During this election season, I’ve had several subscribers to my NextDraft newsletter accuse me of being biased in my coverage.
For my newsletter, I select the ten most fascinating news items of the day, write up my own summaries with my own takes, and then include links to the full stories. It is essentially a modern day column in which I present my take on the day’s news.
Every story I pick is bias. Every word I write is bias. In case that’s not clear enough for people, I went so far as to make my head my logo.
But this is about more than one egomaniac and his remarkably well-written, funny, entertaining and informative newsletter (also available as a 5-star iOS app). It’s about a general misunderstanding of what being unbiased is all about. So here are few thoughts on the topic.
- Opinion columns and personal newsletters are supposed to be biased. If you don’t want any bias, then open up seventy-five tabs yourself. You’ll get a good overview of the day’s stories and it will be pretty unbiased. Until you click on something. Then you biased it.
- Journalists are supposed to be unbiased. But they’re not supposed to pretend that racism or idiocy or hatred is not happening when it is.
- If you’re a journalist, creating a false equivalency among people or events that are wildly different is not being unbiased. It’s sucking at your job.
- If you send knee-jerk reactions to someone’s reporting with something you saw on Fox or read on Drudge (or HuffPo or Talking Points Mem0), you’re missing the point. Those sources don’t pretend they’re unbiased. So why would you pretend they are?
- Let’s take a random example. Say a presidential candidate publicly challenges the parents of a soldier who was killed while serving in the American military. That would be a story for several reasons, not the least of which is the man bites dog rule. It almost never happens, therefore it’s news. (Like, say, a politician running for office — an act which we often associate with kissing babies — decides to kick a baby out of his rally. Man/Dog/Bite are in an unusual order. So it’s news.) Now let’s imagine that the very top members of that candidate’s own party are so appalled by the candidate’s behavior that they take to the airwaves to share that contempt. Then, news outlets report the fact that the spat took place and that it caused an unusual split within a party. That is not bias. That is journalists doing their job. Not reporting that spat, or keeping that spat off of the front pages (yeah, I’m looking at you, Rupert), or pretending that the spat is no big deal even though the leaders of candidate’s own party are shouting it from the rooftops … that’s bias. (In the spirit of bipartisanship, I admit that I friggin’ hate babies too.)
Could I have picked another example that wouldn’t have made only one of the candidates look bad? Probably. But I didn’t want to. See how simple that is?
Let me be clear. As a guy who writes a modern-day column, I hate election season. It sucks up all the journalistic oxygen. The coverage rarely includes hard or investigative news. And everyone who has the slightest interest in political news already consumes it in quantities that make Joey Chestnut look like he’s on a hunger strike. The market is saturated, so in general, I avoid injecting a ton of opinion or giving a blow by blow account of the daily campaign on campaign combat. It’s everywhere. And following it religiously is probably not good for my health or yours.
But this time around, I see the presidential race as a story that goes well beyond politcs. And so I cover it. And when something seems crazy or dangerous or ridiculous, I say so.
So call me biased. We should at least agree on something.