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What Flavor is Your Media?

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The Urban Monk Podcast — What Flavor is Your Media?

Is Your Media Skewed?

Larry Atkins has been around the media for a long time and has a new book out called “Skewed” which rips into the biases that are inherent in media. We all know it is there but to what extent? Who do we trust and where can we get our information? The answer is “it’s complicated” but this media veteran takes us on a tour of what to look for and how to avoid being herded by the “influences” that are driving our consumption of information. Enjoy….

Interview Notes From The Show:

Pedram:

Welcome back. Pedram here with Larry Atkins talking about how media gets skewed. He’s written a book on it. It’s fascinating because how and where you consume the media is really going to be the tribe that you follow and the ideas that reinforce in your mind. I know you’re going to enjoy this one. I’ll see you on the other side. Interesting. We’re doing some interesting stuff. It’s not easy being in media nowadays. I’d love to get your background and just how you got into media and what your pedigree is a little bit.

Larry:

Sure. Started writing from my high school newspaper, college newspaper. I wrote for my school paper. Went to law school. Became a lawyer. Did legal research and involved a lot of writing but I also became a freelance journalist. I’ve been doing freelance journalism for approximately 25 years or so. Writing for newspapers, magazines, radio, commentary. I’ve always had an interest in writing.

Pedram:

Everyone assumes that there’s bias in the media but you’ve gone so far as to write a book on it and so what started to turn your mind on how crazy the bias was and how obnoxious it could get if one is not paying attention?

Larry:

Yeah, I’d say talk radio in the early 90’s and then with Fox News and MSNBC it became even more blatant. Then when I started teaching, that’s one thing I left out, I’ve been a journalism professor at Temple University and Arcadia University and couple other schools. That’s one of the topics that I like to focus on a lot. It tends to interest the students. Really, I’d say it gotten even more intense I guess over the last maybe 20 years or so.

Pedram:

It really has. I mean, what’s happening? Are you seeing warring schools of thought? Is it becoming more just politicized or is it corporate interest?

People Tend To Go Into Their Own Corners Of Media Networks - #LarryAtkins via @PedramShojai

Larry:

I’d say it’s mostly politicized. I mean, people tend to go into their own corners and the various media networks and websites. It’s kind of we’re living in parallel universes and that’s just the way events are portrayed. You get the let’s say the Fox News version. You get the MSNBC version. Obviously with websites and online that’s the case as well. Just people have a different narrative for various issues. It’s not just politics. I mean, it’s social issues with immigration and abortion, gun rights. It’s not just democrat republican, it’s just almost any controversial issue that you can think of.

Pedram:

When a journalist wants to go out in the media, get a job, hang a shingle, do their thing, they understand that they are going to basically pick a side and write in a flavor or is it more nuanced than that?

Larry:

I’d say it would all depend on the type of journalism and media outlet that you go to. As I mentioned in the book, I mean I do think that the straight forward mainstream media does get a little bit of a bad rep. This, “the liberal media,” I think for the most part they do try to be straight forward objective although there’s no such thing as perfect objectivity. I think they try to be relatively straight forward. Again, it’s not perfect but then if you’re going to work for a talk radio or for MSNBC or Fox News or let’s say Salon salon.com, a liberal website or TheBlaze.com then you’re going to have a clear bias and agenda in your reporting. In answer to your question I’d say it depends on the media outlet of the reporter who works for it.

Pedram:

Yeah, I mean, it’s scary. I listen to NPR driving in and out of work and I try to get my stuff on the internet but it’s really hard to know where the influences that are behind the outlets that I’m reading or listening to come. Is there anyone in your opinion that is the least biased? Because you’re saying that there’s no way to be completely unbiased.

Larry:

Right. I’d say just for my own observations. I think CNN tries to do a good job of being straight forward and not having too much of a bias. They try to have equal panels of equal conservatives and liberal C-SPAN, they are pretty much just straight forward showing what goes on on congress and they have different sides. I think they are two pretty good examples of that.

Pedram:

CNN NPR.

Larry:

I’d say they are somewhat centrist. I know they get a bad rep amongst conservatives as being too liberal but I think that generally they try to do really serious journalism and try not to be too … You’re not going to see too many host let’s say like a Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow on NPR. I think they are more of a journalism style type host.

Pedram:

Let’s get into the belly of the beast. What is wrong with what we’re seeing in the mainstream in terms of actual dissemination of real information?

