Tuesday, August 29, 2006

blogs vs. the media vs. the citizens

First, I'll state the following, which should be obvious to everyone but - apparently - is not: there is no communication, no statement, without bias. From birth, we are conditioned to see and think by our unique individual experiences. I'll give you a basic lesson in semiotics, ripped straight from Saussure's Course in General Linguistics: every utterance is composed of a chain of signs. Each of these signs is composed of a signifier (the word) and a signified (that which the word is supposed to connote). Each signifier initially holds a different meaning for the hearer - if I say the word "tree" to you, you may think of a pine, while I think of an oak - thus, chains of signifiers tend to lessen (but never erase) the lack of clarity. This is a thumbnail description, but adequate for my purposes - if you want to understand more, visit the wikipedia entry (this one's accurate enough, I've checked it out).

Anyone engaging in a communicative act must thus be able to adequately arrange his chain of signifiers to convey a meaning close enough to the thoughts coursing through his mind. Thoughts that are intended for communication must be arranged and ordered - translated - through the conscious mind. This is why we have such cliches as, "Words cannot express," "I don't have the words, " "Words alone are inadequate to ..." and so on. All utterances thus translated will have some taint of bias, of individual perception, because, after all, it is the individual perception that serves as the origin of meaning. Any attempt at objective language merely conceals bias by suppressing the appearance of interpretation: even the results of scientific experiments must be interpreted by the human experimentors.

Now to get down to the fucking point. The constant barrage of accusations of "bias" hurled around in our society is beginning to make me ill; furthermore, it's sickening our nation. Everyone is biased. Those who feel drawn to careers as reporters and analysts are not immune, they may, in fact, be even more guilty than the rest of us. Hate and invective on both sides of the political spectrum are exacerbated by and reciprocally fuel the "bias wars." Editors-in-chief of our media do not help things by assuming that accusations of bias, coming from both sides, mean that their coverage is, after all, unbiased. Think of the motto of the New York Times, coined by Adolph Ochs in the way-back-when: "All the news that's fit to print." Who exactly chooses what news is fit to print? Human beings, with human perceptions, and thus, human biases.

I know of someone who once claimed that all reporters should be round up and shot as traitors. They were letting their biases get in the way of their responsibility, he claimed, as the so-called "fourth estate" of government. Where did we get this "fourth estate" shit? By assuming that the "freedom of the press" clause in the First Amendment meant that the press, as an unbiased governmental watchdog, served as an unofficial "fourth branch" of the government. The trouble is, back when the First Amendment was penned, all newspapers were openly controlled by political parties. The American Star of Philadelphia was owned and controlled by the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson. The Federal Gazette was controlled by (surprise, surprise) the Federalists. The "freedom of the press" was basically a safety clause ensuring that political parties could freely organize without suppression by an opposition party in power. The expectation that the press should be unbiased didn't surface until the early twentieth century, and then only in the U. S.

Fast-forward to the rise of the blogosphere. One theory concerning the rise of the political blog in the U. S. is directly related to the "unbiased-biased media." Several observers in the U. K. write that the reason for the explosive growth in popularity of political blogs in the U. S. as opposed to the U.K. is the nature of media bias in the two countries: in the U.K., the press is openly biased, much like the early American press; thus, they don't need a pack of bloggers to point out every factual error or indication of bias, as we do.

I understand the rationale behind the political blogosphere: if a media entity claims to be unbiased, "fair and balanced," etc., then evidence to the contrary should be made public so that those responsible are held accountable. I will agree that we have a first amendment; however, in a capitalist society, we also have a concept called "truth in advertising," as well as slander and libel laws. The problem I have with the self-appointed media watchdogs is that they take it too far: in their reactions to "biased reporting," they automatically assume three points that they take as matters of fact:
  1. Any and all evidence of bias is deliberately aimed as an attack upon the "victim" of the bias.
  2. Any and all evidence of bias is also evidence that one political party or another is controlling the publishing medium in which the story appeared.
  3. It is possible to be unbiased.
Their accusations of bias frequently cause the media to swing violently in reaction, which fuels further accusations from one side or another. This, in turn, fuels the perception of the citizenry that the media is evil and out to get them. As citizens turn from the press - which, even if biased, will give them some idea about the goings-on of the world - democratic deliberation, the supposed heart of our system of government, falters and fails. Give a current-events quiz to a young adult and see if he or she gets better than four out of ten. Then, realize that in fifteen years, their kids will be even further disconnected from the world around them - of all influences that color our perceptions, parental influence is the greatest of all.

My advice? Take it as a matter of course: not everyone will agree with your point of view. Some events will paint your candidate/elected official of choice in a bad light. Some of their actions are shitty, and need to be shared. Some of the things that the opposition does may actually benefit the nation in the long run. Above all? Realize that although everyone is "biased," not everyone is deliberately misleading you. Grow the fuck up.
currently on miPod - Piano Concerto no. 23 II - "Adagio" - Mozart

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