Media Bias and the ‘News’ Form: A Historical Critique

by Matt Bolton

27 March 2016

There is nothing new about the question of media bias against the left. It has been a perennial allegation from leftist activists and politicians virtually from the moment there was a media to be biased and a left to be biased against. Nonetheless, the reaction to Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader has reached such deranged levels of contempt (from the liberal press as much as the right) that it has become a central political issue once again – not since the attacks on the so-called ‘loony left’ Labour councils of the 1980s has the partisan nature of the media been so apparent.

The puzzle is why so many journalists are oblivious to this new reality – genuinely convinced they are acting objectively, merely ‘reporting the facts’. The easy answer would be that they are lying, or acting in bad faith. This argument underpins a common critique of the media from a leftist position, one which points to the explicit, conscious bias visible in partisan language and deliberate distortion, and usually attributes it to the hidden political affiliation of journalists. Other critiques focus instead on the implicit bias derived from the dominant class background (posh), race (white), and gender (male) of journalists. Alternatively, ‘structural’ analyses tend to explain bias by highlighting patterns of media ownership, arguing that the concentration of major newspapers and TV networks in the hands of a tiny number of private individuals and corporations enables them to disproportionately influence the political agenda.

Each of these critiques is crucial. But there is a further point of analysis which is invariably ignored altogether: that of the form of ‘news’ journalism itself. In a media-saturated society, the organisation of information-as-news constitutes a form which is imposed on virtually everything, whether it makes the grade as ‘newsworthy’ or not – an ordering of history which is so routine we barely notice it. The ubiquity of this form not only shapes our understanding of history but acts concretely upon it, in such a way that, like the police, its effects cannot be removed merely by a change of personnel or ownership. Treating the news form as essentially benign fails to recognise that news is not natural but a historical product. It did not emerge fully formed, or develop in isolation, but co-evolved historically with methods of technical production and the structures of media ownership.

I want to attempt to grasp and critique the form of ‘news’ on its own terms – to delineate the framework within which explicit distortion and implicit bias may, or may not, take place. In short, by accepting journalists’ own premises (that they are acting in good faith, and behaving impartially) I want to show how the development of the news form has stamped the journalistic processing of the world in politically tendentious ways, long before questions of conscious bias are raised.

How, then, do news journalists perceive their own role? What do they think they are doing? One answer was provided by former BBC political editor Nick Robinson in an interview at the Frontline club. Asked whether his motivation as a journalist was to ‘change the world’, he disagreed, insisting that all he wanted to do was explain:

I get kick out of thinking ‘that [subject] is incredibly complicated, can I get my head round it and explain it,’ and I don’t really care what you [the viewer] think at the end of it, genuinely, I couldn’t care less whether you end up thinking it’s good or bad, but if you come away thinking ‘oh right, I get [it]’…The nicest thing anyone says to me…is ‘you said that and I really understand it now.’ I go home skipping when that happens.

From this perspective, journalism is the identification, clarification and re-presentation of a piece of information. This information should be explained in such a way that it stands alone as understandable in itself, minimising the need for extraneous knowledge, and is conveyed without recourse to any external moral or political judgement. But might not the work of many academic researchers be characterised in the same way? What is it that distinguishes the identification and explanation of a piece of information in general, as might take place in any field of intellectual work, from one that is ‘newsworthy’? This is especially pressing given the wide range of subjects and global locations juxtaposed as ‘the news’ in any single paper or broadcast. What is it that holds them all together in one recognisable form, separating them from other modes of information?

The obvious answer is the one that stares back from the top of the (web)page – what Benedict Anderson describes as ‘calendrical coincidence’. Each piece of information in a news bulletin or newspaper, no matter how geographically distant or unrelated in content, gained the status of a ‘story’ on the same date. Every day (or hour, or minute) brings with it a new round of news – different in content, yet identical in form to that of the day or hour before. It is therefore a shared temporality, a peculiar ‘now-ness’ of journalistic time, which unites and identifies otherwise disparate facts as ‘the news’. This distinct form of temporality is founded upon the fragmentation of time into identical demarcated periods, which follow one another in an irreversible march of hours, days, months and years. These identical fragments have no necessary content. They measure nothing but time itself. The relentless progression of what Anderson calls ‘empty, homogenous time’ is the fundamental assumption upon which the entire edifice of the news is built.

