Community / Discernment / Maturity and Flourishing / Spirituality

Media Bias and Nurturing Wisdom

In his landmark film series, How Should We Then Live? Francis Schaeffer presented his audience with a frightening image of the manipulative power of contemporary media. He created two fictional news accounts of the very same hypothetical event. In each case the viewer sees a group of young protesters in conflict with the authorities. The action is identical, but, depending on which version is seen, you either get the idea of the stalwart boys in blue holding the line against a bunch of good-for-nothing hooligans or of the nation’s youth standing up for truth in the face of the oppressive arm of the state. Each news story was so crafted that two people offered only one version would come away with mutually exclusive ideas of what had occurred.

Sadly, this sort of thing is not reserved for fictionalized news accounts. We’ve all had those times when we’re watching the headlines on TV, and we get the impression that the minds behind the cameras are pulling our strings in a most unwelcome way. We’ll be taking in the coverage of this or that event on one network and then switch over to another news outlet to see what they have to say. Watching the second show, it can be hard to believe that both networks are talking about the same thing. A crowd of protesters is “angry” or “disgruntled” when described by one anchor, but it comes across as “passionate” or “spirited” in another broadcaster’s characterization. Identical legislative tricks are either “brilliant” or “corrupt” depending on who is being described.

It would be very comforting to take solace in the idea that whichever perspective rankles us the most must have been the result of willful manipulation of facts by the media outlet in question. If their portrayal of a favorite public figure leaves us vexed, it must have been because they’ve stretched the truth to the breaking point even though they knew what the facts were. This sort of thinking leaves us in our happy-place where our own ideas are firmly rooted in reality and where contrary opinions are maintained only through ignorance and deceit. While a world where all ideas are so clearly demarcated would be a nice planet to live on, it is, sadly, not the one where any of us currently reside. Undoubtedly information in the public square is quite often nothing more than a collocation of lies and half-truths, but the more unsettling reality that we must all face is that the mutually exclusive presentations of pundits, politicians, and preachers alike are as likely to be the result of sincere attempts at objectivity as they are to be the deliberate machinations of ne’er-do-wells.

Take, for example, the varied interpretations of recent American military conflicts by Christian magazines. Though they would certainly resent being characterized as mouth-pieces for the United States’ political factions, Sojourners and World magazines have each tended to support the American Left and Right respectively. This emphasis came through in how they wrote about the various American conflicts that erupted in the wake of the Cold War. Sojourners tended to talk about the dangers of instability and the suffering inflicted upon non-combatants in the event of reckless war, while World spoke about the dangers of inaction and the suffering to be alleviated through a justified use of force.

Panama invasion & Gulf War
When it came to the Panama invasion of December 1989, the two journals could not be more different. Sojourners described American troops as “shaking down passers-by at roadblocks and rounding up labor leaders and other civilian politicos considered unfriendly,” whereas World wrote of the work of Baptist missionaries who had found not only freedom with the influx of American forces but also additional funds. Less than a week after the invasion, U.S. government resources were made available to relief agencies working among the Panamanians. At another point World provided a photo and caption showing a Panamanian child being playfully chased through one GI’s legs by another soldier. To the one magazine, Uncle Sam was the agent of imperialist oppression while to the other he was a well-armed relief worker.

World pointed out several times that the invasion of Panama had the approval, or at least acceptance of those seemingly the least likely to be pleased: the Panamanians themselves. “While there was plenty of squawking, however, throughout Latin America and elsewhere in the world, little criticism of the U.S. was reported in Panama itself.” World argued that Noriega’s governance was such that even America’s enveloping embrace was seen as an improvement. Likewise, in a summary of comments by CIA director William Webster, World asserted that the new American-enshrined government of Panama “enjoys broad support among the people and the legislature.” In a less technical, though perhaps more evocative, observation the magazine continued this reasoning with a photo. The picture showed two men walking by a short wall in Panama that has been spray-painted with the words “THANK YOU MR. BUSH.” The caption added, “They are grateful: Whatever the American press had to say, no one could deny the obvious sentiments expressed by most residents of Panama City.”

In contrast Sojourners cast the Americans as bringing nothing but death and destruction. It pointed out that one devastated neighborhood, which had been the home of descendants of Africans brought in a century before to dig the canal, was to be rebuilt, not for the previous residents, but as “a commercial zone for tourists.” Of the millions of dollars sent by the U.S. government to Panama for rebuilding, “Not one penny will go towards those displaced by the invasion.” Another of their articles spoke of the quest for compensation by civilians caught in the crossfire. With the cooperation of several international groups, some of these Panamanians were seeking recompense from the United States for family members killed or maimed by American forces. The author summarized his point with a quote from a representative of these groups. “‘The only ‘just cause’ in this regrettable and tragic affair . . . is the cause to compensate the Panamanian victims of this illegal act of intervention by the United States.’”

