Monthly Archives: May 2022
A couple of nights ago I went to a Jewish Community Center to listen to a talk by a respected scholar of Middle Eastern politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was an enjoyable evening with pleasant enough talk. Actually, it was more like a prayer meeting than a community political lecture. The audience was composed of Israel supporters and there were prayers and the singing of Hatikvah.
But what struck me was the casual and confident ease with which people claim media bias. One presenter proudly and enthusiastically declared that she was going to cancel her subscription to the New York Times, as if that would do anything other than make her less informed. I know the media are an easy target and as an active specialist in these areas myself I encounter the charge of media bias regularly. Still, it is frustrating how little effect I have on people when I explain the multitude of perceptual distortions that go into their conclusions about bias, followed by an explanation of the difference between “bias” and “perspective”.
We can’t seem to explain to the public that people watch the news for a multitude of reasons, many of which have little or nothing to do with the acquisition of accurate information. We watch news for mood management, social rehearsals, and all sorts of cognitive needs. The more one watches the more they are bound to encounter bias or develop distrust.
You know that individual psychology and cognitive distortions are implicated when both sides of an issue claim bias. There are a dozen studies that show the same footage or text to two different groups, only to have that message interpreted completely differently by the two different groups depending on their entering perspective. No news story is completely free of values, and no story includes all potentially relevant information.
In one study available here the authors found that presentation variables such as agency in headlines and focal point of photographs all contributed to different (perhaps just “different” and not distorted) interpretations. And just as one would predict, according to the hostile media affect, the roomful of Israel supporters saw bias against Israel everywhere, noting the New York Times, when in fact the research cited above indicates that the New York Times is mostly pro-Israel. The hostile media affect is the tendency for highly involved individuals to see media coverage of their issue as biased against their own position. Their own ego involvement and engagement with the issues makes it impossible for them to process a new story objectively. In fact, coverage of the Israel Palestine conflict has traditionally been so supportive of Israel that the American public is uninformed about the Palestinian narrative and political position. Zelizer and colleagues in the reference cited above found that the New York Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune had remarkably similar coverage of the intifada with the Times being more supportive of Israel.
But the difficulty people have with the distinction between “perspective” and “bias” is particularly disappointing. Not a single person at the lecture interpreted news stories as a perspective; they only saw bias everywhere they looked. A perspective is a defensible and explainable viewpoint from which one member of the group sees an issue; it is a point of view. The perspective can be impartial and defensible. To say it is defensible means that the holder of the perspective is fair-minded and has come to his or her opinion on the basis of acceptable reasons and evidence. This does not mean that other evidence is not available or different interpretations are not possible, just that the holder of the perspective has thoughtfully considered alternatives and sincerely tried to weigh competing evidence. Being a “liberal Democrat” or a “Zionist” is defensible and can be explained on the basis of acceptable reasons. But the same is true for being a “conservative Republican” or an “anti-Zionist.” It is the clash of these perspectives that results in reasonable disagreement. There is disagreement because the two perspectives support different positions and hold different values, but both perspectives are defensible from evidentiary, rational, and cultural standpoints.
A bias is holding an unfair and indefensible attitude or opinion. The holder of the bias is typically close minded and unwilling to consider additional evidence and alternatives because he or she pre-judges new information and alternative perspectives and refuses to engage in proper and sufficient information processing that might result in opinion change. Certainly, putting aside beliefs and working to form new conclusions is difficult. But it remains a communicative behavior that is central to problem-solving and part of the general communicative process that forms the foundation of democratic conflict resolution and the management of conflicting groups.
Posted by Donald Ellis
Since the ideas surrounding truth and post truth are circulating again given the polarization of American society, I thought I would republish this from Jan 4, 2021. More on related issues to come.
This enigmatic term – “post truth” – has been around for some time now and it is confusing for most people. Since the Oxford English Dictionary concluded that the concept of post truth was significant enough that it was identified as word of the year in 2016, we are certainly justified in trying to make more sense of it. What does it mean and how did the concept of post truth get so central to the interpretation of some important ideas in contemporary culture? It is no accident that the concept of post truth exists at the same time as ideas such as fake news. What follows is an explanation of post truth and how it informs the notion of fake news.
Briefly, post truth is the idea that objective facts are not so important in shaping opinion as opposed to emotional appeal and personal beliefs. The “anti-maskers who refused to wear a mask or quarantine during the Covid crisis because they didn’t recognize the validity of the science behind immunology or network theory are one example of a group of people who represent a post truth mentality. Some theorists have argued that political policies are no longer developed on the basis of facts and the distinction between fake and real is unimportant. Consequently, democracies become emotional political processes.
If facts become unimportant or nonexistent then they become victims of a strong social construction; that is, it becomes possible to have everyday citizens be the determinants of what gets defined as a “fact.” There is something terribly paradoxical about this. Facts are supposed to be the sine qua non of stable truth. If anything should not be subject to the whims of human emotion and variability, it is facts. How can you argue that facts are pushed to the background and unimportant? Are not facts supposed to be stubborn and true? The answer, within the post truth theoretical tradition, is “no” facts are subject to the same social influences as any other construct and hold no privileged position in political discourse. Facts can be redefined, manipulated, and reinterpreted to mean anything and the key issue is how many converts can I create.
Trump set about the business of delegitimizing the press. Of course, the press is the one institution that holds Trump’s feet to the fire. The single institution that fact checks him, exposes his lies and manipulations, and records his indiscretions. So, it makes sense that he would go after the press and he did so by making the distinction between fake news and real news. Of course, real news was only stories supportive of Trump. Anything critical was labeled fake news.
Facts are under siege. They are becoming highly politicized where people express their own facts – what they believe to be facts or want to be facts – in order to turn the concept into a rhetorical weapon. The term fake news is a good example. It is appropriated by political actors in order to attack opponents. The concept of “fake” is no longer a measurable or precise definitional question but one of political authority because the issue is who gets to control the definition in order to use it for his or her own purposes and is therefore in a position to dismiss others.
Trump’s appropriation of the term fake news is so extreme as to be laughable. A skilled manipulator of meaning will exploit certain commonalities of meaning in order to lend them some credibility. Those who accuse liberals on the left as being socialist have been effective because certain concepts and ideas that emerge from the political position termed “liberalism” do in fact have at least some similarity to positions emerging from theories of socialism. That is why those who attack liberals by deploying the word socialist have been successful. They conflate the two terms (liberal and socialist) sufficiently such that the relationship between the two terms is plausible and the narrower more aggressive and distasteful ideas associated with “socialism” are more easily transferred to “liberalism.” But Trump declared even before the election that if he did not win the process was rigged. He baldly asserted the “fact” that there were election improprieties even though no charge was ever accepted and not a single claim supported.
It is clearly possible to cite more precise meaning and fact-based issues that distinguish liberalism from socialism, but this is not my concern at the moment. Because the role of communication is so central to democracies, these democracies are saturated with disagreement over what is “real” and what is “false.”
of this essay will examine the nature of democracy and how one discourse follows another in terms of how much accepted disagreement it can tolerate. I will clarify how post truth rejects a rational political discourse that results in consensus; thus, post truth contends that maintaining a multitude of political voices, all contained in their subjective reality, is a more accurate reflection of the work of democracies and must grapple with the idea that logical and rational problem-solving is the definitive approach to managing differences, which is the goal of democratic processing.