Larry:

As far as the mainstream media?

Pedram:

Yeah, the skewed media.

It's Not Just Democrat or Republican - #LarryAtkins via @PedramShojai

Larry:

Okay, you mean I guess the advocacy journalism type media? First of all, I am a fan of both the mainstream media and, “advocacy journalism media.” I’m liberal so I watch MSNBC but I also like to watch Fox News and get the opposing opinion. I like to go on the various conservative and liberal website just to get various view points. I would say with advocacy journalism is that they are reporting with an agenda. They pick and choose the facts. They cherry pick and if you’re a watcher or viewer or listener or whatever, it’s hard to get a real I guess centrist type of opinion.

If you want to really know the detailed facts of the Iran nuclear deal, something like that, you know what you’re getting if you go to MSNBC. This is a Nixon goes to China moment. This is a great thing and if you go to Fox News it’s Obama’s Neville Chamberlain and selling out the United States and Israel and this is going to lead to world war three. I know that I’m frustrated because I would really like to hear a balanced view point is to okay what’s good about the Iran nuclear deal and what’s bad about the nuclear deal and then let me decide and just too often I see I guess stacked panels of experts that [parrot 00:07:23] the view point of the conservative media or the liberal view point.

Pedram:

Isn’t this a challenge though? I mean, the founding fathers of this country really predicated our democracy on having an enlightened citizenry. You should know the issues. You should know the facts. You should be able to weigh the facts and make an intelligent adult decision based on the information presented in front of you. If you’re information only comes from a source that keeps feeding an opinion that reinforces a gestalt then doesn’t that basically allow the media and the spinsters to direct the minds of men in a way that might be dangerous for democracy.

Larry:

Absolutely, if it comes in echo chamber and if one host or network or website operator decides on a certain narrative that their viewers or listeners are likely going to believe that. Often times people live in their own echo chambers and so they only flash Fox News. They only listen to talk radio one side and then I would say liberals only … Watch MSNBC. You read the New York Times editorial page and for the most web. You know it’s also Facebook and Twitter and getting like-minded information from other people. A lot of times people aren’t exposing themselves to different points of view.

Pedram:

You see this not just here. I mean we’ve obviously got a polarized society. Either you’re red or you’re blue. It’s become very tragic situation where the discourse is gone and people don’t feel like they are Americans, there’s just different camps. That kind of dialogue, gray is where the good stuff happens. We’re also seeing this maybe with potentially Al Jazeera and some of the international networks because now the middle east just flashing up on our beaches. Now problems in Africa are and so they are very different stories and narratives that you’re seeing internationally that Americans we don’t even have access to some of that information. Do we?

Larry:

Right. I guess I was disappointed and I don’t know about you but my cable dropped Al Jazeera and through this I don’t think their network is on in America anymore. I’m not positive about that but I know my cable outlet dropped them. The BBC is very good for international news. CNN International is very good for international news. Generally unless there’s a major crisis, terrorism bombing or things like that or major earthquake.

For the most part unless U.S. interest are involved it’s going to be ignored. That’s especially the case in Africa and South America. I think one of the better example is the Captain Phillips Somalia incident where ships around the world have been hijacked for years of the coast of Somalia. That basically got no coverage in the United States but when it was the United States ship they got hijacked then it got 24/7 coverage. Generally, the United States media tends to ignore what’s going around in the rest of the world.

Pedram:

Is this the chicken and egg argument though? Is it because Americans just don’t care about anything that doesn’t apply to them? Is it more nuanced in terms of feeding information that is U.S. centric?

Larry:

Yeah, I think it’s U.S. centric. I think most of it is I guess an economic decision by the networks meaning that what do our viewers, what do our readers care about. Are they going to care more about Justin Bieber being arrested for DUI? Are they going to care more about declining Guatemalan copper mining? Even if it’s a big crisis in a foreign country, that is is it an earthquake? People, they like sensational stories. They like to choose stories that they think people will be interested in.

Pedram:

How much of this is Hearst legacy? How much of this is the turning of the direction of what journalism was traditionally is known as? Now, it’s obviously leading to advocacy in multiple directions.

Larry:

Yeah, I guess in a way we’ve gone full circle at the beginning like Colonial period especially right around 1800 it was mostly advocacy journalism and that the political parties formed their own newspapers. They’re clearly not objective and balanced [inaudible 00:12:07] insult the other candidate and it would be personal. It was very clearly agenda driven but then you had what was called the emergence of the penny press which was geared toward the common person. They started doing other stories. They’d focus spot on crime.

