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How media bias works: the joke is on us all
Free The Media, May 2001;, November 2000
Framing the issues

Remember the big deficit debate? Preston Manning and Paul Martin, like two dummies operated by the same ventriloquist, insisted we had to cut back on health care and education in order to eliminate the deficit. They pretended to be tough-minded and this was the only choice we had. Okay, it’s the kind of game we might expect them to play, but where were the media? They took Manning’s and Martin’s perspective for granted, and almost all their coverage of political debate about the deficit issue was in those terms.

There was, however, another way of eliminating the deficit: tightening up tax loopholes; implementing an estate tax for the very wealthy; taxing financial speculation like currency trading; cutting back the money supply of the big chartered banks to allow more room for social programs in our economy, through the Bank of Canada; and perhaps most important of all, cutting back interest rates (which had been high) to help the economy grow. Doing it that way, on the revenue side, would have required real toughness on Manning’s and Martin’s part: disciplining their political friends rather than taking a big strip off the back of Canadians at large. You might not agree with this option, but it was a choice. The media screened it out

It was also a fairer option. The cause of the large public debt was not public spending but high interest rates and tax leakage. This was well-documented. People with large assets (who fed on those interest rates) and corporations and high-income earners (who could take advantage of the tax loopholes) were the ones who profited. They didn’t earn the pay-off. It was a windfall for them. It was only fair, then, that they should accept the burden of eliminating the debt, as in the second option. The media, however, screened this out, too. Their coverage was based on the assumption, which they repeated ad nauseam - although it was a false one - that program spending was responsible for the debt.

The distorting impact of all this on the deficit debate, and on voting patterns, was enormous. The odds are overwhelming that you, yourself - you personally - assumed from this coverage that (a) the debt was caused by overspending, and (b) the only way to eliminate the deficit was by cutting back on program spending, and this helped shape your political views accordingly.

The joke was on us all.

Or take the way the media deal with the economy, with foofaraw about stock markets and the need to indulge investors, even if that tears up our society. But the world is awash in capital. What counts in economies is people, moreso today than ever. To put it in a phrase: “The economy is us.” We don’t have to let outsiders intimidate us.

The key for people in a modern economy is education. The media, however, in their perspective on the economy, don’t make that linkage, or they make it only in passing. Again, the impact on politics and on how we vote is enormous. And again the joke is on us all.

Or take media hype over the last several years about the demand for tax cuts and even about a “tax revolt.” This is a key element in what is happening in the federal election today. The Reform-Alliance, with its tax-cut mantra, has depended on it - in a certain is a creation of this tax-cut media hype. The Liberals’ squandering of $100 billion in tax cuts in their recent mini-budget, mostly for people who don’t need it, is another product, indirectly, of this heated media slant.

Polls, however, show that Canadians give social programs, debt reduction, and other issues priority, with tax cuts well down the list. And as for “tax revolt,” there isn’t one, except in the overworked imagination of some newspaper editors pushing their owners’ views. Story after story nevertheless appears about tax rates, with the premise of the coverage that taxes need to be cut.

This is called, in media parlance, “framing the issue.” It makes no difference whether the reporting within that frame is accurate or not. The frame decides, and if you come at the subject from a different direction, tough luck. You receive little or no media coverage because your analysis falls outside the frame. It isn’t seen as newsworthy. It doesn’t fit. It’s not what’s happening, is it?

This is how media bias works, insidiously and powerfully, and how it affects the very election in which we are now involved.

Making up the news: great fiction writing

The bias produced by concentration of ownership [internal link to concentration of ownership item] not only distorts the framing of issues but also can play havoc with journalism inside this framing, up to and including the passing off of sheer fiction as reality.

Here’s an example, taken from the provincial scene, but a most telling one.

Remember the 1995 B.C. Hydro scandal? Charges against the chair of B.C. Hydro for offering a special investment deal to NDP friends and Hydro insiders, and also, indirectly, feathering his own nest? Headlines blared and television cameras impaled the scheme’s oily and immoral perpetrators. “Hydrogate,” it was called.

It was a great story, except for one problem. The alleged wrongdoing was all fiction. Five years later, June 10, 2000, long after the political and economic damage of the story had been done, the Vancouver Sun, which led the journalistic pack, was forced to admit as much, in a freelancer’s exposé of what happened, “Hydrogate: The scandal that never was.” The article was only agreed to by the newspaper in order to avoid a libel action.

It was a revealing account. The provincial Liberals had drummed up a false scandal, knowing that it was false. The media, instead of getting after the Liberals, eagerly hopped on the Liberals’ bandwagon, when a simple check of the facts would have found the charges had no basis. The Vancouver Sun’s editorial writers even contradicted themselves in their rush to pump up the scandal.

The revelations of this media bias and journalistic betrayal shouldn’t surprise anyone. Such journalistic malpractice is endemic, especially in Vancouver. The bias isn’t surprising because all of the private major media owners in British Columbia are themselves anti-NDP - indeed have contributed financially to the provincial Liberal party. Similarly, the Vancouver Sun and The Province are published by Pacific Press, which is owned by Southam Inc., which was owned by Hollinger Inc., controlled by Conrad Black, whose doctrinaire right-wing views are legend.

The spiking of stories, the management of coverage, the “framing,” the way assignments are handed out, the newsroom ambiance in which, directly and indirectly, it becomes clear what is expected, editorial tricks, the marginalization of reporters who don’t play the game - all this contributes.

Even the most outrageous distortion would not make too much difference if there were diverse media ownership. The bias of one newspaper or television station could be checked and offset by others. In Canada, though, and especially in British Columbia, ownership is concentrated and rests in the hands of people who all share the same views.

Who are the victims here? The NDP, both provincially and federally, is mistreated, but that’s not the most important consideration by far. The real victim of this concentrated media ownership is us, the Canadian public. We are the ones being abused by this journalistic malpractice. Whatever our individual political views - left, right, or all over the field - it’s impossible for us to really know what’s going on and to make good governance decisions without diverse media ownership and journalistic honesty.

The joke, once more, is on us all.

What Canadians can do about it

Arguments about bias go around in circles. Media owners refuse to concede bias even when the documentary evidence is presented to them. And if they did admit to bias, it would not basically change their behaviour. Some arguments about bias, too, defy resolution. Is the extraordinary sweetheart coverage given Stockwell Day by the Vancouver Sun and especially the National Post bias, especially given that Hollinger’s owner is a Day backer? Supporters of Day would argue back that he deserves the coverage. The only way really to deal with media bias is to make media ownership itself diverse and representative, and to break up concentration - in short, to establish media democracy

Other useful sites
Campaign for Press and Broadcast Freedom []
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting [], the American organization that keeps tabs on media malpractice
MediaChannel [], the international site that looks at the media with open eyes and has links to organizations around the world

Read all about it

James Winter’s powerful exposé of newspaper concentration, Democracy’s Oxygen:
How Corporations Control the News, published in 1997 by Black Rose Books, Montreal.
Robert Hackett, Richard Gruneau and others, The Missing News: Filters and Blind Spots in Canada's Press, published this year by Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Garamond Press, Ottawa and Toronto.
Copyright © Herschel Hardin 2005
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