Former USA Today Editor Says Media Bias Is a 'Myth'

Former USA Today editor Kenneth Paulson attacked what he called "The myth of 'media bias'" in an article on Thursday. He just described the claims of media bias as untrue, without offering any evidence or considering any criticism:

Despite the perception of news media bias, the truth is that most traditional news organizations — primarily newspapers, their Web sites and local TV and radio — adhere to in-house ethics codes and keep politicians at arm’s length.

Yes, you read that right. Most traditional news media strive daily to report news about their communities without regard to political affiliation or special interests.

This sounds as if Paulson is writing for a naive sixth-grade social-studies class. How would he contend with questions about all the gooey news magazine covers of Obama, the network anchors going out on burger runs with Obama? But it gets sillier. Paulson claims that the reason that people say there's a media bias is because they're confused about who the media is. Certainly, they don't mean USA Today or the national TV news. The public must be badly mistaken, blurring the "traditional" news media with bloggers and talk-radio hosts and other "blustering pundits."

If today’s traditional news media are indeed more ethical than their predecessors, then why does the public have a perception that the press is biased? In part, the problem stems from the breadth of the word "media."

When America’s news media began routinely referring to themselves as "the media" and not "the press" or "news media," they threw in the towel on public perception. Journalists now are lumped in with any and all forms of information, entertainment and advocacy.

When Americans take surveys about media bias, are they thinking about their local daily newscast or about cable channels that shamelessly favor one side or another? When they think of journalists, do they think about the young reporter carefully taking notes at city hall or a blustering pundit spewing outrage on air or online? There's a lot of junk journalism out there and it feeds the public's sense that "the media" are high on agenda and low on ethics.

The other factor driving public perception of bias is, of course, the relentless drumbeat of politicians who find that counterattacking is more convenient than actually explaining their actions or positions. There's been some of that throughout American history, but former Vice President Spiro Agnew raised it to an art form. Remember "nattering nabobs of negativism" and charges of the press being elite and out of touch? His strategy worked and the name-calling stuck.

Yes, America’s news media have plenty of warts, including understaffed newsrooms and errors made in haste. But the truth is that most traditional news organizations in this country still take their watchdog roles seriously. To the extent there is bias in America’s traditional newspaper newsrooms, it’s not liberal or conservative. It’s a bias against whoever’s in charge in the moment, maintaining a healthy skepticism about how the public’s business is done.

That’s not always comfortable for government officials, but it’s in the best interests of a democracy.

Attacking Agnew's critiques of media bias as "counterattacking is better than explaining their positions" betrays Paulson's liberalism and knee-jerk defensiveness. Paulson is the one who's counter-attacking rather than explaining what the media's done to earn a biased reputation.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis