Tag Archives: media bias

Making America Grate, or Great?

I want to believe in the possibility of democracy, and in the willingness of many people, much of the time, to make small (or sometimes even big) sacrifices for the common good. Lately I’ve found it more and more necessary, in order to maintain that belief, to limit my media exposure. Sometimes I need to abstain altogether. It turns out I have widely read company. In an opinion piece in a recent Washington Post, writer Amanda Ripley explained why “I Stopped Reading the News” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/07/08/how-to-fix-news-media/).  Has our media-saturated society begun to grate on you, as well? 

Earlier generations of pundits have repeatedly created models of successive revolutions in human cultures and economies—from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists to industrialists and industrial workers to a contemporary “knowledge society.”  The transitions seem to come faster and faster. At each transition, something of the former organizational system lingers, with  some from prior iterations ending up marginalized. We all will continue to need food, material goods, and access to reliable information. However, without empathy and mutual understanding, those in the groups seemingly left behind and those in the groups seemingly forward looking can engage in escalating clashes rather than working toward mutually beneficial solutions.

For over a decade before covid, I was a citizen of a rapidly evolving North Carolina. My relocation there gave me a chance to get more thoroughly acquainted with a whole group of cousins on my dad’s mother’s side. These were cousins I’d rarely met during my youth in Maryland. The Rea clan of my grandma’s generation had started out as farmers on the outskirts of Charlotte. During a rare childhood visit to one of their farms, I found the rural area where they lived both fascinating and strange. I got treated to homemade biscuits slathered with hand-churned butter from the family’s cows. I rode a pony, one of their smallest mounts. Years later, once installed in a Raleigh area apartment, I began to attend cousins’ beach weekends and to visit with the relatives who lived geographically closest. Mostly I listened to stories of family history, especially about the farm-wife grandmother I’d hardly known. 

By 2018, the metropolitan area of Charlotte had surrounded the family’s old homestead. Multi-story apartment complexes hedged in former horse pastures and outbuildings. That Thanksgiving, over a hundred cousins spanning several generations gathered at “the shed” to share a partially catered, partially homemade feast of turkey with all the trimmings. I was surprised at the diversity of the extended family I found ( https://jinnyoccasionalpoems.com/2018/11/25/who-did-you-expect/)—rural/urban/suburban, stay-at-homes and world travelers, pale-skinned and darker. We skirted talk of politics, but everyone I met was friendly, hopeful, respectful.  

Come 2021, my husband and I began preparing for another relocation, this time to follow a grown son to southern California. Friends from the middle of the country have sometimes charged me with being a “bi-coastalist,” out of touch with the nation’s heartland. On our way west, I spent nearly two weeks on a cross-country car trip, seeing some areas where people interacted directly with the land. We drove through the “in between” states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, stopping to eat, shop, sightsee, sleep. We got to see the Mississippi River, the Missouri River, and Sandia Peak up close. I learned that Yuma, Arizona is the iceberg lettuce capital of the world. The colleagues we visited along our way were retired from academic or consulting careers, so knew of the challenges of rural livelihood only indirectly. Still, the overall landscape was inescapable—much of American geography is rural.    

As I rode past isolated farmsteads, or ate at local restaurants in small towns that were just barely scraping by, I could imagine life in such places being hard as well as insular. Faraway elites in urban/suburban areas could be viewed with suspicion and disdain. 

“What can those people possibly know about my everyday life? They sit in their book-lined home offices and make pronouncements about fixing my problems without ever asking me, or even meeting me.” If the railroad ceases operation, if the feedlot shuts down, if the price of fuel fluctuates wildly, if commodity revenues are as unpredictable as the weather, it can be tempting to blame uncaring outsiders.

Although the editorial slant is somewhat different in big urban media markets, the impact can be similar. “Why don’t those yahoos ever learn that more guns make us less safe, not safer?  Why don’t they respect the rights and aspirations of minorities? How can they be such nativists? What’s wrong with those people?”  

