They say “don’t read the comments,” and for the sake of peace of mind, that’s good advice. But I read them anyway. On YouTube videos, think pieces, and my own articles, I read them. I want to know what kind of excitement or anger causes people to put in their two cents on someone else’s work, journalistic or otherwise.
Nine times out of ten, reading the comments is a bad thing. Comment sections are rife with harassment and anger and the worst of humanity. Even though this trend is consistent, it is almost always surprising to see just how much hate is in this world, writ small, in a YouTube comment section. It is also surprising that the one thing I always see, in every piece of work on a platform with commentary, is this: “obvious bias.”
It doesn’t matter the context or the concept. No matter what, there is always someone ready and able to chirp up and point out that something on the Internet is biased, skewed in support of one belief or opinion. “Obvious bias” is the smoking gun, the thing that will undercut and discredit the work on which they are commenting.
I understand that the Internet can be evil, that these comment sections are vulnerable to the people channeling the darkest, most evil basic human instincts, but for some reason, this refrain, “obvious bias,” has me furious.
Yes, this article/video/movie/Facebook status is biased. So what? What, in all of creation, isn’t?
This notion, that if something is biased it should immediately be called out and discredited, is such an irresponsible, idiotic idea. Everything has bias, nothing truly avoids it, and the quest to eliminate all bias is foolhardy at best and dangerous at worst. While I believe this in many mediums, I want to focus on journalism for the time being.
I came around to this way of thinking, particularly in a journalistic sense, about a year-and-a-half ago, after coming across an AV Club article called “If Jon Stewart taught us anything, it’s that objectivity needs to die.” In invoking the name of the great “fake news” comedian, before even writing a single word, this article set up an interesting problem. Jon Stewart is a good comedian, but he’s also an excellent journalist, using genuine curiosity and even more genuine anger to guide research and call attention to the hypocrisies within the American government and his great adversary, Fox News. This work, for many, is legitimate and valuable journalism, enlightening and fierce, and full of feeling.
But Jon Stewart wears his bias on his sleeve. He’s angry, he’s passionate, and his words come with weight and potency, even when the primary intention of “The Daily Show” was comedy. But, even with this furious and “obvious” bias, I had the notion that what I was seeing while watching him was more compelling and interesting than any news journalism I’ve seen in the last year.
Why was this the case? It’s because, as the article I have linked to states, pretending that one doesn’t have an opinion is nefarious, bad journalism.
Attempting to be evenhanded, to take all sides into account is a noble and necessary practice, but acting like the person taking these sides into account is a blank slate offers a backward, unhelpful way to look at things. It has also become the default mode of all broadcast journalism, robotically presenting conclusions to arguments as facts. This is bad.
It’s bad because, for one, it’s a lie. We are all human beings who have all experienced the world in different ways, and those experiences inherently skew our worldview. To be human is to have an opinion, and whether it is one that is held deeply to the core of identity, or it is relatively moderate and changeable, that opinion will always put its inflection on the research and presentation of information. To act like that doesn’t exist is an act of direct deception to the public’s ingestion of content. By presenting their own journalism as unbiased, we have to suffer through the nonsense of people like Sean Hannity, and those who believe definitively that everything he says is the truth (he is objective, after all).
It’s also bad because, for lack of a better word, objectivity is really, really boring. Without personality and inflection on display, journalism is presented as information for its own sake. While some might appreciate that, I need something more. I need to feel like what I am experiencing, seeing, and learning from has been touched by human hands. This is why we remember Walter Cronkite, telling the world that the Vietnam War should end. It’s why we remember Edward R. Murrow directly fighting McCarthyism on live TV. It’s why Anderson Cooper, Rachel Maddow, and, yes, Jon Stewart are so compelling; these are figures who are people first and journalists second, and by filtering their journalistic information through flesh and blood and humanity, we can directly address the information, understand its biases, and not take anything at face value.
By and large, pretending to be objective, attempting to present information like it has no inflection or agenda, is the culture of the day, and it’s hurting us. It’s what allows Trump to claim that the media is “rigged” against him. It’s what gives hate groups the mainstream platforms that they have been gaining over the last year, and it’s what keeps the public complacent and accepting of whatever form of information they have been presented with.
We all have hopes, dreams, opinions. My dream is this: we stop pretending that bias doesn’t exist everywhere in the world, a lack of objectivity stops being a vilified position, and the phrase “obvious bias” disappears forever from the Internet.