The Universal Notebook: My media bias

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Last month, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released a survey that showed that 60 percent of Americans believe the press is politically biased. That’s 78 percent of Republicans, 62 percent of Independents, and 50 percent of Democrats.

Just two years ago, only 39 percent of Democrats saw the press as politically biased, but since then, with the election of President Barack Obama, we have seen the rise of conservative talk radio and Fox News.

When I was a young man in the 1960s and 1970s, the discontent in this country was on the far left (the civil rights and the anti-war movements), but the social pendulum has swung back such that the discontent is now coming from the far right. Naturally, I tend to view the radical right the same way a lot people viewed the radical left of my youth – as un-American troublemakers and unpatriotic rabble-rousers. The more things change, etc.

Conservatives have complained of liberal media bias all of my life. To the extent that this is true, it has always seemed natural to me that members of the press should be progressive by nature. A lot of people go into journalism hoping to make a difference, to bring about change, to work for justice, to champion the underdog. But then the press has always been biased in one way or another. In some sense, the overt partisanship of many of today’s news outlets is just a return to the future.

Back in 1815, for instance, Portland had the Eastern Argus advocating statehood and the Portland Gazette advancing Federalist arguments against separation from Massachusetts. The Evening Express became the organ of the local temperance movement. By the mid-19th century, Portland supported 11 newspapers – two dailies and nine weeklies – all representing various partisan and sectarian interests.

The expectation that the press should be a neutral observer and watchdog evolved in the 20th century as media mergers and consolidations made most places one-newspaper towns. By the mid-20th century, most Maine newspapers of record had become so bland and complacent that the Maine Times (for which I worked from 1981 to 1995) really shook things up by pursuing a declared progressive social and environmental agenda.

Forty years later, I sometimes wonder whether abandoning the press pretense of objectivity was such a good idea. The media has devolved to such an extent that news has become a form of entertainment, not really news at all. The belligerent Beck, O’Reilly, Hannity and Limbaugh pander to the prejudices of the right, while I chuckle along in agreement with those nattering nabobs of liberalism Olbermann, Maddow, Stewart and Colbert. It’s become the World According to Fox News v. the World According to MSNBC.

My own media bias is in favor of print media – newspapers, magazines and books. Print sacrifices some immediacy, but it benefits from time to reflect. I don’t believe anything I hear on television or the radio and I don’t trust anything I read online. There’s a lot of attention paid these days to the structural change in information delivery from old media to new – bloggers, citizen journalists, etc. – but so far the new electronic delivery systems strike me as unprofessional: no editors, no fact-checking, no accountability, just a lot of bias and spin signifying nothing.

And I’m not sure what to make of the Portland Press Herald. Under new ownership, its experiment with dueling editorials – Greg Kesich for the PROgressives, M.D. Harmon for the CONservatives – was something of a professional embarrassment. A newspaper should provide diverse points of view, but I’m old fashioned enough to think it should also speak with one editorial voice on the important issues of the day. We used to be able to count on the Press Herald for a moderate, reasoned opinion. Now I’m not sure what we can count on it for.

As public confidence in the press erodes (74 percent in the Pew survey found press coverage one-sided, 63 percent said it is often inaccurate) advertising dollars and readership erode with it. Increasingly, serious journalism is being supported by NGOs, non-profits and foundations. Recently, there have even been suggestions that if the print news enterprise is to survive, it may need public support such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting provides for broadcast media.

Being an unabashed liberal, I am often accused of thinking that government is the answer to all social problems, but I’m not sure I want the government subsidizing the news. There’s got to be a better way. It’s just that no one has found it yet in the brave new world of electronic newspeak.

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beem-edgar-op.jpgThe Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s personal look at the world around him.