Press Contributions To Political Division in the U.S.



Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    5-17

ABSTRACT:  Financial competition among news organizations, as well as political bias of employees, are contributing to the political divide in the
U.S., and news organizations are doing nothing to compensate.

 KEY WORDS:  news, news organizations, political division, news bias, fake news

The ideal contribution of a free press to our democracy is the further education of its citizens, so that they can make informed decisions when voting or commenting on government actions and proposals.  In order to be fair and objective, this education would have to be relatively free of opinion or desire on the part of the news organization and its employees to have everyone see things as they see them.  It is well known that a large percentage (over 80 percent) of news reporters and news researchers in this country are liberal in their political views, which means that the relatively few conservatively oriented reporters and researchers feel beset and feel like the media minority that they are.

The unusual nature of the recent presidential campaign and its result in an unusual president has made this issue of bias more salient and obvious.  While the conservative bias of Fox News has been known and assumed, the liberal bias of the rest of the news organizations has been brought into the light by their treatment of Mr. Trump.  Even CNN, which claims to be “the most trusted name in news,” is clearly liberally biased.  The attitude of most of the hosts on CNN has been annoyance and astonishment at the behavior of Mr. Trump, and a number of them shade over regularly into contempt.

Before going further, we should be clear about bias, which occurs when (1) items are chosen for reporting because they illustrate something negative (or positive) about a candidate or position or (2) the bulk of items reported are negative (or positive) about a candidate or position.  The first of these is very likely to result in the second over time.  Bias can be conscious and purposive (e.g., because the reporter is sincerely afraid of the outcomes for the country if a certain candidate is elected), and almost everyone used to agree that reporters and researchers should restrain themselves from this stance.  (Oddly, it seems that there is more general acceptance of Fox News doing this (which it clearly does) than of liberal outlets doing it, perhaps because liberal outlets make so much of the righteousness or “rightness” of their basic beliefs.) 

Unconscious bias is more difficult to deal with, but it can be seen clearly by asking oneself regarding every news item and its treatment whether it is (1) one-sided, (2) unnecessarily critical, or (3) providing or reinforcing a biased overall view of the candidate or position (in the extreme, demonizing).  One must also assess whether the overall “education” of the public by the news organization, as seen long term, fits any of these criteria.

Much of unconscious bias is communicated through the subtleties of speech and body language.  Listening to the one-hour programs on CNN and Fox, one quickly perceives that this is not just news but a viewpoint on the news.  During and after the campaign, liberal programs focused solely on negative things about Mr. Trump and his associates.  There was no emphasis on identifiable good things that Mr. Trump had done or said, and when such things were mentioned they got no real attention from the reporters and moderators, since the voice subtleties conveyed that these positive things were expected of any candidate or president and therefore were not noteworthy.  (There are exception to this:  on CNN Fareed Zakaria’s analyses are policy focused and may be the best that CNN offers, and Fox’s Chris Wallace sticks to the issues well.  There are also a few exceptions in terms of news organizations, with NPR being relatively objective, if less exciting, and OneAmerica News (not seen in many parts of the country), which seems to try to stick to just reporting more than do the others.)

The tone on Fox News since the election has been more relaxed, and the speakers clearly are more forgiving about the gaffes of the President and the errors of White House staff.  They report Mr. Trump’s actions more comprehensively and as if the appropriate and good things that he does are welcome proof of the wisdom of the electorate. 

It is appropriate for news organizations to fact-check and to point out inaccurate statements by the President, but it is another thing to report them in an exasperated manner.  Once again, this transforms the statements to a combination of news and fact-related opinions.

Perhaps our culture is so far into the cult of personality (due to the general lack of inspiring public figures lately) that opinion now reigns supreme.  It is clear through the use of the internet by people that many people want to listen to those who reinforce their own views and not to those who provide facts that challenge their already formed assumptions.  (Once again, the internet is both blessing and curse.)  This preference for homogeny (to be with those who are like oneself) is an even stronger factor increasing division in the country than the division of the press into two camps.

The current obsession of the media (more the liberal media than the conservative) with possible ties between Mr. Trump and Russia illustrates another result of bias, which is the selection of what is presented as important.  No one has hypothesized that Mr. Trump is a KGB agent or a Communist, but the reporting makes it sound as if any interactions between the Trump campaign and Russian officials must be bad, which is not true.  This is not openly recognized or argued; it is simply an assumption that provides a platform for speculating about how bad Mr. Trump might be.  The liberal news organizations are exercising no judgment regarding whether this is something worth endless discussion, since they seem to seize on and emphasize anything that portrays Mr. Trump as incompetent. 