Then you had the inverted pyramid which was straight forward news without a bias and corporate ownership. A lot of centrist positions but then like you mentioned with Hearst, Pulitzer they got into the war as far as creating Spanish American war, as far as sensationalism, yellow journalism and just really trying to sensationalize stories to get more people to buy newspapers. We’ve had different eras as well. We have the mock breaking era of the early 1900s which was advocacy journalism. It got to be a lot more straightforward but then I’d say with the rise of talk radio and then Fox News, MSNBC and websites as well, we started getting more back to advocacy journalism.

Pedram:

I know in the web domain it’s all about click bait. It’s all about drawing people on to your page because that’s what drives advertising dollars and a lot of times the stuff that people are clicking on isn’t even truth. It doesn’t matter. Their headlines with flashy images and it’s really distorted the traffic of the internet towards race to the bottom. I mean, how much of that is just driven by market dynamics versus some of the advocacy channels that you’d see [inaudible 00:13:51] media?

People Live In Their Own Echo Chambers - #LarryAtkins via @PedramShojai

Larry:

Sure, a lot of it is headline driven. I mean just from the tabloids and from online, the stories that they want to emphasize they’ll have the bolder headlines and maybe a short subhead to get people to go in them and they’ll emphasize the more sensational stories that they think there will be more reader interest.

Pedram:

Is there an issue with our attention span in your opinion? I mean, everyone is saying that we’re less likely to pay attention than a goldfish at this point. Having an intelligent conversation seems like who the hell’s got time for that. Is that also a mark of where you see journalism going?

Larry:

Yeah, I mean I know I see some free newspapers around Philadelphia area and the city and I mean a lot of times you get like clip notes version of the news that just doesn’t go into a lot of detail. I know one of my students would rely on let’s say Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert to get their news or watch Jimmy Fallon or just Facebook and Twitter. If Aunt Jane sends them an article to read on Twitter or Facebook, that kind of where they get their news. I mean, we’re bombarded with information and people are very busy. It is hard to read seven newspapers from front to back constantly or to watch the nightly news and all the news shows. People just generally I guess don’t have a lot of time for it.

Pedram:

You got to trust your source. Traditionally if ever there’s so much information out there in a market economy, you have someone who sits in a position where they aggregate that information and draw synopsis and informed opinion hopefully it’s neutral and then just boils it down for you because who the hell got time to read all that. If the media according to your thesis is so skewed then you have to understand that it’s always driving towards a political agenda or something like that. Let’s talk about the dangers of that.

Larry:

I mean, I’d say the danger isn’t with all the media like I said I guess and it’s not a perfect thing but I do think that the major newspapers and your local TV or NBC, ABC, CBS do try to do a relatively straight forward balanced giving both sides. The announcer has a neutral tone. They are not calling Obama socialist. They are not calling Bush a moron. I mean, they are just basically presenting the news and you have that. Then referring to your question you do have even more probably now advocacy journalism outlets in where there is a clear bias and skew as far as reporters having an agenda as to what narratives they want to drive as far as Obama care being horrible or the affordable care act being great.

Again, they are going to cherry pick facts and have guess that are going to support their view point. I think there are places where you can get the unbias straight forward news. Again, not perfect, no such thing as perfect objectivity and I do hope that those straight forward outlets do continue and don’t get enticed to … I wouldn’t want ABC to try to become Fox News or MSNBC. I would hope that they would see themselves as the neutral arbiter of presenting balanced picture so that does still exist.

Pedram:

Yeah, I mean that’s something that we need as a culture. Speaking of culture, there’s this emerging culture that is writing in a mongol horde and really taking a lot of people by surprise. I think we need to talk about Trump. You can’t not talk about Trump and what he’s doing with the media and how he’s playing it because he is a phenomenon and a lot of people hate him, a lot of people love him. What’s your opinion of what he’s doing with media and how he’s using it?

Larry:

I mean he clearly has used it very well. He didn’t spend the money that the other republican candidates did because I guess he was so compelling whether you liked him or didn’t. You either I mean but he was just entertaining to watch. He was different. He spoke his mind. He was polarizing and the debate ratings were higher with him in it. He just basically sucked all the oxygen out of the room for the other candidates meaning that the 16 other candidates might just barely get a mention meanwhile every single Trump speech was being shown. That’s still the case now.

