Early Returns

There's No Fake in the News

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

That's not how it works.

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

I highly recommend a Benjamin Wittes master's course in how to read news stories about criminal investigations and scandals. I think it's worth adding a bit here at the less specific level: a primer on the news business. 

The first thing is that, contrary to what a lot of people believe (and what the president of the United States encourages people to believe), reporters in the "neutral" media don't simply make things up. If they say they have a source, or multiple sources, they absolutely do. Furthermore, they're not going to simply repeat what sources tell them without doing their damnedest to make sure their sources are not lying to them or making things up. 

Wait -- what do I mean by the "neutral" media? Simple: all those organizations, such as Bloomberg and the New York Times and CNN and plenty more, which don't think of themselves as favoring one party or the other (at least in their news pages) and which follow the norms established a little over a century ago for that kind of neutrality. It's not just the news pages (or news stories from broadcasters) that follow those rules; for the most part, columnists and even editorials will stick with the same standards when it comes to the truth. And the norms for reporting are so entrenched that reporting in even very opinionated publications, such as the National Review or the New Republic, will generally follow them. 

Does that mean everything in those publications is the unbiased truth? Hell, no! First of all, no one is perfect, so reporters do sometimes get stories wrong. And sources themselves have all kinds of agendas, and even the best reporters can get spun by their sources, although they try not to. Still, most of what is reported is factual, or at least not obviously not factual. The reason people got very upset by "fake news" during the 2016 campaign is because those stories, generally at disreputable sites, really were totally made up. That doesn't happen in the mainstream media. 

But even if it's mostly truthful, what's in the "neutral" media is certainly not unbiased. It really can't help but be biased in some way. Just choosing which of the billions of events that happen every day count as "news" and end up on the evening news or in the local paper requires some sort of bias about what is important and what isn't, and the same goes for reporting and editing those stories. 

The biases that matter most of the time, however, aren't about political party or ideology. The same norms that Wittes discusses about how anonymous sources get handled also tell reporters and editors (and broadcast correspondents and their producers) what is important and how to tell stories. Some of the norms follow self-interest: Items likely to get more clicks are more likely to get published. Others, however they evolved, have become simply the way things are done. For example, the "rules" say that "both sides" need to be reported on in many circumstances, with both sides meaning Republicans and Democrats, but not Greens or Libertarians; the rules also say which Republicans and Democrats are entitled to speak for their parties. That's a big deal in a lot of ways, but it's not done because reporters are out to get minor parties; it's just how they do things.

Anyway, there are lots of rules that "neutral" publications play by, and government officials and parties learn those rules and find ways to manipulate them in their favor. So part of reading or watching news stories well involves learning those rules, too, and knowing how they affect what you read and hear. 

Things haven't always been this way. In the 19th century, most newspapers were explicitly partisan, and in the early republic, each president had a newspaper to serve as his quasi-official outlet. So the growth of more partisan media such as Fox News and the evening lineup at MSNBC is in some ways a return to that older tradition. And one of the very open questions going forward is whether we're headed for some stable equilibrium where both the "neutral" and partisan presses can coexist, or if we're headed toward a new era of partisan dominance -- and, if so, what it will mean for the rest of the political system. 

1. Elizabeth Saunders at the Monkey Cage on foreign-policy developments over the last month. Very helpful. 

2. Jane Green and Will Jennings, also at the Monkey Cage, on why voter impressions of party competence can be important. Add to your Donald Trump/Jimmy Carter file. 

3. Neil Irwin on income inequality.

4. Paul Kane on the debt limit.

5. And Margaret Sullivan on how the media should talk about "antifa" groups. Good -- and note that this is part of how the norms talked about above wind up getting established. For what it's worth, I think it's nice to see this sort of thing happening in public.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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