A journalist’s job depends on their ability to extract new stories from the daily progression of that ‘empty, homogenous time’. This task entails a second fragmentation – the breaking up of regimented daily time into a series of events, each of which can be separated from the broader flux, fixed in position and presented as a singular story. The isolation of a single, static event requires the imposition of a narrative, with a clear beginning and end – ‘who, what, where, when, why’, as the journalists’ manual has it. Once an event has been isolated, a decision must be made as to whether it makes the grade as newsworthy or not. This is essentially dependent on the measurement of change or novelty the story represents. For a particular change to be regarded as news, it must be foregrounded against a contextual background which, while it might move forward in time, is assumed to be essentially the same. The bigger the change that can be distinguished from an ‘empty, homogenous’ background, the more the story merits being described as ‘newsworthy’. Once this title has been bestowed, a ‘time-sensitive’ premium is placed on any other event which can appear as a further manifestation of that change, regardless of whether it would normally merit coverage. The exceptionalism of the event is reinforced by its repetition in a cluster of near-identical stories.

There are certainly some aspects of some situations for which the narrative form of the ‘event’ can potentially aid understanding – establishing the details of what took place during an incident of police violence, for example. But the generalised application of this form to the whole of society necessarily leads to the prioritisation of ‘changes’ – which can be positively identified as such – over patterns of social relations which do not emerge as isolated incidents but have become naturalised, subsumed within the ‘empty background’ of everyday life. A violent murder in a rich neighbourhood is a story. The daily grind of oppressive poverty is not. Sexual assaults committed by a group of supposed migrants is a story. Run-of-the-mill sexual harassment in the office is not. The decision over what constitutes an event, and what is dissolved into the flat background, is undoubtedly a moment in the journalistic process where explicit and implicit bias can have a huge impact. But even if we grant journalists the best of intentions, it is clear that this fixation on events leads to an understanding of history which is fractured and one dimensional. For the media, history is a collection of events strung out in a line, one after another. These events are assiduously archived and available for reference, but are not understood as having any essential connection. History itself has no movement, aside from the ticking of homogenous empty time.

Here it becomes clear why a news story cannot make the grade unless it can be understood on its own terms. The isolation of a news story from its broader historical context is not a result of flawed journalistic performance. If history is essentially empty, it has no resources to offer news journalists when it comes to explaining the ‘change’ expressed in ‘the news’. They must instead rely on identifying the supposed causes of the selected events from the inside. It is thus fundamental to the very existence of ‘news’, as a form in which a moment of change is thrown into relief against a one-dimensional background, that the ‘event’ itself be represented as the driver of its own movement. It must become self-evident.

Capitalist time, capitalist freedom.

The origins of journalism’s fragmented temporality can be found in the traditional periodic pattern of media publication – the morning or evening newspaper, the daily TV or radio news broadcast. It is no coincidence this regular schedule matches that of the ‘industrial time’ of capitalist production, in which social life is split into a repetitive series of ‘work days’, each ruled by the merciless ticking of the clock. From the outset, the newspaper was an institution explicitly set to the rhythms of commercial capitalism. In The Long Revolution Raymond Williams writes: “[t]he newspaper was the creation of the commercial middle class, mainly in the eighteenth century. It served this class with news relevant to the conduct of business.” Early content was dedicated solely to the current state of markets, shipping, stock prices, exports and imports.

Although initially barred from reporting on parliamentary proceedings, the increasing ‘freedom of the press’ went hand-in-hand with the gradual political domination by the commercial class whom that press served. This ‘freedom’ was underpinned by the rise of advertising as an independent financial basis for expanding circulation, which encouraged the replacement of direct state control of printing presses by a stamp tax. Press freedom can therefore be regarded as the flipside of a process by which news no longer merely focused on the movement of commodities but became a full commodity itself – and as such was predicated on the acceptance of a society ruled by the commercial class. Any direct challenge to this state of affairs, and the ‘freedom’ of the press would soon run into limits.

This was made starkly apparent by the treatment of alternative forms of printed communication that had developed in the shadow of the bourgeois press. Radical periodicals such as William Cobbett’s Political Register or Thomas Wooler’s Black Dwarf faced fierce political repression as demands for parliamentary reform reached a head in the early 19th century, as well as severe financial constraints. They were able to survive and find a large audience in the atmosphere of political turmoil running up to the 1832 Reform Act – in part by shifting from news to political opinion, in an attempt to avoid stamp taxes. But as resistance faded in the Act’s aftermath, the commercial and political advantages held by the bourgeois press eventually meant it was able to overwhelm all other modes of communication, subsuming them within its own market-determined form.

