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Reason Foundation

The Truth About Media Bias

Every reporter has political beliefs

John Stossel
September 24, 2009

When I announced last week that I was leaving ABC for Fox, some readers complained about my "bias." I replied: "Every reporter has political beliefs. The difference is that I am upfront about mine."

Look at today's burning issue: President Obama's pledge to redesign 15 percent of the economy. Virtually every reporter calls his health care plan "reform." But dictionaries define reform as "improvement." So before they present any evidence, reporters pronounce Obama's plan an improvement. Isn't that bias?

The New York Times took its bias to an absurd length. Its page-one story on the big anti-big-government rally in Washington, D.C., referred to "protests that began with an opposition to health care. ..."

Apparently, in the Times reporter's and editors' view, opponents of the Obama health care plan oppose health care itself. (The online article was later changed.)

Economic-policy reporters usually present the views of supporters of new regulations as objective and public-spirited. For a contrary view, at best they'll ask a Republican or a representative of the regulated business, who is portrayed as self-serving. (Republicans tend to offer a watered-down version of the Democrats' proposals.)

A recent Bloomberg report on President Obama's plans to rewrite financial regulations is typical: "Obama has proposed new regulations overseeing the systemic risk posed by large financial institutions." The reporter quoted White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers in support of the plan. Although there are plenty of reasons to doubt that regulators are competent at judging systemic risk, no skeptical economist was quoted. Readers are led to believe the program is perfectly feasible.

Most reporting on the "stimulus" package has the same flaw. Just to call it "stimulus" is to editorialize, since the idea that government spending can truly stimulate an economy is at best doubtful. Many good economists say it can't be done. After all, the money is taken from somewhere else. But the economists rarely are quoted.

In addition, reporters seem to think they've done their job if they merely describe the intentions behind the proposed "reform." But the burden of proof should be on the sponsors of regulation and spending. They should have to make a convincing case that their new rules are superior to the free market. Who cares about intentions?

Fuel-efficiency standards, intended to save gasoline, give us less crashworthy cars, so more people die. Subsidies to American farmers destroy Third World markets. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac encouraged shaky subprime mortgages and helped cause the housing and financial turmoil.

The long list of bad results that have emerged from well-intended regulation ought to dim reporters' enthusiasm. But it hasn't.

I admit that my guiding political and economic philosophy—libertarianism—now shapes my reporting, in this way: It prompts me to ask questions that others don't ask.

I don't claim to be the expert. But some of my colleagues who write about business know nothing about economics. Many are comically hostile to profit—they dismiss it as "greed" (although they bargain for the highest salaries possible).

On my former ABC blog, some people called me a biased "conservative."

 "Your (sic) a shill anyways John. dont (sic) let the door hit you in the you know what."

I'm surprised that the self-described enemies of intolerance can't tolerate even one MSM reporter who doesn't share their statist premises. The interventionist state has been the status quo for generations, so I must be something other than "conservative." "Liberal" is what my philosophy used to be called. It's the statists who are the reactionaries.

Not all the blog comments were hostile:

"Congratulations. The mind boggles at the thought of giving free reign on air to someone who actually understands economics."

"Stossel challenges conventional wisdom, so I hope Fox lets him do that."

I assume Fox will. My points of view on things like immigration, nation-building, and the war on drugs differ from those of many at Fox, but libertarians like Judge Andrew Napolitano still seem to thrive there. The alleged "conservatives" are pretty tolerant.

I think they'll tolerate me. See you there next month.

John Stossel joins Fox News on October 19. He's the author of Give Me a Break and of Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity. This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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