The Public Interest

The media’s “American egalitarians”

Aaron Wildavsky

Summer 1987

YOU are listening to Public Radio or viewing network television news or reading a major newspaper or news magazine. You are certain they are biased, i.e., slanted, systematically favoring one view over another. Yet media people deny that they favor one political party or political ideology over another. They are not party hacks, they tell us with visible irritation; nor are they, in all exasperation, ideologues. They are, instead, professionals devoted to exercizing as much objectivity as fallible beings under constant pressure can muster. Perhaps they do prefer the dramatic to the prosaic, for they must beat the clock by selecting from a potentially huge menu a much smaller number of items that can fit into a vanishingly small news hole. To guard against bias, they have institutionalized precautions. They split off hard news from soft opinion, writers from editors, news pegs (events of the day) from staged events. They cannot give mere opinion, for their stories must have a source, usually some governmental official, for anything they say. And if reporters are biased, a slew of editors are there to counter it. Their focus on conflict is real, they say, but it is exciting for the lay public that has to be wooed to the news, necessary to meet the competition, and does suggest there is more than one side to the story. Whatever their inadequacies, this typical defense continues, the personal political biases of media men and women do not intrude into their stories in any systematic manner.

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