You would think that, as someone who teaches argumentation and debate, I would be all about a graphic going after media bias. But this widely shared graphic?
I loathe it.
The fact that it forms a neat arch, with the most centrist news organizations also being the most reliable, and the most partisan being the least is what tripped the wire in my brain that I scrutinize it. But its the left axis that I find damning.
On a graph, an axis should be a set of points all from the same set, arranged in a sensible order. But they are not. Complex analysis (apart from being a branch of mathematics), is a different genre from fact-reporting. This isn’t an issue of the quality of the reporting because, and this is very important, it is not reporting. Persuasion, analysis, and reporting are all different things.
- Persuasion: A piece that tries to convince you to believe something, usually point of value or policy.
- Analysis: A piece that tries to synthesize facts into an abstract framework, usually by an expert. It naturally contains an element of persuasion; facts can be interpreted many ways. It is fundamentally a point-of-fact excercise, but more abstract than a basic who, what, where, when, why, how report.
- Reporting: the aforementioned who, what, where, when, why, how piece.
There is nothing inherently low quality about any of these—though opinion pieces are having a bit of a low moment. Just as you would not complain a candle is bad at cutting down trees, you should not be surprised that analysis is a mediocre way to glean a list of facts; its just not what’s its for. Vox is a popular punching bag, but they exist to explicitly fill an analysis void in the center left. If you read it with that purpose, it is hard to argue they are doing an overall bad job. I much prefer AP, BBC, or NPR for simpler point-of-fact reporting.
What this chart shows is the toxic centrism that is gripping this country. They highest quality discourse, the idea goes, is that which can find the middle. As you get more partisan, your work must be of lower quality. What this precludes is the possibility is that one party is actually right. They are both wrong—why vote, why hold either accountable, why not share saccharine memes instead of challenging news stories?
It is also nakedly anti-intellectual. While not all analysis and opinion is high quality, nor is all point-of-fact centrist reporting. (The meme acknowledges that; the few exceptions to the parabolic shape are in the tabloids.) The facts may simply be wrong without being opinions. Further, while it can be high-quality to its purpose, omitting context because it is analytical may not be the most illuminating route. If you do not know that America First was a popular White Nationalist and pro-Nazi slogan from the 30s, the current America First slogan takes on a different tone. I’m unaware of any reporting that explicitly links it to a purposeful rebranding of 30s White Nationalism, but there is persuasive analysis that shows how it has come out of groups with the ties to suggest it it was, if not purposeful, certainly not entirely a coincidence.
Putting facts into a framework—and engaging with other persons’ interpretations of the facts—is a vital part of being informed. Analytical currents are in fact news because they are the framework that policy and value sits on, not bare facts. And persuasion, though not currently living up to this, should be the final course of a meal of information that any informed citizen digests. Stopping at facts, and treating bare facts as the highest quality input, is a perfect reversal of the point and purpose of a free press.
Nothing about this meme is contributing to media literacy, and I hate it.