The radical press never died out entirely, as the later success of the Chartist press attests, but it struggled to compete on a mass level with the commercial media once the advertising model of funding took hold. Publishers who could not match the higher levels of investment folded, and the number of newspaper titles in print contracted. But the circulation of those that remained expanded enormously, thanks in part to advertisement-funded investment in new printing techniques, which cheapened costs and reduced prices. The extension of such a model of journalism to a mass audience was therefore based on that audience’s integration into the market as consumers. As Williams argues:

The fact is the economic organisation of the press in Britain has been predominantly in terms of the commercial middle class which the newspapers first served. When papers organised in this way [they] reached out to a wider public, they brought in the new readers on a market basis and not by means of participation or genuine community relationships…The community as a whole was not providing its newspapers, but having them provided for it by particular interests.

From the outset, then, journalists worked under the assumption that their readers were the individual consumers of a capitalist society. Any collective identity that a media outlet might try to build from its readership (the ‘we’ evoked in countless Sunday supplement articles) is necessarily founded upon that of the isolated consumer. Mediatised collective subjectivity cannot contribute to the destruction of the market individual, because it is entirely predicated upon that individual. It thus ends up being reduced to an expression of shared consumption preferences (including political ‘persuasion’), or a form of nationalist ‘belonging’. Forms of collective experience which do not fit into the straitjacket of consumer preference cannot be accounted for. Through the eyes of a media grounded in advertising and individual consumption, they simply do not exist.

Objectivity and its presuppositions.

Like all capitalist enterprises, the media relies on the continual emergence of new commodities (‘stories’) from the daily cycle of production. The demands of profit made it imperative to minimise the time between the moment of journalistic production and that of consumption, placing speed and ‘topicality’ at the centre of journalistic practice. Investment in new technology, in part driven by competition between rival papers, has continually shortened the temporal lag between the journalistic processing of the ‘event’ and its consumption by the reader. Today, this gap has almost been closed entirely, undermining the traditional periodic structure of the daily newspaper in the process.

The key technological development which set the ‘time-space compression’ of news in motion was the invention of the telegraph. The ability to send a telegram allowed journalists to file reports from distant locations without first having to travel back to the office. This new reliance on technology did not merely speed up the transmission of a news form that remained essentially the same – its impact was felt on the form itself. Before the use of the telegram, Williams argues, the style of writing in newspapers was similar to that of books – expansive, circuitous, if not verbose. Once the use of the telegraph was established, “[t]he desire for compression, to save money on the wire, led to shorter sentences and a greater emphasis of key-words. There is often a gain in simplicity and a lack of padding; often a loss in the simplification of complicated issues, and in the distorting tendency of the key-word.”

‘Keyword’ is a crucial term for Williams – words which are the sites of battles over meaning, and which act as “ways not only of discussing but of seeing many of our central experiences.” The new financially-driven emphasis on brevity meant that more weight was put onto certain terms which now carried a much greater burden of assumed knowledge and presumed shared understanding. Journalism was no longer a medium in which the contested meanings of words could be explored, but rather one in which language was reduced to one dimension by the twin demands of speed and cost. This has had lasting effects, despite the costs of communication dropping exponentially – the widespread use of deeply ideological terms today as shorthand (‘housing ladder’, ‘riot’, ‘moderate’, ‘credible’) testifies to the hidden assumptions built into the formal conventions of journalistic language.

The processes by which the backdrop of news came to be regarded as essentially unchanging, and the language of journalism boiled down to a skeleton of presuppositions, developed in relation to that of the much vaunted (and criticised) ‘objectivity’ of the news form. It was no accident that the new ‘objective’ style of journalism emerged in the aftermath of the defeat of the Chartist movement in the 1850s, a period in which class struggle temporarily retreated. The mid-19th century, writes Williams, “saw the consolidation of sentiment from the middle class upwards,” meaning that “most newspapers were able to drop their frantic pamphleteering, and to serve this public with news and a regulated diversity of opinion.”

There is no doubt that the new focus on the straight reporting of ‘facts’ was an improvement on the previous forms of ‘faction’ which littered the early newspapers. But this supposedly new and more objective journalism was ultimately predicated upon an assumption that political conflict was now settled: the inherent contradictions of class society were erased from view. Disagreement might continue to exist, but was now reduced to questions of technical management of a society in which everyone was heading in the same direction, and where the fundamental relations were fixed in place.

Journalistic objectivity, and the all-encompassing expansion of a commodified media model, should therefore be regarded as historically specific products of a period of capitalist entrenchment. Both were expressions of a presumed agreement about the shape and direction of a rational and ‘well-ordered’ society – in other words, the naturalisation of capitalist social relations. To this end, the ‘apolitical’ objectivity of the news story, and the flattening of meaning in journalistic language, correlates to the reified form of the market in classical political economy. Here, the market appears as an isolated economic sphere, separated from politics and governed by its own objective laws which, if left alone, will work for the good of the whole. If things seem to be getting worse, rather than better (the underlying message of every story in papers like the Daily Mail, Express or Telegraph), the blame must be placed on untoward intervention in that supposedly objective sphere – via conspiracy, the ‘nanny state’, or ‘bad apples’ – rather than recognised as its inherently destructive results. It was for this reason that Georg Lukács argued the figure of the ‘objective’ journalist represented reification at its most grotesque: “[t]he journalist’s ‘lack of convictions’, the prostitution of his experiences and beliefs is comprehensible only as the apogee of capitalist reification.”

