Bret Stephens wonders why he and fellow journalists ignored the fact that “[a]lmost from the beginning, there was something amiss in the case of People v. Dominique Strauss-Kahn.” He speculates:
I did enjoy the thought of this mandarin of the tax-exemptocracy being pulled from the comfort of his first-class Air France seat and dispatched to Riker’s Island without regard to status or dignity. And I admired the humble immigrant who would risk so much for the sake of justice. And I smiled at the spectacle of France’s Socialists finding their would-be savior exposed by American prosecutors when they had been hypocritically observing a code of silence about his habits. And I liked seeing the IMF red-faced for whitewashing DSK’s previous escapades.
* * *
He adds that
this is as good an opportunity as any to ask where else we might be committing similar blunders. The climate change obsession, with its Manichean concept of polluting corporations versus noble eco-warriors? The Wall Street obsession, with its belief the boardroom boys were criminally guilty of the financial crisis? The China obsession, with its view that the Middle Kingdom is destined to overtake the U.S. in global economic and political clout? The Israel obsession, with its notion that if only Jewish settlements were removed from the West Bank peace would break out throughout the Middle East?
In each of these cases, the media (broadly speaking) has too often been guilty of looking only for the evidence that fits a pre-existing story line. * * *
But anecdotes are not data—which happens to be the world’s most easily neglected truism. Also true is that sloppy moral categories like the powerful and the powerless, or the selfish and the altruistic, are often misleading and susceptible to manipulation. And the journalists who most deserve to earn their keep are those who understand that the line of any story is likely to be crooked.
I discussed these issues five years ago in my Public Face of Scholarship. I found a rich economics literature analyzing media bias:
- Michael Jensen observed that people “want sensationalist stories that present choices between good and evil and simple solutions rather than complex explanations.”
- Core, Guay and Larcker studied the journalist coverage of executive compensation, noting that the press emphasizes sensationalism rather than realistic analysis of the extent of excessive compensation.
- Gregory S. Miller, The Press as a Watchdog for Accounting Fraud, 44 J. ACCT. RES. 1001 (2006) found that the press emphasized sensationalist elements in stories about accounting fraud.
- Gentzkow & Shapiro, Media Bias and Reputation, 114 J. POL. ECON. 280 (2006) argue that the news media seek to confirm what the audience thinks it already knows rather than risk being rejected.
- Mullainathan & Shleifer conclude that journalists feed audience biases.
- David Baron reverses causation, arguing that media bias originates with left-leaning anti-market journalists rather than with an effort to serve the audience.
I discussed these theories by way of arguing that bloggers can help correct these tendencies. That may have happened in this case, but being biased in favor of the accepted wisdom here I didn’t follow any bloggers who might have caught on.
All of this shows that media and audience bias can be very sticky, and we need a lot of different information sources to combat it. In other words, free speech is important. This includes not only bloggers, but for-profit corporate speech, which can cut against some of the biases Stephens referred to.