Friday, August 22, 2008

Getting the News

There is a lot of talk out there about how biased the news agencies are in the US. "Conservatives" talk about "liberal bias," and "liberals" talk about "conservative bias."

First, I think the labels "liberal" and "conservative" are completely useless and misleading -- except that they tell more about the one using them than about those they're labeling! The only thing "conservative" means is "that person is somewhere to my right" on the ideological or theological scale, and "liberal" means only "that person is somewhere to my left" on one (or both) of those scales. So, if you really want people to know where YOU are, go around labeling others! Let me know how that works out.

Second, in the historical sense the word "liberal" has functioned as the opposite of "conservative." So, what is a "conservative"? Well, it's someone who wants to conserve something -- some tradition he or she thinks is important. "Liberals," on the other hand, are those who want "tradition" to go away and want everyone to "think for themselves." This is what the philosophical movement known as "The Enlightenment" preached: "think for yourself," which Kant said meant to think independently of tradition, community, church, political authorities, religious authorities and even the Bible (witness his famous book, Religion Within The Bounds of Reason Alone). This "Enlightenment" itself became a tradition, of course (see the works of Alasdair MacIntyre to see this history laid out clearly) -- to the point that the very concept "think for yourself" became completely unquestionable.

But, what it meant was "think without tradition." Those who consciously and conscientiously thought within the tradition were the "conservatives" who wanted to conserve the tradition. Those who purported to "think for themselves" were the liberals.

So, since in our culture the concept of thinking for oneself has become part of our intellectual and cognitive furniture, we by definition are liberals. Now, in our country there are indeed a variety of types of liberals: there are "right-wing" liberals like Rush Limbaugh, and "left-wing" liberals like Al Gore, but they're all still liberals because they all claim to be thinking for themselves without the benefit of tradition. In our country we think everyone has to figure it all out for themselves.

The truth is that no one really can do that. We all rely on the thoughts of others, whether it's great minds of the past (like Kant, or Thomas Aquinas or Einstein), or just the books we've read. We all think within communities, and communities have histories that are called "traditions." The Enlightenment itself became a tradition! We learn what it means to be "rational" because of traditions of thought, and we learn what counts as evidence. In essence, we learn what is a "good thought" and what is not a good thought. These things are just handed on to us as "the way things work." They are part of our intellectual and rational furniture.

So, OF COURSE the news agencies have biases! Though they want to claim they are completely unbiased, to be unbiased is impossible. And in the United States, even the "liberal" news agencies (if such there are) are still very much slanted toward providing the news that seems relevant to people in the US, and that is generally pro-American. It's the same with the "liberals" as with the "conservatives." They all provide news that is biased toward the viewers -- toward citizens of the United States. Even NPR ("National Public Radio"), which I like very much and listen to almost daily, and may be the best news agency in the US, is biased.

So, since I don't trust ANY news agency to give me all the relevant news or all of the details of any one story that may be important, I make it a point to read news written by non-Americans. I have three RSS feeds on my web browser: NPR, the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), and the Arab news service Al Jazeera (yes, the one that publishes Osama bin Laden's videos every now and then).

In addition, I pay attention to "Alternet," an organization that is decidedly liberal in its politics and ethics, but frequently gives a side to stories that you won't typically get on major US news programs. Frankly, it's often refreshing, though very much biased against religious views.

So: get the news. Don't believe everything you hear on the US news outlets -- they're owned by major corporations and they serve their owners' interests, not the interests of the American people. By the same token, don't believe everything you hear on NPR, BBC, Alternet or Al Jazeera! But at least give yourself a chance to hear different points of view so you can make an informed decision. One thing traditionally valued by Christians is good information, and loving our enemies by hearing their voices.


Scott Starr said...

I agree.

berlin said...

Dr. Kooi, I found the most curious thing about media bias is that they may actually have facts, but arranged in such sequence and after such filtering that they may be telling a completely different story, removed from truth.

chip said...

Thanks, Scott.

Berlin, You're completely right. It's absolutely amazing to me to see a story on CNN or FOX (s)news that I've already see (sometimes a week earlier) on the BBC or another news source and see how differently it's presented.