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Why The News Media Cannot And Should Not Be Unbiased

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Americans generally agree that news media should be “objective” and “report the facts.” But as I recently explained, there is no such thing as merely reporting “the facts.”

Consider a simple example. Imagine a drunk driver kills someone. Which facts are relevant to report? Does it matter where the accident occurred? How about the identities of the people involved? Do their backgrounds matter? What about where the driver was coming from and where he was going? Is race important? Should the media report anything about their families’ reactions to the incident?

Ought the details of the vehicle be reported? What if it is later revealed that the brakes were faulty? Does it matter whether the driver is a citizen? What if he is an illegal immigrant? Are there then possible implications for public policy, and if there are, ought they be reported? Furthermore, how much time should news media devote to this matter — a 10-minute news segment, an hour, or possibly even a 24-hour news cycle or more?

Facts alone cannot answer these questions. Discerning which facts to report requires judgment, and judgment requires morality. As the late Leo Strauss observed, “We cannot observe facts without selecting facts, and we must therefore have principles guiding our selection.” Put simply, the notion that facts are completely severable from values — an idea known as the “fact-value distinction” — is untenable, and no news outlet should pretend otherwise.

Lest this be misunderstood, the news media do bear a responsibility to report the facts they select as accurately as possible, but facts do not select themselves. No outlet is therefore free from ideology. Rather than feign objectivity, it would be more responsible for news outlets to drop the pretense altogether and instead invite the best opposing thinkers to debate the issues of the day. In other words, “diversity of ideas,” not “report the facts,” is a more sensible goal for news media.

The Left Is Silencing Contrary Ideas

Unfortunately, however, a growing segment of the left opposes allowing a public platform for contrary ideas, or at least it declares an ever-larger number of ideas out of bounds. Consider, for instance, the recently established policy at the Los Angeles Times not to publish any letters skeptical of human-caused climate change:

[L]etters that have an untrue basis (for example, ones that say there’s no sign humans have caused climate change) do not get printed.

One wonders why, if the evidence preponderates so overwhelmingly in one direction, debate on this matter is impermissible. Why not let readers conclude for themselves? Nor is this example unique. Social media giants and news outlets have attempted to suppress Prager University, a digital media platform that produces five-minute explainer videos from a conservative viewpoint, from airing its content on their websites. The matter is now being litigated in court.

The Media Is Taking Its Cues from Academia

It does not help that academia encourages the news media in this regard. Academia has long abdicated its role of exposing young minds to different ideas and teaching them to apply reason and critical thinking. It has instead come to embrace the idea that certain viewpoints, sources, and thinkers are beyond the realm of permissible dialogue and ought to be dismissed.

Consider, for example, this Twitter exchange I had with a history professor regarding the notion that colleges today often fail to cultivate critical thinking. I linked to a video of a scholar who has published articles and a book on the matter, and whose research concludes that universities do indeed fail students in developing necessary critical thinking skills, which is particularly harmful for left-leaning students, who are seldom if ever exposed to conservative viewpoints. Instead of addressing this scholar’s research, however, the history professor categorically dismissed it because he disapproved of the source.

One would think a professor, of all people, would know that attacking the source of an argument rather than addressing its content is an evasion of the issue, but the larger point is that defining certain views and thinkers as beyond the pale in order to refuse them a public hearing is quite the opposite of open-mindedness. Yet this attitude has dominated higher learning.

Take, for instance, a similar exchange that occurred recently with another academic, this time with regard to Jonah Goldberg:

A humble request: please stop treating Jonah Goldberg as a ‘serious’ intellectual. He showed us his true colors over a decade ago.

News Media Should Aim for Diversity 0f Ideas

Whether one agrees with Goldberg’s ideas is beside the point. What is incontestable is that Goldberg has been at the forefront of the conservative movement for quite some time, and he remains a revered thinker on the right. To suggest we stop taking his work seriously rather than try to understand and wrestle with his thinking only reflects academia’s pervasive desire to shut down contrary ideas rather than engage with them.

It is therefore little wonder that our news media, which often defer to “experts” (i.e., academics) on major issues, have tended to adopt this attitude. Of course, one cannot help but be reminded of an admonition from the late Bertrand Russell: “When an intelligent man expresses a view which seems to us obviously absurd, we should not attempt to prove that it is somehow true, but we should try to understand how it ever came to seem true” (emphasis added).

If we continue to follow the practice of our news media and universities, we will have little to no true understanding of our intellectual opponents. For we cannot grasp what we dismiss without taking it seriously.

That is why promoting ideological diversity is so vital and why it ought to be the chief aim of our news media. Factual accuracy is undoubtedly important, but a diverse presentation of facts is just as essential. After all, without the latter, how can we hope to keep an open mind?