I have been thinking back to the days in the late 1960s and early 1970s, before cable TV, when there were a limited number of stations we got over the air. The TV news was also more limited then, regarding time of day. There was a half hour for national news with either Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, or Howard K. Smith. And there was a half hour of local news. That was it. These offerings were pretty homogeneous. Newspapers did differ some by their political outlook. The Daily News was more Conservative than the New York Times, yet by today's standards there was a substantial overlap in their news coverage.
The biggest issue of the day was the Vietnam War, and it is this source to which I first associate the charge - Liberal bias in the press. Recall Spiro Agnew's famous line - nattering nabobs of negativism. (This piece says the line refers to other politicians, not to the press.) With hindsight being 20-20, it seems evident that those in power supporting America's involvement in Vietnam would cast aspersions against those who were against the war, so as to detract from the question whether the war itself made any sense and was une cause juste (it wasn't). During my time in graduate school, which overlapped substantially with the Carter Presidency, I hardly watched any TV news (for the first two years I didn't have a TV) and mainly just read the New York Times. But when I came to Illinois, near the start of the Reagan Years, it became clear that the Liberal bias in the press charge had returned, more due to the culture wars than to foreign policy, and the charge escalated until the time, first, of Conservative talk radio, particularly Rush Limbaugh, and then later, the advent of Fox News. By then, the liberal bias charge no longer had currency, because Conservatives had their own outlets to get the news.
As a consumer of the news, for many years I was a regular view of the PBS NewsHour. I watched it, in part, because it did strive to have balance in its coverage. Then, around the time that Jim Lehrer retired, I became frustrated with the show. This coincided, more or less with the rise of the Tea Party. To attempt balance in the show, there would always be an interview with both a Democrat and a Republican. While the person on the Democrat side was usually forthcoming, the Republican stonewalled. That was typical. It was usually Judy Woodruff doing the interviewing and even she seemed frustrated by it. As a viewer, I wanted her to be more aggressive in the questioning. But it seemed fairness prevented her from doing that. After a while, I stopped watching and more or less gave up on TV News (the Internet had eliminated the need to watch the local News).
I must not have been the only person in this situation, as the Aaron Sorkin vehicle, The NewsRoom, came out soon thereafter. I don't want to comment on the show other than to note that one of the main characters, Will McAvoy, the anchor for the prime time news broadcast, was previously a prosecutor. This seems to be the "solution" to the recalcitrant guest on the news show who wants to stonewall, but doesn't want to be embarrassed by the interviewer. Of course, for commercial news, where the obligation for fairness in coverage may not be so strong, one can bias the selection of guests to those who are likely to be forthcoming and can be questioned without being interrogated.
The upshot of this, I'm afraid, is that the division between News and Opinion, which newspapers still try to observe, seems to vanish on the current TV News shows. Further, and this is getting to the reason for writing the current post, the expression of opinion as if it were news mainly is preaching to the choir. There rarely, if ever, is contrary opinion expressed to give the viewer a fundamentally different perspective. We've become a society where confirmation bias inhibits our ability to learn tough truths and see things they way others who disagree with us see them.
Is there anything that can be done about that?
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The following pre-proposal may be wishful thinking, but I hope you will read it through before rendering your own verdict. The core idea is that Fox News and MSNBC do a joint venture, televised debates between their commentators (if you recall Shana Alexander and James J. Kilpatrick debating on 60 Minutes, that's in the ballpark of what's intended here) to be aired once a week at a mutually agreed time. Why would they agree to do this? I'm going to answer this question with another. Is there a way to do this in such a way that the total number of viewers would rise as a consequence?
In reflecting on this second question for a while, I convinced myself that it would be pretty easy to attract those who currently watch neither Fox News nor MSNBC. The novelty of programming of this sort should do that, at least at first. But I had a harder time convincing myself that loyal viewers of one of these channels would watch such a debate. I spent some time scratching my head about this and then came up with the following structure, which I hope the reader will find novel.
Each session would be broken into three segments. The second segment is closed mike - while one side is speaking the other side has their microphone turned off. They take turns with this in some fixed time chunk (one minute, 90 seconds, two minutes, etc.) which needs to be determined. The third segment is open mike and, I would hope, produces good back and forth between the participants. In both of these segments, there are rules of decorum agreed upon, e.g., no ad hominem attacks, and there is a moderator who monitors adherence to the rules. Violations need some form of punishment (probably in the form of shutting down the person's mike for a certain amount of time). In any event, the second and third segments are meant to be like debates that people have watched in the past.
It is what happens before the show and during the first segment where there is novelty to the approach. About a week before the show one of the networks chooses the topic for that week's debate. The other network then gets to produce a video that will be replayed in segment one of the show. The video will be the prior perception of the highlights of the debate argument from the network that proposed the topic. To make this concrete. Suppose Fox News proposes the topic, they choose Tucker Carlson as their debater, while MSNBC chooses Rachel Maddow. Then the video that will be made features Rachel Maddow making the arguments that she (and her team) think Tucker Carlson will make during the debate. If you are prepping for a debate you surely go through dress rehearsals of what the other side will argue. This is making that dress rehearsal seemingly open to the public.
Now, this first stage video changes the game. It's no longer simply about the topic to be debated. Now it's also about what one side believes the other thinks on this topic. Does the subsequent debate show those beliefs are well grounded? Or are there elements of delusion? The audience now has a compelling interest to watch the show to find out which it is.
I asked myself, could leaks of the video before the show aired be prevented? I assumed that wasn't possible, but I want to note the following. If the other side hasn't seen the video till the show airs, then there is an added pressure on the debater. It's not just to make the usual debating points. It's also to show that the other side doesn't get it as to why we hold our views. If Rachel Maddow's video is released a few days early, Tucker Carlson and his team have a better chance of finding the holes in the argument. Knowing this, and assuming that each station wants to win the debate, which seems a reasonable assumption, there is reason to keep the video recording under wraps.
Depending on the choice of topic and how the video is made, in any one show it may seem one station has the advantage over the other. Fairness within a show may then be a tough nut to crack. Fairness across shows, however, should happen by having the roles rotate from one week to the next.
I want to note that if this works it will help Liberals understand how Conservatives think and vice versa, not just on an issue by issue basis, but on a worldview that informs consideration of the individual issues.
The two networks could do this as an experiment, say for 3 months, with penalties for pulling out early written into the contract but with no obligation to extend the experiment beyond that. Presumably contract renewal would indicate success, as would expansion of the format to other time slots, as well as other news organizations trying something similar.