It’s like a love hate relationship what Trump has with the media on one hand arguably they helped create him because of all the attention that he got. On the other hand especially lately he doesn’t like the coverage that he’s getting and he’s falling into the traditional republican mantra of the liberal mainstream media, “They are out to get me.” It’s interesting to see that dynamic and how it’s been both the media has been both favorable to him and arguably unfavorable.

Pedram:

How much of this as people are just so tired of hearing the [route 00:19:38] measured political jargon that no one seems to care for or understand. We all nod off when politicians do their thing, right? Versus a guy that’s shooting from the hip. Are Americans sparking to some dialogue that is at least honest? Are there channels that are also favoring him as an opposition or put him up as their horse? I hear both of these types of dialogues going on simultaneously.

Larry:

Right, I agree. I think it’s both. Maybe Fox News resisted at first but I think that most of them are coming around to really favor him. Talk radio for the most part I think favors him. Just generally I guess the republicans generally are coming around to favor him. I would say there’s a little bit of that.

Pedram:

Where do you think this is going? What’s the future of media and how does a person who cares to be informed need to look at media?

Larry:

That’s a really good question. Obviously, as I know from my college students, newspaper are unfortunately may be an endangered species and possibly the print version may be gone for a lot of them in let’s say 20 years. Constant staff cut backs. I mean I’m a clear fan of newspapers for the most part nobody else is going out covering the school board meeting, the zoning board meetings. Traveling with your local team, local sports teams to get that insight. I really hope that newspapers can stick around because the depth and insight that they provide I think are very valuable.

I just worry that they are just not going to be around as much. Also I mean for as much as people would like to, don’t get me wrong I love the websites. I love blogging and Twitter and the strong voice and all that. They still rely strongly on the mainstream media to report stories and just then it’s bloggers commenting on what the mainstream media is reporting. I really hope that we still have the mainstream media around to do that in depth reporting with large newsrooms and large budgets and investigative reporting to delve into really serious issues.

Pedram:

There’s Reuters, there’s a couple, the other big Hallmark ones. A lot of the bloggers and people will draw from the traditional journalism hub. What about those? Where’s Reuters in this?

Larry:

They are I would say a credible source and probably should have mentioned them earlier. Associated Press I would say is another one. They go back to not Reuters but he AP, Associated Press goes back to the 1800’s as far as straight forward reporting and they have the AP style. AP style book. I would put Reuters very high as far as credibility and trying to get things right.

Advocacy Journalism Is Not New - #LarryAtkins via @PedramShojai

Pedram:

Got it, great. That’s good to hear. It’s good to hear that there’s a [bastin 00:23:03] of stability in journalism that’s still fighting for the art and science of telling an objective story. What does this say? There’s a line I can’t remember who the hell said this but it’s like the battle for the future is the battle for the minds of men. A lot of these propaganda warfare that comes with just controlling a narrative and really helping drive people’s sentiment in a direction that leads to power and all that. Where do you see some of the challenges with media and how some of these skewed outlets are driving the global conversation?

Larry:

I mean, their influence is enormous as far as talking points or buzz phrases or painting a certain narrative of a candidate. Obama is aloof. Bush is an idiot. Trump is polarizing. Kerry was aloof. Mitt Romney was elitist. The various media outlets would enforce that narrative and just generally the viewers of that skewed outlet tend to buy it. I mean, probably nobody is as influential as Rush Limbaugh over let’s say the last 25 years. I mean his buzz phrases of the drive by media and I mean, Pocahontas with Elizabeth Warren.

I think he was the first one with that. That became common for people to use those words that people just buy in. If Rush Limbaugh, if talk radio turns on a certain politician or a candidate they are likely to get primary. I guess that happened. Eric Cantor of Virginia. That happened a lot with the tea party that if you alienate your base or alienate talk radio or influential commentators that can hurt you politically. That has helped lead to the polarization that there just aren’t as many [moderates 00:25:12]. That goes for both sides. I mean, just generally congress and [gender-mandering 00:25:16] has been a big part of it but I think the polarized media is a big part of it as well.

Pedram:

It sounds like talk radio is the place where a lot of the stuff festers. I know that even conspiracy guys like Art Bell and George Noory. I mean, these people have tens of millions of listeners talking about alien conspiracies. People are picking their narrative and they are sticking to it and that seems like a challenging place where we have a country where ideas are supposed to meet in the middle but if you can’t get the other side’s opinion what does that do to who you are.