Much of the time, the algorithms and editorial decisions that shade our news access seem more intent on making America grate than on making America great. Ms. Ripley’s opinion piece suggests that the best news coverage will need to provide its readers/watchers/listeners with three basic ingredients: hope (all is not lost), agency (I can do something about a particular issue), and dignity (I matter). Imbibing more of our current news landscape may hinder rather than help to spread these traits. Perhaps a friendly in-person “Hello” to a neighbor, a more-generous-than-usual donation of time or energy to a local non-profit, a more frequent use of the “off” button to our indirect information sources, are needed steps toward renewed greatness.   

The Rest of the Story

The late 1960’s were a turbulent time, somewhat like the period we’re living through now. Starting in 1965, I attended a small liberal arts college in a mid-sized Virginia city. Through studies and socializing, I was exposed to professors and fellow students with a variety of backgrounds and opinions, some quite different from the prevailing views in the small Maryland town where I’d spent my first 18 years. Off campus in our college town, though, prevailing sentiments were every bit as conservative as those I’d grown up with. 

Sometimes as a break from my studies, I listened briefly to a local radio station. Usually I was just trying to catch a local weather report, but I often wound up exposed to all or part of a nationally syndicated news broadcast by radio announcer Paul Harvey (Aurandt). I don’t remember much specific content from Paul Harvey’s broadcasts, but I recall a general tone. In a 2009 obituary, his style was characterized as valuing “rugged individualism, love of God and country, and the fundamental decency of ordinary people.” Through my newly expanded collegiate lens, it seemed to me that Harvey was leaving out huge parts of the news—events and perspectives that did not coincide with his spin. I was learning of historic lynchings, seeing housing and employment discrimination firsthand, experiencing the escalation of the Vietnam war, noting the routine harrassment of minorities and women. None of this seemed fundamentally decent. I began to question the premises of Harvey’s perspective.  

A segment I often caught before the weather forecast was “The Rest of the Story,” typically a relatively unknown part of the life story of a famous person. One especially widely heard segment is about a high school dropout who applied in his early 20’s for an entry level job at the Swiss patent office and nearly didn’t get it. Not until the end of the segment are we told that “Al” may have suffered early life failures, but eventually went on to become world-famous as theoretical physicist Albert Einstein  

(for a rebroadcast, listen to https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2v3sh1).  Part of the rest of Paul Harvey’s life story was a February, 1951 trespass onto the grounds of government classified research agency Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago for which he was never charged.  

These days I have a schizoid relationship with media. I need to stay informed; too often a media broadcast or internet post leaves me inflamed instead. It is very difficult to follow any news source for long without buying into some of its inherent biases. Images of a violent mob storming the U.S. Capitol are hard to ignore or stay indifferent to. Is there a rest of the story? Temporarily putting aside the role of Mr. Trump, what were the varying motivations that led some to become violent, others to remain as bystanders, and most of America’s population to stay away? Is there anything to be learned from the life histories of those who demonstrated, those who desecrated, those who tried to defuse tensions, those who attempted to report live as events unfolded? 

Few of the reports I’ve heard yet can provide much insight. Too often we get competing narratives that emphasize conflicting aspects of reality. About the only commonality seems to be that all of us are tense. 

We may never know the whole story. Imperfect, incomplete knowledge is part of the human condition. However, if we listen more and speak less, do the messy work of decoupling legitimate grievances from scapegoating and vengeance, insist on both accountability and mercy, we may learn more of the rest of the story.    

The Myth of Objectivity: Choosing our Facts

The Myth of Objectivity: Choosing Our Facts     —by Jinny Batterson

This fall’s election season left me both physically and emotionally exhausted. In October, as attack advertising on all sides escalated and early voting started, I finalized plans to visit extended family on the west coast shortly after the election was over. It seemed a good way to regain some longer term perspective—the two generations that come after me would help me regain balance.

Now that I’m in sunny California, we’ve mostly avoided talking politics. I’m sure we don’t agree on everything. Avoiding hasty words is an antidote for having to take them back later. The grandkids are cute, and generally uninterested in grown-up concerns.

