A few days before the 2012 presidential election, Joe Scarborough, the conservative host of Morning Joe on liberal MSNBC, proclaimed, “Anybody that thinks this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue … they’re jokes.” He felt reports that put Obama ahead were biased, and he had one particular culprit in mind, Nate Silver, a presumably liberal polling expert who calculated that President Obama had a 79 percent chance of beating Romney.
There was just one problem. It turned out to be Scarborough himself whose judgment was clouded by bias—as Silver recognized when he offered to bet the anchorman $1,000 on the outcome of the election, a wager Scarborough wouldn’t take. Silver turned out to be amazingly accurate in how he called the race.
That’s the problem with media bias. We all know it’s there, and we all know we need to see it, detect it, and overcome it if we’re ever going to know the truth, but we also all see it in different places. All too often, we think whoever we agree with is unbiased. It’s the other guy, the one we disagree with, who holds the biased opinion. How, then, are we ever to get at the truth, the truth we need, not only just to know what’s going on, but to be responsible citizens in a democracy?
It’s a very old problem, and it’s not about to go away, though there are definitely things we can do to try to smoke out biased reporting and see the facts more clearly. We’ll get to that later, but first, a little history. Bias in the media wasn’t always considered a negative. In fact, until about 100 years ago, it hardly ever occurred to anyone that media should be unbiased. Everyone agreed that an informed electorate was the basis of a free society, but they didn’t take that to mean that the news should be delivered without a point of view. They did agree, however, that in the U.S. the freedom of the press was sacred. That was a founding principle of our nation, and one of the great things that set us apart from every government that had come before.
The idea of a truly free press was born in 1735, when a New York newspaperman named John Peter Zenger was put on trial for libel for defaming the royal governor. Zenger’s lawyer insisted that he was innocent because what he had printed was the truth. No law at the time protected a journalist who told truth that hurt a public official, but the jury set Zenger free anyway—and established the notion of a press unafraid to speak truth to power as a cornerstone of liberty.
What makes the jury’s decision all the more intriguing is that it was quite well known that Zenger’s paper had been founded expressly to attack the royal governor. Freedom of the press was considered to be quite a separate matter from bias, as indeed it should be. By the time of the American Revolution, the colonies were awash in partisan newspapers and pamphlets. One of the British outrages that led to the Revolution was the Stamp Act—which put a tax on newspapers. In Europe the press had always been controlled by the ruling aristocracy and bent to serve its purposes; in the colonies, it became the weapon of the people, and publications like Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense fired the people to revolt against their overseas overlords. The only kind of media bias anyone really worried about was bias imposed from above, by the king and his men.
And so, when the Constitution was written its very first amendment stated “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …”
With those words, a free press was enshrined along with freedom of speech and religion as one of our most crucial liberties. The government went well beyond mere words in supporting it, too. Where other nations heavily taxed their newspapers, the young United States did the opposite. It subsidized them. The Postal Act of 1792, which established the nation’s mail service, gave newspapers discounted postage rates, and legislators often provided funding for papers in their districts.
With that help the American press flourished so much that by 1835 the U.S. had five times as many daily papers as the British Isles. However, high officials often hated and distrusted what the papers printed. In 1798 President John Adams went so far as to push through the notorious Sedition Act, which made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious” writings about the president or Congress. The law would backfire badly, turning its victims into free-speech martyrs. Thomas Jefferson got rid of the Sedition Act soon after he was elected president.
Not all bias is political bias. In the 1830s James Gordon Bennett used sensationalism and colorful embroidering of the truth to build his New York Herald into the biggest newspaper in the world. As but one lurid example, his paper described the corpse of a murdered prostitute in 1836 as follows: “The perfect figure, the exquisite limbs, the fine face, the full arms, the beautiful bust, all, all surpassed in every respect the Venus de Medici.”
Newspapers were, after all, businesses first, and the primary concern was selling papers. By 1871 a British observer would describe the typical American newspaper as “a print published by a literary Barnum, whose type, paper, talents, morality, and taste are all equally wretched and inferior; who is certain to give us flippancy for wit, personality for principle, bombast for eloquence, malignity without satire, and news without truth or reliability.”
How biased was the press in the 19th century? In 1860 Bennett’s Herald reported that Abraham Lincoln was “a fourth-rate lecturer who cannot speak good grammar.”
By the end of that century, the United States was a nation of mass-readership newspapers. Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World led the way, with signs in its city room that read, “Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy! Who? What? Where? When? How? The Facts—The Color—The Facts!”
Despite the noble motto, in the World and in its archrival, William Randolph Hearst’s Journal, “there was a lot of willful omission and lying,” as Brooke Gladstone, media historian and host of the NPR show On the Media, points out in her book, The Influencing Machine. Hearst himself is best remembered for his (possibly apocryphal) 1897 telegram to the artist Frederic Remington, who told him there was no fighting in Cuba to report on: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”
The tide began to turn with the century. Adolph Ochs bought The New York Times in 1896 and announced that it would henceforth “give the news … impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interest involved.” Lack of bias became a new ideal in the Progressive Era of the early 1900s. In 1904 Joseph Pulitzer endowed one of the first journalism schools, at Columbia University, to “raise journalism to the rank of a learned profession,” and others soon followed. In 1922 editors founded their first professional association, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and drafted a code of ethics that declared, “News reports should be free from opinion or bias of any kind.”