24 June 2011

Isn't it nice to know
That the media will sway our votes
Cause seriously we've got to see
That they choose what we know

Whenever I listen to this song by BarlowGirl ("Time for You to Go" from Love & War, 2009), these lines catch my attention with their simple truth: the press isn't the neutral arbiter of information. Rather, bias is in everything that has been selected. Dr. Paul Levinson, in his insightful and engaging book, Digital McLuhan (published 1999), similarly discerns the power of the press as "gatekeeper": "From the point of view of the reader," he writes, "newspaper gatekeeping has been the more insidious, because newspapers usually present themselves to the public as printing all news, not just the news that they have allowed to pass through their gates. Thus, The New York Times represents itself on its masthead as publishing "All the News That's Fit to Print"; the motto could be more truthfully rendered as "All the News That We See Fit to Print" (p. 122). Similarly, Walter Cronkite's nightly "And that's the way it was," would be better expressed as "And that's the way the editors at CBS decided you should think it was" (Levinson, 1999, p. 124).

When my classmates berate the supposedly conservative bias of Fox News (and, in doing so, belie the tolerance liberals tout), they overlook the bias that is inevitable with selection—and as students of library and information science, this is especially egregious, for the bias of selectivity is something we discuss all the time. What makes these students think that other networks like CNN, NPR, CBS, etc are any less selective? employ any less bias? (and on that note, how did liberal politics become the standard, like the Midwestern accent of broadcasting anyway? When my classmates snicker at conservatives, they do so with the assurance that comes with speaking for the majority, assuming that we think the way they do.)

I'm not against bias—bias is a way of organizing myriad facts along a particular line—a filter. Due to our finite capacity to find, understand, process, remember, and act upon information, filters are effective ways of distilling all the information available to us to what we can manage. Imagine, for instance, if we lacked the filter of forgetfulness and instead remembered everything we'd ever experienced like Funes in Jorge Luis Borges's "Funes, the Memorious." Afterall, I am finishing up my degree to become a professional filter as an archivist/librarian. I am, however, against bias masquerading as the whole truth and bias that occludes the whole truth. We must remember that effective filters leave some things behind and what remains is only a part. Our job is to know the filter, to understand its mechanisms, and occasionally to test it by looking over what's left behind and evaluating whether that is, indeed, dross. They choose what we know--who are they? how do they choose? what have they left behind?

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