Hopefully most of you understand that media bias has been a reality since before “media” was even a word. Sometimes though I do wonder if this reality has escaped our society’s conscious mind and slipped into the ether of, shall I say, ignorance? I certainly don’t say this to be mean spirited because that is not my intention at all. The time has finally arrived though that leaves me shaking my head on a daily basis, wondering why people (in general) are so easily sucked into very blatantly biased stories and articles.
On one hand it appears that too many readers (or listeners) have no idea that they are being tricked into believing this way or that way through a crafty selection of emotionally charged words. Then I realize that some of these people that react as the writer predicted should know better and some are even writers themselves. These people know how to piece together a convincing story that drives their audiences to predetermined conclusions, opinions, or reactions.
Other people that I have interacted with, both online and in person, seem to think that this media bias is a new concept that has no place in a proper society. While I might agree for the most part the latter part of such an opinion, the first part is simply not true.
I remember well the very first time I caught on to this historical fact. I was doing some research for a US Civil War book and became very interested in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. To find out more about this historic period I turned to a number of newspaper articles. It was interesting to me to read the different points of view, but what really caught my attention was what I discovered about the papers themselves. As it turned out, Republican and Democratic groups had long ago stumbled onto this phenomenon and they purposefully started newspapers to bolster their cause.
Now, these papers weren’t overtly marked as the official newspaper of this or that party, but when you look into the editors, writers and supporters of each paper it was very clear that these were partisan rags, not impartial journals of fair and balanced news coverage.
More recently I came across evidence of media manipulation even earlier than the US Civil War. If you read the diaries and correspondences of the 1700’s, you’ll find so much evidence of manipulation through the “media” than you could possibly devour in a lifetime. Some of it (then and now) wasn’t even published for partisan advantage.
Competition for readers was just as important then as it is today. It has been an entertaining and enlightening exercise to learn about 4 such competing papers in the colony of Virginia. A person would naturally think that four different papers would distinguish themselves with different names, but in this case that would be an incorrect assumption. Apparently in an effort to confuse the public for the pure chance of picking up their paper, all of them named themselves the “Virginia Gazette.”
If that wasn’t enough, these newspapers contrived quite a nasty method to convince the public to purchase their product. As the population was predominantly English, there was the unfortunate reality that such people looked down upon the people of Scotland with much fervor. The newspapers injected false letters to the editor between faked personas that appeared to be waging a personal war of words. As it turned out, the characters in these letters never even existed and the letters were written by the publishers themselves.Some of these exchanges were recorded in Ivor Humes book, 1775 Another Part of the Field. He wrote,
“I have pursued this journalistic exercise for some distance because it well illustrates the kind of devices which colonial newspaper publishers used to exacerbate the prejudices and rivalries of their readers, while masking their purpose behind a guise of good-humored impartiality.”
I wonder if there is any hope left that people in today’s “enlightened” society may ever fully understand the way in which they allow the media to tug, push, pull and antagonize their emotions for reasons far removed from simply informing the public of the things of truth. Such thinking may indeed be folly because I know much about the writing craft and (fortunately or unfortunately) the predominant motivation behind just about any story, article, or other such work is to illicit a response. It would be a wonderful world to live in if such responses were delayed somewhat while the reader poses what truth may or may not be hidden in the well-chosen words, but the evidence is not there just yet.