Why does Fox News Channel persist in characterizing its product as “fair and balanced”? I’ve been reading newspapers and watching television news for more than three decades. I like Fox News, but it’s not fair and balanced in any meaningful sense of those terms. It’s slanted to the right. CNN, which I used to watch, is slanted to the left. I don’t sense much of a slant on MSNBC or CNBC. I haven’t watched network news in years, so I can’t speak to their biases (if any). I keep hearing that Dan Rather and Peter Jennings are biased to the left, but I don’t know; nor do I plan to take the time to find out.
What offends me is not slant (bias), but pretending not to be slanted or not knowing that one is slanted. The former is duplicitous and the latter delusional. Readers of this blog know that some entries are written in my capacity as philosopher and some in my capacity as citizen. I make no bones about my ideological predilections. I’m a proud conservative/libertarian. I used to be a proud liberal/socialist. If you’re wondering how and why I changed, read my forthcoming column on Tech Central Station, “My Journey to Conservatism.” When I speak to you as a philosopher, I speak with authority. If you are not a trained philosopher, you have reason to defer to my judgment. When I speak to you as a fellow citizen, I speak as your equal. You should not defer to me. If you transfer authority from one realm to another, without looking into the substance of the claims being made, you reason fallaciously. Authority in one realm does not necessarily translate to authority in another realm. Would you call a plumber for legal advice (or a lawyer for plumbing advice)?
I didn’t think so.
News operations make fools of themselves when they disclaim bias. Perhaps they think that bias consists in hewing to a party line. If this were the case, they might be on solid ground. But bias can be far more subtle than that. It can consist in using certain terms rather than others. Compare the following three terms:
3. Laid-back (or easygoing, or [my favorite] energy efficient)
These terms, like most terms in English, have both descriptive and emotive meaning. They convey information and express attitudes (or pass judgment). These three terms have the same (or roughly the same) descriptive meaning. But notice how different they are in emotive meaning. The first term is condemnatory, the second neutral, and the third commendatory. Which term would you use to describe yourself? Which term would you use to describe someone you dislike? Which term would you use to describe someone neutrally, without passing judgment?
The language used by Fox News is often emotive rather than neutral. That is the first journalistic sin. It is compounded by the slant. Liberals are described (not always, but usually) with derogatory terms, while conservatives are described (not always, but usually) with laudatory terms. Qua conservative, I like this; but qua philosopher, I find it unsettling, especially since Fox proclaims itself “fair and balanced.” Start paying attention to the terminology used on various news channels. See whether you agree with me that they’re slanted to the right or to the left.