Do facts have a bias?

It’s primary season. As a student of politics, I love it. It’s exciting and interesting and oh so messy. But there is one thing about it that frustrates me endlessly: the media’s lack of punch.

Journalists are supposed to be objective and keep their biases out of their work as much as possible. Lately, though, this has been taken to such an extreme that the media — the fourth estate and supposedly responsible for holding the powerful accountable — have turned toothless, for fear that someone will accuse them of bias or carrying out hit jobs. One of the biggest lessons that still resonates with me from J School came from my adviser. The gist is, “There’s a difference between being fair and being equal.”

There might be a segment on a news program called, “The Earth: Round or Flat?” In a fair model, a person who believes the earth is flat would never be given a platform or would be soundly shut down, because it’s a fact that the earth is not flat. In an equal model, one person who believes that the earth is round would debate a person who believes that the earth is flat. They’d yell at each other for 45 seconds, the anchor would sit impotently by and then sign off without settling the matter, leaving it open-ended and allowing the audience to believe that maybe there really is something to this flat-earth business.

In a recent debate, Mitt Romney made an error and mentioned something about John Adams authoring the Constitution. The moderator didn’t address this, nor did anyone else after the fact that I saw. The Constitution was largely authored by James Madison. I give Romney the benefit of the doubt and assume he made a harmless error, but that the moderator or another candidate didn’t correct it right then — either out of apathy, ignorance or fear of reprisal — is troubling.

That’s an example about a historical event in American history. What if the issue pertains to job growth, defense spending, abortion or health-care reform? A serious flaw in the debates is that the moderators always seem to ask questions with a hypothetical tilt. “What would you do about this?” I’d much rather see a fact-based question that forces the candidates to defend a position they’ve already taken. “You’ve said that X has been decreasing, but this data from Non-Partisan Research Body shows that X has actually been increasing. Do you care to explain your position, or provide a source for your data?”

Even better, have a squad of fact-checkers working during the debate and challenge assertions that candidates make during the debate. These days, fact-checking occurs after the debate is over, if it happens at all. Assuming that people even tune into the debates, I doubt that many of them stick around to see CNN or Fox or MSNBC or ABC go over and fact-check something that was said two or three hours ago or even two or three days ago. If there’s a question of veracity, bring it up then and have the candidates defend it then. 

Much of the disinformation peddled during elections — not just primaries, but general elections too — is aided and abetted by journalists’ unwillingness to take the gloves off and do their jobs. Will they make enemies this way? Sure. But it seems like too many political journalists these days are more interested in schmoozing and gossip and buddying up with candidates than they are in actually examining and evaluating their campaign platforms. As my dad said when I embarked on my (high school, haha) journalism career: “If you’re not pissing anybody off, you’re not doing your job.”

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