Working the Refs
by Matthew Pressman
June 21, 2021
Matthew | I think of myself as a journalism historian. I got a Ph.D. in history from Boston University, but before that, I worked as a journalist for about eight years at Vanity Fair. At Vanity Fair, I did some writing and reporting about the state of the journalism business, and that led me to where I am in my career as a scholar and researcher; I focus on the business of news, journalistic values, and the intersection between journalism and politics.
frank | I am curious as to when we start to see reports of media bias?
Well, I think it's important to give the longer-term context to this question. The expectation that news should be unbiased is an abnormal expectation, both when you compare American journalism to journalism around the world, and when you compare the last 100 years to a longer view of American history.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, people expected their news to be biased.
There were many news sources and people chose the news source that fit their bias. It's not really until you get to the 20th century that American news consumers expect unbiased reporting.
The specific liberal media bias critique does have a specific genesis in the 1950s and 1960s, as most historians will tell you. That is when we see it gain traction as a talking point among many on the right. But it all starts, as I argue in my book, because there is a big change in how news is reported and presented: daily newspaper articles start to include more analysis. As reporters began to analyze the news, it left room for more people to call something biased.
What changed the coverage? Was it because the consumer expected something different?
I don't think it is a response to the audience’s demands as much as it is a response to market pressures. You start to see the professional ideal of objectivity emerging in the 1910s and 1920s, which is also the period where you see the total number of newspapers start to shrink. There are fewer competing newspapers in each city and no national news outlets at all. At this point, everything was local.
If there are fewer competing news outlets, then the papers that remain have a decent chance at attracting readers from all over the political spectrum. There was a rationale for them to try to have news that was considered down the middle. That is a big part of it.
It was also in part a push for professionalization in journalism. Journalists did not want to be seen as partisan hacks, as they had been for most of the 19th century. They embraced this code of not inserting personal opinions into news and remaining impartial. And this had been shown to be a successful commercial strategy.
The New York Times really pioneered claiming to be objective and impartial as part of a marketing strategy.
Very interesting how that came back to bite everyone. This is sort of self-determined. Did TV news differ from print?
By the time TV news came along in the 1950s, the journalistic value of objectivity was really ingrained. I think that the broadcasters were kind of just following suit.
It made sense for them to embrace objectivity for a few different reasons. One is that they absolutely had access to the broadest possible audience, so like newspapers, they wanted to be down the middle so that they’d alienate as few people as possible.
But there was also the matter of The Fairness Doctrine, which was an FCC rule put into place in 1949 that applied to broadcasters who were using the public airwaves. It said that they had to give a reasonably balanced presentation of all sides of an issue. And if someone or some organization was being criticized on the air, they then needed to be given a chance to respond. That was a big inducement for broadcasters to embrace objectivity.
It seems like less than two decades between that FCC rule being embraced in earnest and Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr screaming at each other for sport.
Well, the Buckley-Vidal debate is a good example of how broadcasters tried to be objective in the Fairness Doctrine era: let ideological opponents slug it out and have the journalist sit back and try to be an impartial moderator. But like cable news today, it doesn’t help viewers be better informed. Even though the Fairness Doctrine was rescinded in 1987, I think the big three broadcast news networks are still trying to have an objective approach. In fact maybe one of the last redoubts of objectivity is the nightly national news programs. Maybe you would disagree, but I think a lot of the reports of objectivity's death are greatly exaggerated. There are still plenty of outlets and individual journalists who feel there's something worth preserving about it, even if there are pitfalls that come with it.
That's interesting. We've tried to adopt the Amanpour motto of “truthful, not neutral”, but it's, um, it's hard to do. You write a lot about parallels in the economy and in the market. Obviously digital is what we are faced with now. Do you see a path forward?
I think there are a lot of parallels between newspapers' responses to the economic challenges of the 1970s and the news media’s response to the economic challenges of the 21st century.
In both eras, there was an attempt to respond to the audience's desires much more – to find what people want and give it to them. Today, that results in stories with clickbait headlines, and more opinion content. That stuff tends to get traffic.
There is also this big expansion of what kinds of topics get covered. Digital sites are always expanding. It is no longer just New York Magazine, but also Vulture and The Cut and Grub Street. There was a similar expansion of the coverage areas that worked well for newspapers in the 70s. There are a lot of parallels, but certainly, this era is more challenging.
Viewers, or readers, dictate material. Now that’s sorted out via algorithm. It feels like a race to the bottom. I know how I look on social media to a bot, but I also know what I want that’s better than that.
