"Halloween's coming up. If you could have Mitt Romney dress in a costume, what should he be for Halloween?" The above is quoted as an actual question asked by Douglas Brinkley of Rolling Stone to none other than the President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama, in an interview printed in October 2012. While a periodical known primarily for mainstream music news, Rolling Stone does employ international caliber journalists, and certainly should be printing a slightly higher quality drivel than a question likely to be posed by a child. The reader is not left with the impression of Peter Jennings, earnestly attempting to glean important threads of a political candidate’s priorities, but rather of a chat between friends, making silly jokes about a possible leader neither would choose to follow. There is a great amount of bias in journalism today, and not just on a level of the individual writer. The fact that entire news media outlets have a political bias one direction or another has become common knowledge, with no significant impact upon their credibility or popularity in the eyes of the consumer. This is an example of the low standards today’s populace holds the industry accountable for, and begs the question: How did bias become so integrated in an industry founded in professionalism and objectivity since before my parents’ generation? It’s really no surprise when one looks at how professionalism and standards have crumbled over the last few decades. When the news was aired on television through the 50s and 60s, news programming would typically run from 7.30 to 11 PM on the major networks- and there were no other channels. The news was presented in a calm and unbiased manor by actual professionals in the industry, and there was ample time to delve into a great number of news items from around the world. For this generation the faces of people like Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow, Charles Kuralt and Andy Rooney gave a feeling of trust and unquestioning belief, and that was something these journalists staked their professional reputation on. These reporters were trusted with covering issues like the civil rights movement, the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy assassination, the landing on the moon, and the Vietnam War. Great progress was made as a country, and bias was a dirty word that could ruin an entire career. In 1980 CNN was introduced, offering world-wide news coverage throughout the day for those who wanted access to it. This expanded the amount of stories covered, but it also for the first time divided what the country’s population was viewing by demographic. They broadcasted the explosion of the Challenger in 1986, provided footage during multiple wars, the collapse of both the Soviet Union and the Berlin wall, showing the populace how riveting and dramatic the news could actually be when presented in real time. Live coverage added to the excitement- you never really knew what was actually going to happen. Drama begins to sneak into news broadcasting. In 1981 cable channel MTV activated, and impacted the journalistic community by heralding in the age where you could now access the type of viewing you wanted, instead of households sitting together to view the same programming together. At this time, adult family members could watch the news during the day without their children, then watch sitcoms or the like together for a time as a family after dinner, and the children could watch MTV or shows more to their interests on their own time- at this point even in their own rooms without any interaction from another generation. This is the physical manifestation of “group polarization”- a social crime that this younger generation will commit on a much larger political scale later in life. Bias will be important to this generation- they are learning to gravitate towards information pertaining to their own beliefs and interests, instead of taking the time to learn something from another perspective. The mid- 80s also see the development and reign of tabloid TV- shows aired during the day that would discuss issues pertaining to not only family drama relatable by most viewers, but also issues taboo at the time to dinner table conversation (i.e. sexual orientation, racial discrimination), and developed a fascination with violence as a conflict resolution. Jerry Springer, Geraldo Rivera (an actual journalist since 1970), and Ricki Lake all hosted shows that regularly required security to physically pull apart combatants as a part of the conflict resolution. Not a good indicator of professionalism or objectivity on these topics (that are now openly discussed political issues in the age of today) when resolutions must be made by the same generation that grew up watching people bloody themselves over the same things. With many of the MTV generation this was how they decided stances on future issues, and it was sensational. The introduction of the internet to the average consumer in the 90s further expands the available options. Not only can all major news programs have an online presence, but individuals as well. Blogs are created to comment on news already reported, watchdog groups are formed to tattle on groups with opposing views, and opinion and conflict explodes. Anyone can say anything to anyone with no credibility or accuracy required, and mis-information becomes more common than actual fact. The internet becomes a giant bee-hive of opinion and controversy, and does absolutely nothing to unify the populace. Again, the populace polarizes in groups towards information that support their current beliefs, and with no censorship the nastiness towards the opposing view can be unlimited. Add into this mix the present day fascination with the reality show- television that concentrates not on most people’s true realities, but a sensationalized, over-dramatic blow out of the most mundane daily activities- and you have a populace that now views shouting, physical violence and refusal to listen to reason as the daily norm. A popular show for teens, Jersey Shore, shows us the shining example of a group of people in their early 20s who can barely hold jobs at entry-level positions because their priorities are actively creating as much drama as seemingly possible- and this show is only the beginning. There are shows dramatizing grocery shopping, dating, possible violent organizations within the Amish, and literally anything you can possibly think not worth your spare time. A person can watch these people effectively destroy their own lives, and watch the country’s