It is thus this hypostatisation of social relations, the presupposition that political conflict has been resolved and contradiction removed from society, which constitutes the ‘flat background’ from which the news is ‘objectively’ drawn. This demand for inherent explanation means news stories invariably end up flattening complex historical processes in order to pinpoint the individual actions (who, what, where, when, why) which appear to have directly produced the phenomenon under scrutiny. When it comes to assigning motivation for actions, the habitual practices of ‘objective’ journalism – founded upon the denial of any legitimate reasons for conflict and resistance – are reinforced by the use of a language in which meaning has been frozen. This leaves few options available for a plausible inherent explanation, aside from ‘irrationality’, ‘madness’ or ‘evil’. Such ‘self-evident’ explanations inevitably lead to the scapegoating of those deemed personally responsible for the evil actions, and the incessant demand that ‘something must be done’ to eradicate their nefarious influence. It is this dynamic which underlies the recurrent characterisation of leftist movements and political leaders as ‘mad’ or ‘loony’. If political struggle is settled, and contradiction expelled, any opposition to ‘society as it is’ cannot be regarded as rational. From the perspective of ‘the news’ it is, rather, genuinely inexplicable.

Paradoxically, it is this same dynamic which is utilised by the media when faced with the substantive historical change its very existence as ‘news’ denies. From Hillsborough to anti-racism, the news form is able to recuperate the results of long, hard-fought struggles – struggles usually opposed by the media at the time – only by pushing legitimate conflict backwards, safely into the past. The mantra of ‘of course, it was different back then’ grants approval to certain historic conflicts (namely, those whose effects have been so powerful they cannot be ignored), not by recognising inherent contradiction but by inverting the relation of rationality. Society itself is, when necessary, scapegoated in retrospect (‘back then’) as an unfortunate but necessary stepping stone in the gradual progression of things, while once-demonised protesters are transformed into the pioneering bearers of a rationality which has thankfully been realised in ‘society as it is’ today.

The effect of this is to drain past struggles of any contemporary relevance. The possibility that the same contradictory pressures which fed into historic conflict might do the same today is not only denied, but done so in the name of the ‘rational’ protesters of the past. Thus those involved in the 2011 English riots were depicted in the media as ‘mindless’ in comparison to the rioters of 1981, who were retrospectively reassessed and deemed to have had genuine cause to protest – despite the media at the time characterising those riots in precisely the same ‘mindless’ fashion. In this way the results of past struggles are naturalised, dissolved into the ‘flat background’ of the news, and thereby used to reinforce the supposed inevitability of the current state of society. This ensures opposition to today’s society can continue to be treated as ‘irrational’.

The battle of the scapegoat.

In historical periods where people were able to develop political knowledge through non-mediatised collective institutions (political parties, trade unions, religious bodies), the peculiar presuppositions of the news form were not yet those of society as a whole. But as those alternative means of political education have all but collapsed, the media has expanded to fill the gap. This has left the political process itself at the mercy of the insatiable temporal and explanatory demands of the news.

One way in which these demands become manifest is through the proliferation of the journalistic deadline, the limit point that splits time into a ‘before’ and ‘after’. The media’s constant need for new events that fit into the framework of abstract time has shifted the ‘deadline’ from a technique internal to the production schedule of the newspaper office to a temporal framework which can be used to apply the form of the event onto almost anything. The imposition of deadlines enables, say, the sort of political negotiations normally regarded as dull, drawn-out affairs to be transformed into tension-filled events by their presentation as ‘races against time’ for deals to be struck. The strident demand that ‘something must be done’ before ‘time runs out’ has severe material consequences for both the process and results of those negotiations.

Similarly, the way in which economic data is chopped up into media-friendly temporal fragments allows the form of the event to be imposed upon the slow, contradictory unfolding of economic ‘development’. This then feeds into the spectacle of media-led celebration at the ‘recovery event’ signalled by +0.2% growth in one ‘quarter’, and deep despair at the ‘recession event’ demonstrated by -0.2% the next. In both cases, the longue durée of political and economic processes – in other words, history itself – is erased by the self-contained immediacy of the reportable event, forced into existence by the striation of the deadline.

