On Not Being a Patsy for Today's Intellectuals

Bias in the media is rampant, yet many of us wish to stay informed. Here are some strategies for arriving at independent judgments amidst the rumble of voices.

Every few years, I break my rule about not following the news week in and week out and follow an entire current event with complete thoroughness until it winds down.

I do this when the event seems to tell me something about the culture, or when the event involves something that could affect my life.

I did this with the O.J. trial some years back because I was interested in the philosophy of law and how the legal process works. I did this for similar reasons with the “Florida battle” over whether Bush or Gore had won fairly in that state.

On April 8, I did it one more time with National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice's testimony before the 9-11 Commission on whether the Bush Administration was warned about or could have prevented 9-11.

There were few issues of media bias in the first of these three events (the O.J. trial) because — at least among the press and intelligentsia — the political and ideological issues were not as heightened, polarized, or emotional: Liberal and conservative journalists and intellectuals who followed the legal proceedings agreed O.J. was guilty.

There was nothing but bias in the presentation of the last two events (the prolonged coverage of Florida and the immediate treatment of Rice).

It has now become part of current conventional wisdom, and threatens to enter the history books, that Bush gained the Florida vote and thus the Presidency unfairly with the aid of a partisan U.S. Supreme Court. “They stole a Presidential election.”

Speaking as someone who followed the matter in great detail, it was clear beyond a doubt that what happened was this: a partisan Florida Supreme Court had been repeatedly throwing out and recounting the Florida vote each time Gore lost. And what the U.S. Supreme Court did was put a stop to it after there had already been a remedial recount process. It was the Florida Supreme Court which had tried to steal the election.

This is never mentioned by the liberal press nor by any of the prominent intellectuals I've seen comment on the matter. And it was not mentioned at the time.

In the recent 9-11 testimony, Rice made a number of points that seemed quite good. Most importantly, the overwhelming bulk of the danger warnings at that particular time pointed to an attack not here but overseas; as for the few danger warnings of attacks in the U.S., none gave any specific information — about people or place or time — that could have been acted on to prevent the attack.

But when Rice’s testimony hit the major evening news programs that same day — I watched two of them: ABC and CBS — those programs broadcast only the pointed questions Rice was asked, and none of her best answers.

I had watched all three hours of Rice’s appearance, and the degree to which the evening news unfairly edited, sensationalized, and misrepresented what I saw on television was stunning. The coverage was slanted to make her look like an idiot.

What is my purpose in taking us back through old news events? It is to point out some things we need to know as information consumers:

1. In today's world, there is a strong and constant liberal to left to nihilist to anti-American bias in most of the news, magazines, universities. It is not just on the level of ideology. It infects the level of everyday facts you take for granted (Gore won Florida, the Bush Administration was warned about 9-11, most Iraqis and Europeans hate us, global warming has started).

2. The bias and ingestion of junk and wrong facts started in college (with your history courses, for example).

3. A responsible approach to thinking about the world requires taking steps to filter out these junk and wrong facts (including retroactively, as time permits). If you live in a country where the press has a strong bias or blind spot (true in much of the world), you can defend yourself by using a library, reading non-local or foreign publications, or, easiest of all, surfing the web.

4. More fundamentally, taking responsibility for your most abstract ideas is not enough: you have to take responsibility for what you know on every level.

Having the right political and economic philosophy doesn't protect you from being a patsy and spouting lies someone planted into your head perhaps years or decades ago when you were a feckless college student and a relatively immature logician or critic.

If some lefto-Chomsky-crazy claims that the U.S. is the greatest imperialist threat and has plans for world conquest and gives a half dozen incomprehensible arguments, you have to be skeptical enough to know what constitutes an arbitrary claim and to seek out the evidence before giving it any credence whatsoever.

And then you have to be able to read what you find with your B.S. filter firmly in place and your red pencil in your hand.

