Volume 73, Number 39 | January 28 - February 03, 2004

Talking Point

People prefer their bias straight; more tune in BBC

By Jeff Dufour

In 2003, there was no better window into the changing landscape of the media than the Iraq war. While embedded reporters, Web news and cable news all could claim major successes, audiences welcomed another trend: the ability to cherry-pick their coverage based upon a media outlet’s worldview. Conservatives continued their migration to Fox News Channel, talk radio and the blogosphere; liberals headed to a resurgent Nation, leftwing blogs and alternative urban weeklies.

Perhaps most telling, many war skeptics looking for strong opinions found British news outlets more than willing to provide them. “The BBC and The Guardian had a tremendous spike” as a result of the war, said Danny Schechter, executive editor of Mediachannel.org, a left-leaning media news and criticism site.

That comes as little surprise, as the veneer of purported objectivity is brushed on more thinly by British editors than it is by their American counterparts. Yet many experts see America beginning to follow suit.

British papers all tend to “market themselves in some way,” said John O’Sullivan, a former editor at The Times of London and The Daily Telegraph and current editor of The National Interest in Washington. He said the element of ideology is greatest in The Guardian on the left and the Telegraph on the right, while papers like the Times and Financial Times show their cards somewhat less.

O’Sullivan said British papers’ political philosophies are always evident on their comment pages, and much more obviously than in American papers. Yet bias in the news sections is still more subtle than overt. “You don’t come out and announce that you’re going to produce a biased news page,” he said.

Yet it is not difficult to determine where a U.K. paper hangs its political hat.

According to even the British Information Services, “newspapers are almost always financially independent of any political party, but their political leanings are easily discerned.”

Covering British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s speech before Congress last July, a news headline in the Telegraph read: “Democrats and Republicans unite to hail Blair as the new Churchill.” The Daily Mirror, however, referred to “Yankee Poodle Blair.” The Guardian clearly speaks to the left. Its Web site offers sections on student politics and exposés of “the far right.” A year-end story explored “the past year for the peace movement.”

Robert Fisk, a renowned correspondent for The Independent, travels to war-torn regions such as Iraq, eschewing traditionally objective journalism for a call-’em-as-he-sees-’em approach. His 2003 dispatches focused largely on the plight of Iraqi citizens since America’s arrival (“From Joy to Despair: Iraqis Pay for Saddam’s Capture” read a Dec. 27 headline). An October report likened Iraqi insurgents’ attempt on Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz’s life to the U.S. Army’s killing of Qusay and Uday Hussein.

Fiske’s fans can’t get enough. The paper’s Web site is able to charge a fee to view each of his stories, whereas most of its other content is free.

Many of the payees, in fact, are Americans disillusioned with the U.S. media. And that underscores a growing trend on this side of the Atlantic; Americans are increasingly willing not only to seek out but also to pay for content that feeds their prejudices.

A poll conducted last summer by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 58 percent of TV viewers 18-29 years old preferred hosts with strong opinions, compared with 32 percent who did not. That is a stark contrast with other, older age groups. Among viewers 65 and older, only 33 percent wanted hosts with strong opinions.

Christopher Hitchens, a British critic who now makes his home in Washington, said the conditions exist for Anglo-style news reporting to take hold in the U.S. media.

“People increasingly prefer their bias to be straight,” he said. “At Fleet Street, you always had that.”

Fleet Street, the collective noun given to British newspapers, has long exercised some influence in America. British blogger Andrew Sullivan edited The New Republic in the 1990s, and Tina Brown edited Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. The Hill is edited by another British import, Hugo Gurdon.

Schechter told The Hill that although the U.S. media establishment used to unite the country, it now “polarizes our culture.” He said, “People are looking for confirmation of their views and media recognize this.”

He contrasts Americans’ “hatred” of Big Media — typified by the 3 million public comments the Federal Communications Commission received last year when it sought to change its ownership rules — with the proliferation of cable talk shows and opinionated, online blogs, which now number in the hundreds of thousands. These changes are “driven by the market, by technology,” Schechter said.

Those in the media business “will look for niches which are remunerative,” said Todd Gitlin, a well-known liberal activist and professor of journalism at Columbia University. Increasing ideological segmentation had been “a sideshow to American journalism for some time,” he said, adding: “You can’t say the choice of front-page material for tabloids like the New York Daily News or the New York Post is not without opinion.”

Yet, he added, the eroding circulation of U.S. newspapers has “pumped up the incentive for other, non-tabloid papers to raise the volume — to ‘go Murdoch.’”

In an address before the University of Miami last fall, Howell Raines, the disgraced former New York Times editor, lamented that trend. He warned against the “British model … where the politics of the paper are thought to change the way the information is presented.” Yet many of Raines’s detractors say the Times under his watch was an example of a paper that did exactly that — without admitting it.

Hitchens said that simply by viewing its op-ed, letters, features and book-review pages, “you couldn’t convince me that The New York Times is objective. But they insist that they’re objective. This is tedious and bad for democracy.”

Former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee famously refused even to vote when he was running the paper, lest it color his perceptions and undermine his objectivity. Did he avoid bias? Not according to conservatives who called his Post “Pravda on the Potomac.”

“What annoys a lot of conservatives is the pretense” of objectivity by the established media, said Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the Media Research Center, the press’s watchdog from the right. He said U.S. newspapers still seek to camouflage their biases with a coat of objectivity.

But, he said, consumers want their news — particularly on TV — to buttress their political views. During the Republican National Convention in 2000, he noted, Fox broke its viewership records. Yet during the Democratic Convention one month later, Fox’s ratings trailed CNN’s.

The war has amplified that difference, he contended. “Fox has made a conscious decision that they will root for America,” said Graham. “This puts them to the right of the other networks. Left-wingers do not want to hear ‘we’ ” in their war coverage.

“What Fox has done,” said Gitlin, “has been enormously profitable, and there’s some room for growth there. And there are liberal would-be competitors.”

Hitchens warned, however, that “not all generalizations hold” regarding a more British trend in the U.S. media. Most critically, he said, “In Britain, all the [major] papers are national. From the south of Scotland all the way down to Cornwall, you get the same paper. In America, you must differentiate the regional papers from the national.”

Gitlin asked: “Would a monopoly paper in City A want to start sounding like Fox News? It would be lunacy. What’s in it for The Hartford Courant to start shouting?”

“In American journalism, there is geographical stratification, whereas in British papers there is social stratification or ideological stratification,” said O’Sullivan. “National papers can be attuned much more precisely” to a particular ideology than can the “dull” broadsheets of most one-paper cities in America.

As the American media enter a new epoch, this much is certain: Should national news outlets, like their British cousins, take more chances with opinion journalism, one thing they’ll never be is dull.


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