The forward drive implied by the ticking of ‘homogenous, empty time’ constantly pushes news stories to fixate on the future, on what will happen ‘next’. This enables the media to construct longer narrative arcs, which give both impetus and a sense of self-fulfilling inevitability to the personalised explanation of the news. History is erased by a projected future, one which derives from the assumption of a one-dimensional society in which conflict is resolved. Once a politician is trapped within such an arc, it is almost impossible to escape, for good or for ill. Compare the relative positions of Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson. As a critic of ‘society as it is’, Corbyn has found himself caught within a narrative arc in which he is congenitally irrational, ‘mad’, and dangerous – destined for embarrassing and deeply damaging failure. There is literally nothing he can do which will not be criticised on these terms. Johnson, meanwhile, is in the opposite position, the protagonist of a narrative in which he is beloved by all who cross his path, and is destined for a glorious ascension to Number 10. The abject failures of his period as Mayor of London have no bearing whatsoever on the progression of this arc, to the extent that they have not merited more than a handful of critical questions from journalists throughout his entire eight year term.

The ability to manipulate such narrative arcs and arbitrary deadlines through the provision of personalised explanation and clearly identifiable scapegoats has therefore become one of the key criteria by which to judge the ‘success’ of a politician. An entire industry of commentators and analysts – those inducted into the ‘cult of savvy’, as media theorist Jay Rosen describes those who purport to ‘know how the game works’ – exists solely to weigh up the respective merits of political actors in this regard. The pervasive effect of the need to fulfil such demands has now spread across the whole of political discourse, and can be seen particularly clearly with regard to the financial crash of 2008 and its aftermath. While the right pin the blame for the crash on the Labour government’s ‘overspending’ on public services, the anti-austerity left have instead attempted to shift the focus onto the actions of ‘the bankers’ or ‘the 1%’. The names of the scapegoats may change, but both positions are ultimately founded on the assumption that if only those individual ‘causes’ could be eradicated, the economy would return to a kind of natural equilibrium. A deeper understanding of the inherent relation of crisis to capitalism – a relation which can be only be seen historically – is therefore obfuscated by the temporal requirements of the news form. Politics becomes a battle of ensuring one scapegoat receives more blame than the other.

This poses no real problems for the right – theirs is a worldview in which the market, kept free of all untoward intervention, really does provide the best of all possible worlds. This assumption lies at the root of the Conservative government’s narrative over both the cause of the crash and the solution – that public spending cuts will lead to the ‘elimination of the deficit’ by a certain date. The reason why these arguments have been so convincing to so many (with journalists at the forefront) has very little to do with their veracity. Rather, their success is based upon the skilful way in which the ‘story’ of both the causes of the crash and its austerity solution have been shaped to fit into the media-friendly form of the event, with its demand for inherent, personalised explanations and clear narrative arcs. The same dynamic is at work when media-savvy politicians rage against any suggestion historical context might shed some light on acts of terrorism, and insist banally that ‘the terrorists are solely responsible for their actions’. It is simply not possible for a left founded on an understanding of the inherent instability of capitalist society – expressed by contradictions which emerge, in Karl Marx’s words, as part of “a social process that goes on behind the backs” of individuals – to win on these terms. To attempt to do so is to relinquish any claim to history as something more than a collection of contingent events, and to fade into a sanitised shadow of the right.

There are no easy solutions to this problem. The replacement of corporate media monopolies by democratically-controlled organisations is no small demand. Nor is ending the domination of journalism by privately-educated white men. Both would go a long way to eradicating much explicit and implicit media bias, particularly when it comes to the process by which events are selected as ‘newsworthy’. But neither of these measures on its own challenges the hegemony of the news as form. The dominance of this form is such that even non-commodified media organisations such as the BBC are completely under its sway. In any case, the BBC was never intended to challenge the form of news, but merely the private ownership of its means of production and distribution. And even while the advertising funding model of the press collapses, the form persists, and gathers strength. Social media does potentially provide a real alternative, but it too has by no means escaped the power of ‘the news’.

From one angle, it offers the tools by which the presuppositions of the news might be dismantled, raising the possibility that the self-evident explanations, fragmented temporality and hypostatised language of the media might be broken down and given new historical meaning. From another, it merely speeds up the process of the branding and circulation of ‘events’ and scapegoats integral to the news. The news form is not something which merely exists on the page, and which can be simply circumnavigated by peer-to-peer communication networks. It shapes the actual world around us, the way we experience our own lives and understand our history. We live through the news form, and it will not give up its hold without a fight.

Photo: Newspaper Club/Flickr

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