And, most importantly, you have to seek out the other side on complex factual or detailed issues. Would you hand in a verdict in a trial after only having heard the prosecution? "Okay. I'm convinced. I don't have to listen to the defense."

Here are some thoughts on protecting oneself intellectually on current issues, using the Middle East as an example:

1. I had stopped reading the conservatives for many years — I found them too often lightweight, anti-intellectual, or unwilling to frontally engage the liberals’ most serious arguments.

I started to seek out the best of them again after 9-11 with the war on terrorism, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Now the conservatives really are saying something different and pointing out facts and issues completely overlooked by the establishment intellectuals.

And (as I implied above) you just can't trust the establishment press on anything on which the reporters and writers have strong emotions or positions or on which the facts and details (about the new world conflict, the cultures, the nature of Islam, the enemies, foreign policy details) are highly complex.

2. My routine now is to start by reading the New York Times online. It is not only the "newspaper of record" but it is the fountainhead of the establishment left line, which will be repeated within twenty-four hours in dozens of other television news programs or newspapers and will become the conventional wisdom as did its position on Florida.

Then I surf the web over to some of the best writers on the other side: Andrew Sullivan, Charles Krauthammer, or someone articulate at National Review Online such as Victor Davis Hanson or Jed Babbin.

3. Whether you are pro-Iraq-war or anti-Iraq-war, what you will find is that the same factual events can very often be seen utterly differently. That in itself will sensitize you to how many facts and details you were taking for granted before you began to follow both sides.

(There is not a fraction as much difference between the left and right perspectives on the welfare state as there is on issues of defense and war, which is why it's essential to read both sides on these last issues.)

4. If you haven't read someone like Bernard Lewis or his equivalent to get some background or context on the Middle East, Islam, and the goals of the new terrorists, I don't think you will be able to interpret the facts or the news stories.

You can't rationalistically deduce from pure philosophy the goals of the new terrorists, or the best methods to end the threat of American cities being bombed. You have to learn some detailed information.

Philip Coates is an educator who currently teaches history, literature, and thinking skills at the Challenger School. He has been an instructor at the New School for Social Research and a departmental guest lecturer at UCLA. He has been published in professional and academic journals and magazines, including The Independent Review, Reality, Objectivity, and the Proceedings of the Association for Computing Machinery. Also, he has been editor and publisher of Classics Review, a book review newsletter on timeless and classic books.

4 comments from readers  

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I think it is equally important not to be a "patsy" for opponents of the Left as well (among whom I count myself). I have noticed a distinguishable reluctance to vocalize any criticism regarding any policy on the part of a business enterprise which involves collaboration or cooperation with foreign oppressive governments. It appears that any dollar is a dollar regardless of from where it comes. I think it is long past due for such captains of industry as remain and still care about American interests to begin telling some would-be customers, as they used to say, "Your money's no good here".
Philip: Excellent article, just one suggestion: Be careful in using the word "liberal" alone (perhaps is better left-liberal in your case) because it has very different meanings around the World, ranging form left to right, libertarian, etc. It is one of those cases where a word has been so much used by different groups with very different intentions, that its significance has become a mess and the word itself finally signifies much things and none in particular
I share the author's views on mainstream media bias. My defense is a statistical removal of bias by reading many media sources from all over the world. Google News enables this since it draws from over 4000 news sources worldwide. I read the NY Times and Washington Post daily and can quickly see how good my approach is in comparison.
I would quibble, Phil, regarding the OJ trial. I watched as much as I could of the Court room details that came-out. The failure of the left and right to really understand the case FOR OJ's innocence was overwhelming to me, perhaps evidence of a deep racism given different expression by the left and right, but the same at root. Some key points: 1) With NO JUSTIFICATION, detective van Atter carried OJ's blood sample around, 2) Some of the blood evidence contained the preservative used in samples, 3) NIcole's cocaine use and Ron's dealing was excluded from the trial, both hints of a possible drug dealer involvement. . . etc.

Nice to see you ideologically unchanged since we knew each other in College about 1967(?)!

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