Another arena where the two periodicals offered contrasting viewpoints was in their respective portrayals of those who disagreed with their own view of the given conflict. At one point in the wake of the Panama campaign, World indirectly critiqued a letter from the National Council of Churches (NCC). There was little commentary, as all but the initial paragraph was simply quoting the letter, but what was there was telling. The title itself claimed that the NCC was “quick to criticize” which implied a rush to judgment or a knee-jerk reaction rather than a measured, thoughtful response. This emphasis was continued with the first words of the article itself, “It didn’t take long…” As the paragraph continued the swiftness of the “traditional gainsayers” to condemn was contrasted with the fact that “every public opinion poll” and “nearly every member of Congress” were in favor of the military action. Without overtly critiquing the letter, the tone here prepared the reader to view the following comments from the NCC as hasty and mechanical. When it came to the Gulf War World described the “Peacenik” groups as “rickety…aging…same old lefties.” One author suggested that, as many of the participants in the protests were from such groups as the Socialist and Communist parties, their opposition had more to do with tired ideals than with present day issues.

Sojourners saw Christians in favor of given wars as either typical or depressing. Richard John Neuhaus’s Wall Street Journal article attacking the anti-war church as “hopelessly marginal” was itself criticized by Sojourners as what was to be expected of “the king’s court prophets.” Billy Graham’s overnight White House stay was treated as “disappointing” and a media coup for the Bush administration. In the same way Graham was criticized for praying for “our” soldiers and leaders and thereby identifying the church’s aims with American goals. Unnamed “White House theological advisers” and “religious chaplains” to President Bush were seen as, respectively, not wanting to rock the boat and equivalent to Saddam Hussein and his claim of a holy war.

One of the great ironies of these two differing perspectives came in their view of the rest of the media. Each magazine saw itself as a voice in the wilderness speaking forth what the powers that be in the wider world of the press refused to acknowledge. Sojourners rebuked what it termed “mainstream media coverage” and “establishment journalists” for being monolithic in support of the invasion. Rather than being critical of the attack along with Sojourners, these media outlets had a home team victory “to crow about.”

World, on the other hand, saw the majority of news reports as being in opposition to the invasion and accused the media of doing a hatchet job on American intervention. One of their authors implied a connection between the heightened censorship for war correspondents during the Falklands, Grenada, and Panama campaigns and their success. He suggested that “natural press skepticism” towards the government “has evolved into a variety of cynicism that is harming the nation.”

This continued during the 1990/1 Gulf War. World suggested that the mainstream journalists listened only to those that reported what they want to hear. When commenting on a letter from Roman Catholic bishops to President Bush that was critical of his handling of the crisis, World pointed out that while the media gave the bishops their ear in full on this point, they were nowhere to be found when these same bishops had been advocating a pro-life stance at other times. “A profound media bias determines when the nation’s print and electronic reporters are willing to listen…and when they won’t listen.”

Unsurprisingly, Sojourners took a differing view. In a letter they hoped could be published in Iraq, the editors lumped the media in with the government as those trying to tell the American people who their enemies should be. The magazine was particularly scathing at what they perceived as profit-making enthusiasm by the various media outlets. Journalists were quoted, disparagingly, as speaking of the military conflict using the same terminology they ordinarily reserved for athletic competition, “a blowout…Patriots vs. Scuds: Iraqi Touchdown is Averted.” The magazine even went so far as to suggest that the timing of the American assault on Iraq was “scheduled in advance for the networks’ convenience.”

Reflecting on the facts
So what is going on here? Who had the right perspective? Were most American news agencies uniformly in favor of the various U.S. actions, or were they monolithically opposed? Were the GIs in Panama little more than the thugs that Sojourners suggested, or were they the agents of liberation that World would have us believe? Was the anti-war crowd trotting out tired slogans from their 1960s heyday, or were President Bush’s spiritual counselors blind to their Christian duty to speak up for peace? How could two groups of seemingly intelligent people sharing the same data and, broadly speaking, the same biblical consensus come to such dramatically opposed views of these events?