Larry:

There was one incident that really bothered me in one of my classes where a student was absolutely convinced that the Sandy Hook shooting was either a government conspiracy and the government actually hired the parents. There’s crisis actors and that it didn’t happen and I mean he genuinely believed it. I guess ironically one of the other students in the class just shot them down and said, “No, I know people who are the parents in Sandy Hook and know that really did happen.” I looked it up and worked on Snopes and other fact checking organizations and found out that there was this conspiracy theory out there that the Sandy Hook shooting never happened and it wasn’t real and it was created by the government.

You just see all kinds of I mean some Twitter rumors are relatively harmless and I remember students in the class saying, “Justin Bieber just got punched out by Blake Griffin in a bar.” Everybody believed it and it was a wild Twitter rumor turned out to be false. There were times when Twitter got hacked and said that President Obama had been assassinated or reporting at first that Gabby Giffords had been dead in the Tucson shooting. Just because people wanting information instantaneously, a lot of times rumors spread and hoaxes spread and just generally false info. Obviously not all the time but a lot of times false rumors can spread.

Pedram:

Yeah, I see things like that on Facebook. The new Pope, the people’s Pope. There are so many memes with quotes of his face. They have pictures of his face with quotes that this man has never said that people share like crazy. It doesn’t matter if the Pope said it it must have moral authority.

Larry:

Yeah, I mean just generally it’s going to play to the audience I mean I guess a lot of conservatives don’t like the pope. I mean, another example that I mentioned in the book is that I wasn’t aware of, I guess a friend of mine told me something like there’s this I guess Obama and Rahm Emanuel in a gay bathhouse in Chicago. Evidently that was a conservative website and that spread like wildfire in conservative media and to the point where it’s commonly believed by a lot of conservatives. I mean, the whole Bush 9/11 conspiracies. I guess it wasn’t the planes that brought down the towers that the government had controlled explosions. I mean there’s just all kinds of conspiracies out there from both sides that I mean just the hatred for the other sides president. It’s so strong now that they’ll almost believe anything about the other side.

Pedram:

That’s not very helpful is it? It doesn’t lead to a civil society where discourse is at the center of a progressive conversation about how we can co-exist together no matter what side of fence you’re on.

Larry:

Yeah, that’s one of the things I guess I like about CNN and actually I have seen MSNBC improving a little bit on this as far as having balanced panels. MSNBC maybe about a year ago you would see there are four liberal guest agreeing with the host or three liberal guest with one token conservative. Now there maybe a little bit more balance but I think CNN and they have panels of six experts now and generally they do try to have a pretty good balance. At least you’re getting various perspectives.

Pedram:

Yeah, it’s nice to see it coming back. I remember CNN during the first gulf war was just like guns blazing like check out what we’re doing. They got exclusive rights to cover the gulf war and it was this thing, now they’ve turned and things shift. Just because CNN is good today it doesn’t mean they stay good tomorrow, depending on an acquisition or shareholder decisions or whatever it is. I think the moral of the story is be critical thinker which is in your tag line of the book. The book is called “Skewed: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Media Bias.” I have an early version of it here so I’m assuming it looks like this. Fantastic stuff. I really applaud you on taking the step and really bringing this to light. Where can people find the book?

Networks Are Going To Cherry Pick Facts - #LarryAtkins via @PedramShojai

Larry:

It is available on barnesandnoble.com, your local bookstore, amazon.com, all of the various websites with book sellers but your local bookstore should have it, if not, you can order it from your local bookstore.

Pedram:

Great. Larry, thank you so much. I appreciate the work that you’re doing. Keep it up with journalism.

Larry:

Right. Thank you very much.

Pedram:

Interesting stuff. It’s really important to get our information from pure sources. What is a pure source? It’s difficult and so you know this is why media controls a lot of things. This is why politics gets really complicated. Let me know what you thought about this one. Next week, Sara El-Yafi who is trying to turn garbage into energy in Lebanon’s fascinating stuff happening on the front line with the country that doesn’t have room for trash. If you miss some of the episodes from last few weeks I got some over here on my site. Always, you can subscribe with the button below me if you’re watching. If you’re listening go to the subscribe feed if you’re watching this on well.org or the Urban Monk’s blog, let me know what you think. I’m doing this for you. I’ll see you next week.

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