by Lincoln Institute | May 27, 2021

Last week in an appearance on Fox News’ Special Report with Bret Baer, pundit, broadcaster & former Education Secretary Bill Bennett said something so simple and so true that it should be elevated to a modern meme. Here it is: “Ideology has obscured the search for truth.”

The particular context of what Dr. Bennett decried was the question of the origin of the COVID-19 coronavirus, but the basic problem is much wider. It is the devolution of our standards of journalism.

If there was a single major theme in the Presidential election of 2020, it was that Joe Biden is the opposite of Donald Trump.  Media coverage of Trump and Biden reflected the same polarity. Donald Trump was a liar, as the Washington Post gleefully claimed as it tracked and totaled 30,573 Trump’s false and misleading statements during his four years in office. One might expect that the Post would begin to count Biden’s false and misleading claims. Even if they expected fewer instances of misleading or inaccurate statements, one would expect that they’d maintain a similar database, if only to make the contrast, but no! On April 26, the Washington Post’s so-called “fact checker” Glenn Kessler announced that the paper would no longer maintain a database of Biden untruths. There is no logical explanation for this double standard other than ideological or partisan bias.

As Dr. Bennett pointed out, ideology bias obscured the search for truth in the origin of the COVID virus. The major media all dismissed the possibility that it escaped because of a lab accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Anytime that President Trump raised that possibility, he was treated as a Xenophobic conspiracy theorist, or worse. Now, suddenly, the possibility of a lab incident has come in from the wacky fringe to be treated as least semi-seriously by the Biden Administration in a 90-day study.

The major media have done a complete about-face in covering this story. How could such a thing happen? It even caught the notice of New York Times columnist David Leonhardt. Here’s what he wrote last Thursday: (Quote) “It appears to be a classic example of groupthink, exacerbated by partisan polarization. One of the lab accident theory’s earliest advocates was Tom Cotton, the Republican senator from Arkansas .. The media’s coverage of [Cotton’s} argument was flawed… Some coverage exaggerated Cotton’s comments to suggest he was claiming that China had deliberately released the virus as a biological weapon… And some scientists and others also seem to have decided that if Cotton believed something — and Fox News and Donald Trump echoed it — the idea had to be wrong. The result … was a bubble of fake consensus. Scientists who thought a lab leak was plausible … received little attention. Scientists who thought the theory was wacky received widespread attention.” (End of quote.) That’s a pretty tame mea culpa, but at the very least it is an implicit admission of bias. Ideology obscured the search for truth.

The same bias can be found in most coverage of climate change. While it’s true that most scientists and climatologists agree that anthropomorphic gasses do contribute to climate change, there are hundreds of respectable scientists who claim otherwise, and they have complied huge amounts of data to back up their claims. Responsible journalism would report both claims, and would be justified in stating that one view was held by a much larger number of experts than the other. Instead, most major media coverage of the climate issue lauds those who claim that climate change is largely due to burning fossil fuels and other human activity, while derisively painting those who hold to a different view as ignorant or, worse, intellectually corrupted by money from energy companies.

What has happened to American journalism that has resulted in such disregard for objectivity? In the nineteenth century, there were scores of newspaper barons whose papers were deeply biased. Often the bias was partisan, and obvious from the papers’ names: The Star Democrat or the Arizona Republican, for example. Sensationalism sold papers, so sensational stories were pumped out with abandon. In the twentieth century, however, journalism evolved into a much more respectable purveyor of news, and schools of journalism arose to burnish the profession’s reputations and standards of truth.

The newspaper barons of the past are now gone, and they have been replaced by equally biased social and Internet media barons like Facebook, Twitter and Google news. American journalism has devolved, and once again, ideology obscures the search for truth. The consequence of this devolution is the profound division of our nation into two mutually incompatible sets of values. How ironic that the tools of communication based on a binary system of programming comprised of zeroes and ones has led to a binary society comprised of reds and blues.