Liberal news organizations are not content to await the outcomes of the several investigations by Congress and the intelligence agencies into the possible Trump-Russia ties and report those outcomes.  Perhaps if they did so, they could spend some time right now on overseas news—not just that in which the U.S. is directly involved, but what is happening to and for the people of the other several hundred countries on the planet.  (Other cable channels leave this entirely to BBC News.  Americans in general seem to have no knowledge of, interest in, or concern about anywhere but their own current backyard, as demonstrated by the ignorance of the man in the street not only about the world but even more shockingly about U.S. government officials, our form of government, and our own history.)

If it is not clear already, this essay is not an attempt to say “conservative—good,” “liberal—bad” or vice versa.  The examples used are current, which happens to be the constant one-sided criticism of Mr. Trump by liberals.  Conservative outlets were just as bad (even more vicious, with even more false news) regarding Mr. Obama when he was in office.  Similarly, the author does not claim that news organizations are “all bad” or corrupt—far from it!  I am willing to assume that almost all reporters, researchers, and editors believe sincerely in their efforts to inform the public accurately, but it appears, then, that there is a considerable amount of unconscious bias operating, with few of them stepping back to evaluate their work in comparison to what they would consider an ideal of unbiased news.  Admittedly, Mr. Trump is an extreme and therefore easy to see as a caricature, but we should stick to what he actually accomplishes rather than to simply what he says and does.


The politicization of “the news” (how we currently get our knowledge about current events) is helping to divide the country and to calcify the resulting division.  This stems from reporters, researchers, editors, and publishers all wanting to sway public opinion toward their own views more than they want the public to learn and to have a more truthful grasp of things and then to make their own decisions.  This has its basis in our system of media support through advertising, which results in efforts to attract as many viewers as possible for revenue purposes, which inevitably results in pandering to the likes and dislikes of those viewers.  As already noted, a large majority of consumers prefer to hear things from the media that support their own views, rather than being challenged to integrate the facts with their pre-existing views.  If the media offer these opinion/belief silos to people, most people will gravitate toward one of them only.  The relative anonymity of the internet has provided an ideal forum for fake news—i.e., stories that people present as news while knowing that they are false and have been made up for manipulative purposes.

This essay has focused on television and internet sources of news, but newspapers can choose to be biased as well, although it is usually not as thoroughgoing a bias as with television and internet organizations.

What Can Be Done?

Since our survival depends on cooperation, which depends to some degree on having similar views and assumptions, we are all engaged throughout life to some degree in trying to induce others to see things more as we see them.  We cannot ask editors, news reporters, and researchers to give up this human trait completely, but we can ask them to think about everything they report from this perspective and to eliminate as much bias as they can.  They would have to be trained to be able to see their own thoughts and reports objectively rather than simply from within their own framework of assumptions and beliefs.  (This, of course, would be good training for us all.)  Ideally, editors, reporters, and researchers would take off their liberal or conservative identities during work time and be seekers after useful facts and the truth.

Most reporters are motivated in their work partly by the desire to improve society, and of course they believe that improving society is best accomplished by everyone doing what they (the reporters) think is best.  In order to reduce bias, they would have to focus not just on what needs change and on what they believe about change but more on the reasons that make any change desirable, such as benefit to various segments of society, fairness, non-discrimination, and concrete outcomes.  In doing so, they would have to take the utmost care to evaluate for truth value all of the statistical and research findings that they wish to cite.  These are the factors that might appropriately change someone else’s thinking, rather than the less appropriate method of “think this because I think it and am telling you that it is a good thing.”  This is not inconsistent with their journalism training, but it takes constant attention to ensure its application. 

The internet has encouraged more people to be more vocal about what they want and what they believe, but since people have not advanced at all in vetting their own statements before they say them, this has resulted in increased chaos and uncertainty, which in itself encourages people to speak more loudly to affirm their own beliefs to themselves as well as to others.  Our public discourse would be more useful if we (government, news organizations, churches, schools) spent time helping people to understand and practice how to assess the likelihood of accuracy of all kinds of statements, from politician’s soundbites to medical research.

