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Our Bias, Ourselves 

Navel gazing with the experts

In an effort to localize the bias in the media debate, the Independent queried the savvy minds of Michael Roberts, media columnist at Denver's Westword weekly and Dan Njegomir, former editorial page editor for The Gazette, now a Senior Fellow with The Bighorn Center in Denver.

Indy: Why is the liberal media debate so enduring?

MR: It's worked well for conservatives in the past. They've managed to demonize the word "liberal" and by using the media as a straw man they've been able to get a lot of mileage by dismissing all criticism that comes from the press simply by saying: Well, it's biased. It's actually a pretty canny strategy if you think about it.

DN: The short answer is talk radio. But really, it has some legs. There really is a perception that there is a bias in large swaths of middle America, the perception is that it's a liberal bias.

Indy: Why do commentators fail to discuss the corporate ownership of the news in their complaints over liberal media bias?

MR: I wouldn't want to pin the blame for not being up front about this issue solely on conservatives. I do it equally on liberals. In my view, certain media outlets may slant one way or the other, but the mainstream corporate-owned outlets are very much occupying the middle ground. Very seldom do you see anything that anyone but the most paranoid observers could call radical. If something slants one way or the other, it doesn't slant very far.

DN: I have concluded that the two sides of the political divide tend to argue apples and oranges on this issue. When liberals talk about media bias they look at a couple of things. One is ownership. To them, the fact that capitalists own the private capital in a newspaper that means prima facie that it is a conservative institution and reflects the capitalist status quo of America. They also look at the abundance -- and I would argue because of the marketplace therefore the popularity -- of conservative commentators. Both of those are fair points; they're not inaccurate; they're indisputable.

When conservatives talk about liberal bias, they talk about that area that we news guys call the news hole in print and more broadly -- reportage. They're saying: You guys claim to be objective, but in fact you skew to the left.

Whether you sympathize with either side, you really have to acknowledge that they're talking about two different things.

Indy: What about the idea that a lot of so-called liberal media bias is really just bad journalism? Or that so much of the news media is just sound bite sensationalism?

MR: A lot of this is attempts to decode certain words or phrases which can be seen as ideologically slanted one way or the other. The presumption in this argument is that most people who look at the media are stupid and gullible and will accept anything that's handed to them. Most people I talk to inside and outside the journalism profession are pretty bright about filtering the information they get rather than just accepting it at face value.

DN: Indeed the bada-bing, bada-boom trend in broadcast media at least does probably detract from the ability to project any ideology or agenda, assuming there is one in the first place.

Indy: Who benefits from the liberal media debate?

MR: Clearly people with a conservative agenda benefit from the liberal media accusation because it undercuts any criticism of conservative causes or conservative candidates by its very nature.

Claims that there's a conservative bias in the media, which we're hearing a lot more these days, benefit folks with a liberal agenda because they can claim George Bush is getting a free ride. These things are strategic moves made by canny, political operatives. I'm always wishing that when I hear people comment on this issue that more folks would say, "There's different kinds of bias all over the place and one is as bad as the other. Not, one's terrible and by implication the other is OK.

DN: Are you asking me, 'Is [the liberal media charge] a whipping boy of the right?'

Indy: Yep.

DN: I suppose that happens, but it doesn't preclude there being a liberal bias in the news hole.

-- John Dicker

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