Try this thought experiment. Imagine you’re meeting with three people. One was stridently against the Iraq War from the beginning. Another was in favor early on, but, as time wore on, he became less enamored with the whole endeavor. The third was a supporter from day one and she has not flagged in her enthusiasm since. Imagine you give them each fifteen photographs depicting real events in Iraq from 2003 up through the present. Five of these are negative: flag-draped coffins coming home, the Abu Ghraib prison images, and dead civilians. Five are neither here nor there: GIs patrolling Baghdad streets, destroyed armored vehicles, and convoys headed through the desert. Finally, five are positive: British medics treating Iraqi wounded, Arab civilians thrusting ink-stained thumbs in the air, and smiling children getting candy from American troops. Then ask your friends to pick the, say, seven photos which epitomize the Iraq War. Which pictures will they choose?

The result would not be hard to guess. The person against the war from the start will choose the five negative images along with a couple of the neutral ones. Even these last pictures will seem just as negative when seen side by side with the darker photos. The choices of the man on the fence will reflect this ambivalence with smattering of selections from each category yielding an overall impression of a highly complex situation. Finally, the woman in favor will be the reciprocal of anti-war participant. Her images will be the five positive images with two of the middle of the road pictures thrown in. Using identical data your three friends will have created collages of the Iraq War that have precious little relation to one another.

Or, if you want a less political example, think of it this way. Have you ever been watching a sporting event with some friends where you go into it not caring who wins? You could just as easily be persuaded to go along with your friends’ team as to root for the other guy. Yet the more you listen to your compatriots, the more you want the other team to win. The problem is the sudden irrationality coming from people who you otherwise could count on for their solid sensibility. Every time a ref makes a call in their favor it’s “about time!” since it was obviously only their due. Every time that same ref made a call against their team it was just as obviously a bad call flowing from the ref’s bias. Your otherwise logical friends become sincerely convinced that the powers that be are actively working to prevent their team from winning.

It might well be depressing, but there’s not a one of us who is as clear-headed as we’d like to think. When we come to some new information, no one takes it in with a totally open mind. We come to it with all the baggage of our previously held ideas about the nature of the world. Bear in mind this is a good thing. Without such preconceptions we would never be able to have any development in our thoughts since we’d always be trying to start from scratch. It’d be like trying to do even the simplest of math problems while constantly trying to prove that 2+2=4.

When tasked to explain an event to ourselves or someone else, we do not list out everything that occurred. This would yield only meaningless drivel. Rather, we select out those things that epitomize for us the essence of the event in question. All else being equal, none of us, when describing a conversation we had with a friend, would mention how many breaths we took or the number of tiles on the floor. Even in this very ordinary example, we filter out what we consider to be irrelevant and highlight what we think to be significant in order to explain the true nature of a phenomenon.

As strange as it might sound, this is exactly what we see in the case of Sojourners and World magazines, and in our nightly newscasts. It is also exactly what we see when we form our own opinions. When the writers and editors at Sojourners and World drew together the facts for their articles, they chose to look at the available data which best conformed to their preconceptions about what was going on in Panama or Iraq. To the former, stories about Panamanians or Iraqis grateful for the American invasion are exceptions that prove the rule and don’t need to be mentioned. To the latter, examples of US troops acting oppressively are just flukes which would just cloud the issue if highlighted. To both of them, the fact that many parts of the media did not agree with them meant that the whole lot was against them.

The way forward
When faced the reality of our own inherent bias, we can be sorely tempted just to give up. We can give up when we collapse in on ourselves and refuse to participate in dialogue of any sort. This is the voice of despair. We can also give up when we double-down and plug ahead ignoring any counsel but that which agrees with our own. This is the voice of hubris. While the former might seem to comport with a loving disposition as it is intrinsically inoffensive, someone who refuses to speak up for fear of being wrong is primarily loving himself and his sense of well-being. While the latter could be mistaken for courage since it boldly takes its stand in the face of any and all opposition, someone who leaps into the fray heedless of any danger is not brave but rather a fool.

What is called for in response to our own frailty is not to become like TV’s “Monk,” whose fear of the genuine dangers found in germs, heights, and whatever else happened by leads him to be paralyzed by the most basic circumstances of life. Neither are we called to become the action hero who blasts his enemies left and right shooting first and asking questions never. Rather, we are called to consider our ways and ask ourselves, when confronted with a contrary opinion, whether we’ve ever been wrong ourselves, and whether we might be wrong now. We are called to stand for the truth because it is true and not simply because it is our opinion. We must have the humility to listen to what another is saying while retaining the courage to speak boldly when the situation calls for it. This is not the path of easy choices where we always know what to do, but this is the path of constructive dialogue. It is the path that calls not for pat answers but for wisdom.

Copyright © 2011 Timothy Padgett