Zeroville

Eagle-eyed viewers may have noticed in my post on the ratings system that, while things can get a score of 0, that is not listed as neutral or unbiased. Instead, I wrote:

Makes no real ideological statements or such mixed statements as to be incoherent

Why?

I’ll put this simply: There is damn near no such thing as unbiased information. Everything, from the choice of what topic you cover to the words used to cover it, gives way to some bias. You cannot cover every story, so how do you choose what to cover? What voices are given space in the coverage? How are you describing those voices?

Many writers at professional outlets work hard to minimize that bias, but it is impossible to fully do so. In some cases, attempting to eliminate that bias gives way to a new kind of bias, a bias towards fairness. If one person lies and one person tells the truth, it is biased to side with the person telling the truth… but it is also accurate. But a bias towards fairness would instead have you say something like, “People disagree over the shape of the Earth.”

(A phenomenal book on this topic is Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes’ Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, which goes into great detail on how lobbyists work not to prove that their clients are good, but to insinuate that not covering their clients positively is biased. Worryingly, this strategy worked so well it may have literally broken the very idea of truth for many people.)

Many people assume that the center is always more correct than the extremes. Thus, if a 0 stood for ‘neutral’ or ‘unbiased’, people would tend to think that those articles are the best or the most accurate. But this is not a project about grading the accuracy or quality of articles or outlets; it is a project about discovering the ideology of them.

(If what you want is help judging the quality of a resource, a chart covering the outlet as a whole is a bad resource anyway. Everyone makes mistakes! Instead, maybe you should reach out to your local librarian? I hear they know a thing or two about evaluating sources.)

Let’s take climate change. In a partisan analysis, merely observing that climate change exists might ‘skews left’. And yet, there are plenty of conservatives and bipartisan organizations who acknowledge that climate change is real, including functionally all environmental scientists everywhere on Earth. What displays bias is, in my opinion, what you do about it.

Do you think we should do nothing, that the Free Market will sort it all out before we pass the crisis point? In a pure, partisan left-right model, that would be a slightly left-of-center position; in my model, that would be a strongly individualist response. A weak (as in lower on the scale, not as in bad) individualist response might be, “The Free Market will ultimately take care of this, but the State can intervene to encourage it to do so, perhaps with a cap and trade bill.

You can have a strong conservative response to climate change, such as eco-fascism. Or a weak progressive response, like regulation on coal production and fracking that slows down their use. Or a moderate collectivist response, such as setting up a neighborhood group to raise money to install solar panels on every house in your community.

There are a hundred possible responses to an issue, but the important thing is this: Merely acknowledging a real issue is not ideological. I want to encourage people to consider, when they think about politics, more about material issues than representational ones. Worry less about what politicians say and more about what they do.

We all have an outlook that shapes the way we see and discuss the world, even journalists. No matter how much we try to avoid it, it creeps in around the margins. It informs who they talk to, how they describe those talks, what kinds of ideas are ‘reasonable’ and what kind are pipe dreams. I think it’s important to recognize that the idea of a ‘neutral’ or ‘unbiased’ media has always been propaganda meant to make the power structures that run our lives, be they good or bad, invisible.

So that’s why there is no rating for ‘unbiased’ news, or ‘best’ news, or anything along those lines. This is a project meant to discuss the ideological biases that shape our lives, not to talk about how to avoid them.

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