After a glorious 4th of July weekend, I decided to look a little deeper into the recent State of the First Amendment survey, published last Thursday by The First Amendment Center at the Newseum Institute and covered by the USA Today, which claimed that the public actually sees the media reporting with less bias than they have in recent years. (https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2017/06/29/fewer-americans-think-news-media-biased-new-survey-says/438074001/).

Mind you, one of the primary objectives of my blog is to learn-and-promote ways in which the general population can undo the polarization that is endemic in America today. One way to do this is to look beneath the surface.

So I did.

Harkening back to controversial studies that the tobacco and sugar industries funded which portrayed both products in a highly favorable light, I decided to see who was behind the First Amendment Center and, ultimately, the media bias survey. Sure enough, the Center’s Board of Trustees includes:

Michael Coleman
Cocoa Beach, Fla.
Newspaper management consultant
Former chair, Cape Publications

Philip Currie
McLean, Va.
Former senior vice president, News, Gannett Co. Inc

Félix F. Gutiérrez
Oakland, Calif.
Professor emeritus, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California

Leslie Hill
Chevy Chase, Md.
Former director, Dow Jones and Co.

Peter S. Prichard
Essex, Conn.
Chair, Newseum
Former editor-in-chief, USA Today

Orage Quarles III
Raleigh, N.C.
Former President and publisher, The News & Observer

Mark N. Trahant
Pocatello, Idaho
Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism, University of North Dakota

TRUSTEES EMERITUS

Michael G. Gartner
Principal owner, Iowa Cubs baseball team
Former president, NBC News

Madelyn P. Jennings
Former senior vice president, personnel,
Gannett Co. Inc.

While a part of me really wants to believe that the public’s view of the media has actually improved while constantly being labelled “fake,” I find it more-than-suspect that the media/journalism industry in general, and the USA Today in particular (including its parent, Gannett Co. Inc.), is so broadly represented on the study author’s Board of Trustees. Mind you, this board representation doesn’t make the study, or the reporting in it, completely biased. In fact, the Center’s report and the USA Today article makes some very interesting points.

For instance:

“More than half (53%) of the 1,009 adults, surveyed in May 2017, said they preferred to get news from outlets aligned with their political views. The center’s executive director Lata Nott called that finding “both obvious and disheartening” and “one of the factors that keeps us so divided,” in an essay accompanying the report.” And while the USA Today opines that this leads to a lack of trust in the media, I wonder whether that there isn’t also an element of misplaced trust in their bias ratings.

“On the bias question, conservatives were more likely to say the media was biased (73%), than moderates (56%) and liberals (38%) were.” Once again, I want to know who the respondents saw as the “targets” of their media bias perspectives.  Did they view their PREFERRED news outlets as biased, or the “other” outlets as such? I may be a bit biased here myself, but I suspect that the respondents see their non-preferred outlets as biased.

“Across all political leanings, survey respondents agreed the media should act as a watchdog of government. But liberals were more inclined to think so (89%), compared to moderates (63%) and conservatives (58%).” Considering the make-up of the First Amendment Center’s Board of Trustees, I am not surprised by to see results that endorse the media’s “watchdog” function. On a personal level, however, I am troubled that 42% of conservatives don’t appear to support that notion.

In the end, my initial reaction to the USA Today’s “Fewer think news media is biased …” article was that the White House administration’s “Fake News” messaging is back-firing. Personally, I think that was how readers were supposed to react. However, after digging a bit deeper, it appears that:

The study may have been biased, given the First Amendment Center’s Board of Trustees

Most people still see the media as biased. This most recent study only suggests that, in aggregate, the public’s view has gone from “Worse” to Bad.”

The “Echo Chamber Effect,” wherein people prefer news media and messaging that supports their existing views, lives on.

There’s a lesson here. Perhaps a few.