“The media is biased and here’s the proof.”
When I see a line like that, I know what almost always follows is a link from a so-called media watchdog group that lies in wait ready to pounce on anything it sees that might appear to be biased.
Of course, anything a media watchdog sees that might be bias is almost always reported as if it were bias.
The problem with this should be obvious, but I’m shocked by how many people allow themselves to get so fired up that it never occurs to them. But there are even bigger issues at play here that are likewise ignored.
This topic has come up in the comments of a post I wrote following accusations against NBC News when an edited version of the George Zimmerman 911 call aired; in the edited version, two clips were cut together and the result was that it appeared Zimmerman was volunteering that Trayvon Martin, the man he is accused of killing, was black before the 911 dispatcher asked for a physical description.
I pointed out that this is a situation that could have easily happened without any intent to portray Zimmerman as a racist. The editing could have been done simply to cut the amount of time in the recording. Such edits happen all the time, in fact. The obvious difference is that most of the time, there is never a change in the spirit of what is being communicated. Hindsight allows us to look at the edit and, upon giving it a little thought, realize that there could be an implication of racism conveyed that was not at all the intent of an editor who could have been under deadline pressure and a writer who, likewise facing deadline, forgot to indicate in a script that there should have been an explanation that two pieces of sound were being put together.
It also could have been the result of a producer urging a reporter to cut the length of the story for time, and the reporter eliminating some of the sound.
I don’t work at the Florida NBC station at the center of the controversy — which should be obvious since I don’t live in Florida — so I am unable to explain with great certainty why it happened.
But I’ve worked in television for more than 20 years, so I at least have the practical experience to understand how mistakes could happen through carelessness or ineptitude rather than a dark conspiracy to portray a falsehood intentionally.
One of my readers has taken it upon himself to provide me with several follow-up examples of reporting by NBC News that is questionable.
One of the sources he has used to criticize NBC’s reporting more than once is The Blaze, a website created by former Fox News personality Glenn Beck and is generally regarded as a conservative site.
Let me be clear: I have no intention of trying to badmouth The Blaze. But I have to point out that I’ve never done a story in local television about how a competitor covered a story wrongly. In TV news, we certainly promote our own coverage of stories when we are first to report something or report something that no one else has. But we don’t spend time critiquing how our competitors covered every aspect of the story, and our competitors don’t do that to us.
So what would make a media organization do that? Well, it does not take a rocket scientist to reason that a conservative news site might have a vested interest to convince its viewers that other media outlets are liberal-leaning, just as liberal-leaning news organizations have a vested interest in pointing out a conservative organization’s apparent agenda. That’s because they want to preach to the choir so that choir stays loyal to them.
It also shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that any “watchdog” only accentuates the negative in a manner designed to make a situation look worse than it is so that it can then look that much better by comparison.
Let’s look at a different example through the lenses of common sense, shall we?
Let’s Play Doctor
Let’s say you’re a doctor at a hospital. You’re a good doctor. You put your patients first and have dedicated your life to being a healer and living up to every syllable of the Hippocratic Oath.
At your hospital, 96% of the other doctors are just like you. Of the remaining 4%, 3% aren’t as dedicated and don’t put their all into it. And the remaining 1% represents those mental deficients who should never have been awarded a medical license to begin with. Enter the watchdog group to inspect patient records at your hospital: guess what they’re looking for.
They frankly don’t give a damn how good of a doctor you are. They’re searching — eagerly searching — for that list of mistakes from the one per centers in the faculty. And when they find a mistake, or even the kind of decision that another physician might suggest wasn’t the call he’d have made, that’s what they’re going to broadcast to the world.
Now imagine being a doctor in the medical field in which there are as many, if not more, watchdog groups than there are hospitals, and in which there are legions more good doctors than bad. And those watchdogs are doing everything they can do to discredit your field by pinpointing every mistake your colleagues make.
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
Sure, one can argue that even one mistake is one too many, and he’d be right. But one can also argue that in an imperfect world filled with imperfect humans, mistakes will happen once in a while, even when those who make them have the best of intentions. Of course, some of the mistakes the watchdogs report may well be legitimate mistakes that spring from failures in protocol and could have been avoided. But the presence of a mistake doesn’t automatically prove that a doctor set out to harm someone.
The Typical Reaction
When the notion that a watchdog group has an obvious stake in convincing you that everyone else has an agenda and that they don’t — which, of course, means that they have one as well — is presented to an enthusiast of such groups, the immediate reaction is almost always the same:
“Well is what they said inaccurate?”
In cases like these, accuracy alone doesn’t cut it. Because even facts can be arranged, exaggerated or ignored to stack the deck in a particular way. So even when one of the imaginary doctors makes a legitimate mistake, focusing solely on the mistakes and not presenting all of the good he’s done at other times never even occurs to anyone.
Likewise, I’m sure neither my reader nor The Blaze did a story count on the days it criticized NBC News to find out how many other stories it aired that didn’t have an obvious problem. (We all know that if another story had included something questionable, they would have mentioned that, too.) So if, on the day NBC News aired the badly-edited 911 recording, it aired 200 other news stories and didn’t make any obvious mistakes in any of those, it’s batting .995. A watchdog who wants you to trust only them will never point that out.
So even the most accurate representations of those missteps that should never have happened in the first place almost always fail to consider the frequency of such mistakes. Therefore, those reports are curiously skewed themselves to present a “narrative” of their own.
The irony is that watchdog groups encourage their audience to always “consider the source,” yet the audience almost never considers the watchdog groups themselves when they’re the source.
Funny how that works, isn’t it?
I'm completely convinced that most all reporters, editors, producers and others associated with the media have very strong biases. Who doesn't? I certainly do.
Their job, however, is supposed to be to lay out facts and ask questions in an attempt to get to the bottom of the story. In the majority of the cases that is exactly what happens. That said, it is very hard to listen to reports sometimes without seeing a very clear failure to exclude a personal or network bias.
In the Zimmerman tape case, it just wasn't important to the person who edited that clip to do their job properly.