However, I haven’t escaped political repartee entirely.  My first Sunday here, I was sitting under a shade tree, watching the kids play as the awards ceremony for our son’s final cross country race of the season droned on. A man also watching from nearby piped up with unsolicited advice: several of the kids were playing in a way that might result in injury, he said. A friend of his had had a dangerous fall and lost an eye. I thanked him, mentioned his concern to the kids, asking them to be a little more careful, and thought that would be the end of our interaction. No such luck. 

“What do you think about the results of the election?”  he inquired.

“I’m not too happy,” I responded. “I would have preferred that the other presidential candidate had won.” 

“How could anyone support someone who violated the first tenet of public service?” he jibed. “I was in the Coast Guard. If I had sent classified information over a private email server, I’d forever have been disqualified from further service, let alone from becoming Commander in Chief.” 

Not wanting to get further enmeshed in a discussion that didn’t seem likely to have any positive result, I tried for more neutral ground.

  “Neither candidate was all that appealing,” I ventured. “I didn’t like the way Mr. Trump repeatedly insulted all sorts of people.” 

“Most of that was just bluster,” he responded. “After all, Trump is a brash New Yorker. Still, he has valid points. For example, there are over 750,000 illegal immigrants in New York City alone. That makes more than 10% of the population. They’re taking up housing that should be available to those of us who were born here or came here legally.”

Succumbing to continuing a conversation that I was pretty sure would end badly, I responded, “In the part of the country where I live, immigrant labor harvests nearly all of the crops. We need those workers.”

“Ha!” he said. “There was a time, during World War II, when there was a shortage of local workers for harvesting because so many American men were serving overseas, so immigrants were allowed in. However, once the war was over, Eisenhower sent them all back where they came from.”    

‘Look,” I said, “it seems that you and I view very different parts of reality. I respect your perspective, but I can’t agree with it.”

“Lady,” he said, “you’re entitled to choose your opinions, but you cannot choose your facts.”  With that, he strode off, triumphant. 

Not one gifted in coming up with snappy responses, I later did a bit of further research. Estimates of illegal immigrants/undocumented workers in New York vary widely, with the high-end 750,000 figure most likely coming from an online 2015  post by conservative-leaning publisher Newsmax. Every article about immigration has an editorial slant, explicit or implied—emphasizing either the costs or the contributions of this section of the American population. Some sources stress the need to keep families together, the need for skilled workers, or the aging of the U.S.’s native-born population. Others emphasize the need to reserve jobs/housing/advancement opportunities for the native-born. During the presidential transition, immigration remains a hot-button issue. 

I don’t have a pat answer. I’m not hopeful that our national immigration policies will become either more sensible or more humane for the near-term future. However, I believe that there is a way toward consensus in our nation of immigrants.  As recently as 2013, the U.S. Senate managed to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill,  S.744, with a substantial bi-partisan majority.  No comparable bill has so far passed the House of Representatives.

To further chances for reform, I believe we’ll need to listen to each other’s stories more deeply. We’ll need to broaden our array of “facts” beyond the mostly biased reporting we’re being subjected to on all sides.

To get a more general view, I turned to a different Internet site and searched for TED talks about “search engines.” I found the following brief talk by Swedish journalist Andreas Ekstrom—“The moral bias behind your search results.”  (http://www.ted.com/talks/andreas_ekstrom_the_moral_bias_behind_your_search_results/transcript?language=en)  

Ekstrom uses two examples of image search results that got temporarily distorted by massive bias: the first, a 2009 derogatory representation of Michelle Obama, was quickly removed by Google; the second, an equally derogatory 2011 representation of mass murderer Anders Breivik, was allowed to continue until it died out on its own. Ekstrom concludes: “And I (emphasize) this because I believe we’ve reached a point in time when it’s absolutely imperative … to remind (ourselves) that that wonderfully seductive idea of the unbiased, clean search result is, and is likely to remain, a myth.” 

Let’s choose our “facts” carefully.