attention, and then telling stories that deserve but a whisper.

It is the biases toward simplicity and sensationalism that make the press what it is today. They account for the superficiality of morning TV newscasts and the predictability of the evening shows, the all-too-frequent tawdriness of the prime-time magazines and the all-too-tinny clamor of the twenty-four-hour-a-day news networks. And they reveal that those who watch these programs are partners in blame with those who produce them; in the long run, he who listens to a conversation determines its quality no less than does the speaker.

Liberals and conservatives alike should unite in protest.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .

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