I definitely don't think that serving up content that’s tailored to the audience’s desires is the best way or the only way forward. There are historical parallels here too. In the 1970s they obviously didn't have algorithms and AI, but they did have lots of reader surveys. And those people with an elevated sense of a journalistic mission would be devastated when the surveys showed what people liked most were the advice column and the crossword puzzle and things like that.
Clearly, there are problems with just trying to give people what they want. I think people feel pandered to, and counter-intuitively, it's not necessarily the way to build audience loyalty and get people to become paying customers.
People want to feel like they're getting something of value and not just empty calories, so to speak.
There should be a way to respond to what audiences want and news outlets I think have become better at communicating with their audiences and engaging in more of a back and forth. But clearly, there's a lot of content that, as you say, people may not know that they're interested in until they encounter it. That kind of enterprise journalism is really valuable from a business perspective as well as a public service perspective. Even if people aren't clicking on it as much, it can build loyalty. Readers might think, all right, I don't have time to read that in-depth investigative piece now, but I see that they did that story and it seems really good and worthy and it makes me feel better about supporting them with my monthly donation or subscription or whatever.
Not only does journalism face market problems. There is also a raging against journalists and media from politicians. Is it politically valuable for politicians to be anti-news?
It is definitely politically beneficial for them, otherwise, they wouldn't be doing it. That has a long history too. Famously Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew gained a lot of attention and stirred up their base by attacking the media for its supposed leftism and liberal bias. That's really been a central plank of Republican orthodoxy ever since. There was a substantial change in the Trump era in that the accusation was no longer simply that journalists are biased, but that they are fully making things up. The rhetoric became a lot more heated and hateful.
It's clearly advantageous for a few reasons. One obvious rationale is the “working the refs” theory — which means by telling journalists that they are being unfair, you are hoping that you can get them to bend over backward to be fair and make questionable calls in your favor to avoid being criticized.
And today, more so than in the 1960s and 1970s, there is this whole separate conservative media ecosystem, where right-wing politicians know they're going to get very favorable treatment. So it’s in their interest to discredit the mainstream outlets that have higher standards of accuracy and accountability and to drive people to ideologically motivated conservative outlets instead.
We interviewed Rick Perlstein a while ago. This quote from him stuck out to me, which is that it is a liberal value to believe in scientific procedural neutrality. Conservatives see that as a threat in itself. So why would you work to prove neutrality to them?
I think it's really hard because, for one thing, the conservative outlets are often playing by a different set of rules.
The right-wing media, generally, with some exceptions, are unabashedly ideological in terms of story selection, angles, and their standards of accuracy and fairness. The bias is intentional, it’s policy.
Whereas traditional media — even many outlets that are openly left-leaning--tends to make more genuine efforts to be fair, and editorial decisions usually aren’t made on the basis of ideological concerns. I think that is what Perlstein was getting at. It is sort of like bringing a knife to a gunfight.
When it comes to engaging with criticism, it is important to differentiate between good faith and bad faith criticism. There is so much kind of bad faith criticism out there that there's a temptation to dismiss it all. But I think that news outlets, even though they are in a diminished state, still have a lot of influence. They have a responsibility, I think, to be open to criticism, from all sides. Even if nine times out of ten the people screaming “liberal bias!” are basically trolling, it’s important to acknowledge when they do make a valid point, and to try to do better in the future.
Can anyone escape the perception of bias?
I hate to sound pessimistic, but probably not. Certainly not in the short term. If anything, it is going to be a generational change. I think improved media literacy will help. Even if news outlets are engaging with good faith critics, it's very unlikely they are going to change anyone's minds, and certainly not on a large scale. The New York Times is not going to be able to convince most conservatives that it's not a liberal newspaper, no matter what they do.
What else is grabbing your attention right now?
There are a couple of things that I feel don't get quite as much attention as they should. One is the issue of ad technology and the difficulty of monetizing certain types of content without advertising.
Many ad buyers in the digital space use software tools that prevent their ads from appearing next to what they consider controversial content. They call it “brand safety,” and there has been some excellent research showing how it works in practice. Often the most newsworthy content is controversial, meaning that the most newsworthy content can't get monetized. Advertisers do not want to be next to political coverage. They do not want to be next to coverage of LGBTq+ issues. They do not want to be next to coverage of violence or warfare or sexual violence.
Yeah, that's really interesting. I saw an ad the other day from E! News that said "pride month brought to you by Postmates."
I guess it's an improvement over the past where it was like, if the word lesbian or gay is on that page, it is blacklisted. Those were words in the past that advertisers did want to be next to.
Yeah, yeah. This is true.
But there are still lots of other categories of political news, including race-related content, that often gets blacklisted.
Wow. Well thank you for your time.