Since politics arouses passions, it is particularly important for all of us to practice intellectual humility—i.e., that even though we are passionate about our beliefs, we recognize that they are beliefs and not facts, and we accept that each person is naturally going to have somewhat different views than we do, which does not automatically mean that those other views are incorrect.  If we accept this, then we can tone down the efforts at persuasion (speaking more loudly, swearing, insulting others, putting others down, reporting mostly unfavorable “facts”) and focus more on the reasons that make a particular view more useful or more true (in large part, the outcomes of each view for real people in their real lives).  (For example, whether the Republican healthcare proposal is consistent with free market views is much less important than what the actual impact of this view would have on people’s lives.  Free markets work better in some circumstances and less well in others.)

Liberals and conservatives both tend to associate their views with morality—liberals feeling righteous about equality and human rights and conservatives feeling righteous about their religious views.  Intellectual humility would eliminate much of the exasperation on both sides that arises from believing that one’s views are “right” or righteous in a moral sense.  If God has not spoken out on a particular issue or endorsed either side, it is best for us to use all the input we can get and make the best compromises we can.  

The most effective thing to do would be to raise a generation that wants to find the truth, even at the cost of some discomfort.  Our society’s emphasis on winning and the complexity of many of the issues facing us have caused many people to seek domination rather than truth or compromise (because they cannot understand the issues or don’t really trust any source of supposed information about the issues).  Finding the truth is hard work, and we can never know the absolute truth but only come as close as we can with regard to truth, given our limited data and limited minds.  Are the statistical models currently being used to predict climate change the right models?  We cannot be certain, yet this is (or could be) a crucial issue for the survival of our species in its current adaptation.  We are forced to work hard to see what is most likely to be true, without the comfort of really knowing in the end.  Nonetheless, if you believe in the truth, you must also believe that adhering to what is most likely to be true will result in a better life than believing whatever you want because that is more comfortable.

News organizations could voluntarily limit the amount of speculation they engage in.  The current flap over contacts between Russian officials and Trump campaign persons has produced months of mostly speculation when there are as yet almost no “facts” to report.  This speculation fuels dissatisfaction, in the absence of facts or real news.  Cable news hours may use speculation to fill up time, but it would serve the public better to wait until there is actually something to report.  The rejoinder by news organizations that their viewers want to hear the speculation, simply because they like listening to people who share their point of view, is germane to making money, but the fueling of divisive feelings (by providing comfortable information along with an atmosphere that is positive about the viewer’s viewpoint and negative about differing viewpoints) is damaging our democracy.  News organizations claim to be essential to democracy, but as currently constituted, they are actually doing almost as much harm as good.

News organizations could build programming (or editing) that presents all viewpoints (or at least the most prominent three or four viewpoints).  This would mean having political shows, on the same network, for each viewpoint and shows that combine viewpoints and provide opportunity for proponents of those viewpoints to present both the pros and the cons of their viewpoints (and how their viewpoints would be actualized in legislation) and to interact about these claims.  If they provided this kind of multiplicity, publishers and network heads would be giving up trying to influence voters and influence elections and instead subscribing to actually honoring the will of an informed electorate.  At the very least, news organizations should label themselves as “liberal,” “conservative,” or “trying to minimize bias.”  Readers and viewers could then know unmistakably which news organizations were trying to give them true and valuable information and which were trying to influence their minds.

New organizations could do something right now about the political divide in this country by providing balanced and informative information, rather than pandering to readers’/viewers’ already established political positions.  They could begin hiring people from all sides to provide this balance.  Are they doing this?  Apparently not.  Are they likely to do this?  Probably not, because their method of maximizing profits right now is to pander.  Readers/viewers are urged to give their news organizations the message (just click “contact us” on the home page) that they want this balance.

Our adversarial system leads proponents to present only the positive and to ignore or deny the negative results of their proposals, platforms, and systems.  News organizations could insist that all reporters and researchers deal with both pros and cons of proposals in all of their reports.  This would provide a more trustworthy source of information from all sides for viewers/readers.

Readers and viewers could also begin to discipline themselves to learn more about all sides, rather than just seek the presentation of what agrees with their current preferences.  Watch programs from Fox News and CNN or MSNBC.  Find those (Fareed Zakaria on CNN, Chris Wallace on Fox) who try to provide more detail about the topics so that readers/viewers can begin to understand what is going on and have a basis for favoring one proposal or claim over another.

As a voter, you can think more carefully about how all different segments of society will be affected by proposals or legislation, not just the effects on you.  Of course, the effects on you are important (and primary), but if we are one nation, then each of us can contribute to that union by making sure that all segments of society are being served equally by the legislative and judicial processes of our country.