It doesn’t matter whether you get your information from Rush Limbaugh or NPR, Fox News or the BBC, Al Jazeera or RT: your media intake is, to some degree, biased. Of course, I suspect most of us know this intuitively, but we always need to be reminded because the very biases that lead us to select our media diet are apt to downplay the biases present in that media diet itself.
Here’s a simple example. Yesterday, CNN published the following article. To be sure, the article was an opinion piece rather than a piece of journalism proper. Nonetheless, the range of opinions that are countenanced as legitimate by a media organization is itself indicative of its bias.
Anyway, on with the discussion. The article is titled “Firing Virginia teacher who misgendered student was the right call.” The story is about a teacher who is fired for refusing to use a young person’s preferred pronouns because those pronouns do not align with the child’s sex and the teacher considered the request to be an affront to his values. Personally, I don’t agree with that teacher in that I would consider it a matter of hospitality to meet that child’s request. However, my opinion is not my concern here.
Nor, for that matter do I presume to criticize the writer for expressing an opinion since the article in question is labeled as an opinion piece. Instead, my only concern is to point out that the opinion, and the way it is argued, is based on a set of prior commitments that constitute bias, and the clearer we are on the presence and nature of that bias the better off we shall be.
To illustrate the bias, we can consider the following passage:
“And now he’s [the teacher] suing, with the help of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. The ADF is a right-wing group with extreme views on gay and trans issues, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has characterized as ‘one of the most influential groups informing the [Trump] administration’s attack on LGBT rights.'”
Note that the opinion writer labels the “ADF” as “a right-wing group with extreme views”. Right-wing? Extreme? Well, according to whom? The Southern Poverty Law Center, that’s who!
Well, okay, but here’s the thing: the Southern Poverty Law Center has itself often been labeled as a left-wing group with extreme views. By whom, you ask? Not surprisingly, that judgment generally comes from right-wing commentators.
Do these charges cancel each other out? That’s a question for another day. But at least we know this much: that opinion writer is clearly writing for a particular constituency, one that has already decided which voices are the lodestar of reasonable ethical discourse (e.g. the Southern Poverty Law Center) and which are extreme and out on a wing (e.g. the ADF).
Needless to say, if your starting point differs from hers, the subsequent reasoning likely will, as well. And the more often that we can work down to those fundamental differences in our starting points, the more likely we are to hope to resolve the disagreements created by them.