populace embrace them as celebrities for doing so. This further accentuates the need for the news to be dramatic- with these other shows as the norm, objective news would put the average American straight to sleep, and quickly. During all this the newspapers held true- they bore the brunt of the workload of the industry and actually reported the news. To this day, they clearly define for you hard news by geographic location (local v. international), demographic (business v. sport), and which pieces are biased by placing them in either the editorial or opinion pages (marked as such). In contrast, online and television forums no longer have such guidelines; it is no longer simply news vs. entertainment. In addition to sports, lifestyle, music and hobby channels there are separate news networks now as well, catering to specific political views and supporting rhetoric voiced by the supported party’s candidates. If one pays attention to what they are watching as they scroll through the “news” channels, it is very difficult to come across honest reporting. Group polarization again rears its ugly head to skew the populace’s views more to the left or right of the middle of the road. In some ways, opinion shows have tried to hold true to the old journalistic standard. The popular show run by O’Reilly (for example) is physically structured to look like the hard news shows of a bygone era. He has a news desk to report from, a news ticker at the bottom of the screen, noted professionals in-studio or on the phone for interviews, and generally does a good job attempting to lull the older populace into a false sense of trust and security. In actuality, he is merely offering his own commentary on the news stories already actually reported on by the newspapers. For the newer generations he has abandoned the actual journalistic professionalism. He keeps the populace interested by the name-calling, shouting and refusal to compromise introduced by the tabloid television the younger generation is accustomed to. Even in his “interviews” it is impossible to get an actual feel of the guest- O’Reilly continually interrupts, argues, and exhibits to his audience how controversial (now synonymous for downright rude) he can be. With all the success of this show over the years, it has become the standard to which every other show is chasing. It is no longer news vs. entertainment- the news has, in fact, become entertainment. Every business must make money, and journalism is no exception. Newspapers are losing popularity, and the electronic media options are so numerous it is vital to all companies to stand out to the consumer to be able to turn a profit. News programs need a way to be the most riveting example of re-hashing the same newspaper stories that 1500 other stations are commenting on as well. With the MTV/ reality show generation now the majority, sensationalism is what must be capitalized on. What better way to do that then to pick a fight with the other point of view? We find ourselves watching news that is no different than the Jerry Springer version of “he said, she said”; now it’s “liberals said, conservatives said” or when you get right down to it: “Fox said, MSNBC said”. Professionalism and decorum are gone, and what’s worse is we are pushing it further away. A number of factors have played into the further polarization of views in American news media. The 80s and younger generations have had so many different options for obtaining the information they consume that they no longer have a concept of what is and is not biased. By being able to access news through online or television outlets that cater specifically to their own personal beliefs, they gradually find themselves pushed further and further from the middle ground with no true concept of where that middle ground is. By being guilty of this group polarization, true compromise (essential for the forward movement of a democratic society), becomes impossible to achieve with both parties moving inexorably away from one another. The hostile media effect also plays a large part in the continued acceptance of bias in the news. In this instance, a conservative who hears a news story that actually is objective will believe it is a biased story if it does not support his own way of thinking. Conversely, a liberal hearing the same news (supportive of their views) would find the piece to be completely objective. Combined with the issues described previously, this leads us relentlessly and continuously to a populace who cannot see the middle ground, and are angry when they are shown an actual compromise. They will then resort to the name-calling and offensive conflict resolutions they were raised to utilize, and further alienate the other party- not just the politicians, but the average citizenry as well. As a bartender I cannot tell you how valid the rule of not talking politics while drinking really is- the fights could simply never end. In addition, there is the knowledge gap effect also coming into play. With all the faulty or biased information being thrown at someone on a daily basis, it is easier to obtain information, but it actually becomes real work to discover what is correct and objective. Certain segments of the population, usually those of a higher socioeconomic status, are the population most likely to seek out and educate themselves as to the truth, while those of a lower class are occupied with day-to-day survival, and less likely to be informed. The wider these classes are pushed, the wider the gap in information. This equates to an unequally educated voting populace, and further skewed perceptions on bias and objectivity on the issues at hand. In conclusion, there are a number of social factors that have been built up over decades that lead to the current acceptance (at this point, requirement may be a better word) of bias in today’s news media. A stabilization of the economy may result in closer socioeconomic classes in the population, and may help to close the knowledge gap. Perhaps a bit of emotional exhaustion brought on by all the entertainment drama will result in a population that is more willing to listen to objective reporting, but for now objectivity has become the line that all reporters must choose to skirt. Bias has become the boost to make even the most boring news interesting, and has become the driving force behind these network’s profits. Until the populace replaces their desire for drama and conflict the journalism industry will have a hard time removing bias from their industry and surviving.
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