The Missing Label

By Cyberquill 10/07/201222 Comments

So last night, Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart faced off at The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium, a presidential-style “mock debate” held at George Washington University in D.C.

And this morning, in a brief news flash on CNN International about yesterday’s event, anchor Natalie Allen, reading prepared copy off her teleprompter, reported on the debate between “conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly and comedian Jon Stewart.”

Something seemed conspicuously missing from this description.

As per the highly intuitive canon of construction known as expressio unius est exclusio alterius, by designating only one of two individuals as having a political point of view, one tacitly declares the other to be non-partisan.

Yet obviously, Jon Stewart is at least as liberal as O’Reilly is conservative. In fact, it is this very contrast in the respective world views of the two men that prompted their pairing up in the first place.

Then why did CNN elect to attach the “conservative” epithet to O’Reilly and skip the “liberal” designation for Stewart, thus rendering the description of the event effectively false by omission? Why label one but not the other? Who made this decision and why?

Could this have been but an innocent oversight on the part of the writer and whatever editor happened to be in charge of greenlighting the material subsequently fed to the anchor?

Hypothetically, is it equally likely that CNN, by sheer inadvertence, might have perpetrated the reverse omission, characterizing the debate as having been between “talk show host Bill O’Reilly and liberal comedian Jon Stewart”? (Fat chance on that, I would think.)

Mind you, we’re talking about CNN International, a channel that primarily caters to audiences that, on balance, are less familiar with U.S. media personalities than Americans are. Were I just some viewer in Austria that had not lived in the U.S. for as many years as I have, based on the news flash in question, I’d have gotten the impression that this had been a debate between a conservative ideologue on one side and an epitome of political neutrality on the other. (Of course, that’s a laugh, but how would the average and casual CNN International watcher know that?)

And so I’m guessing that generating precisely this misleading impression in the uninitiated must have been what those responsible for the wording of this particular news flash had been aiming for, either consciously or otherwise.

What followed was a short collage of laugh and applause lines delivered by the allegedly non-partisan comedian Jon Stewart, with his “conservative” interlocutor apparently just standing there taking his lumps, unable to engage in effective repartee; a state of affairs that bore scant resemblance to the actual debate in its unedited form. Hard to imagine that such a heavily skewed montage could have emerged from a cutting room by accident rather than as a result of calculated premeditation.

CNN really ought to be above cutesy manipulative legerdemain of this nature, which does little in the way of defusing conspiracy talk about the so-called “liberal mainstream media.”

Even worse, for a moment there I thought I was watching MSNBC.

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  • Richard

    I am a paranoid veteran observer of what is supposed to be a paragon of neutrality and non-partisanship: the BBC. Since it enjoys the revenue from a special tax imposed upon all residences and places of communal hospitality in the UK where there is a television receiver and has an active and uniquely efficient system of enforcement and fines, its charter imposes this as a legal obligation.

    If ever anyone challenges its due performance of this requirement, it vociferously defends itself and is quick to characterise its accuser as being partisan. It is seemingly impregnable and creates for itself a cocoon of elites with a special brand of partisanship -- favouritism for itself.

    There has in very recent times been some erosion of its privileged position by demands to publicise excessive payments to executives and celebrities and very recently it has been shown to have been extraordinarily blasé about expenses and more particularly about paying large numbers of people gross of income tax on a fiction that they are corporations liable for a lower rate of income tax instead of individuals who have to have their income tax deducted at source unless self-employed.

    But worst of all is the fiction of their political neutrality. There is most definitely a brand of BBC politicalthink which colours all reports and programs with more or less political content.

    It is extremely difficult to identify and challenge because of that perpetual holier-than-thou attitude, but it stands to reason that every opinion presented as news, every supposedly neutral comment, the choice of priorities or order of presentation, selection of items and myriad subtleties of the kind you describe will propagate its minority view so that it becomes standard political centre-ground.

    Maybe some of this is unconscious, but even that is a false excuse for those who have a deliberate political agenda.

    And you may say mine is a paranoid rant. It might be. On the other hand, it may not. I have a formidable opponent. Fortunately I am not alone.

    • Cyberquill

      Yeah, these national de-facto media monopolies are the worst. Much better to have several competing companies that keep calling each other out on their biases than to have a situation where the majority of the news springs from the same mill without any competitors powerful enough to mount meaningful challenges. 

       There seems to be a similar situation with our ORF, the Austrian public service broadcasting.  They just despise conservatives. Anytime an ORF journalist interviews a conservative politician, they look as if they’re about to whip out a bulb of garlic and a cross. At least that’s been my casual impression since having voluntarily exiled myself back here. 

      The trouble, though, is to come up with an unbiased way to measure bias, as our personal sense of fairness and neutrality often takes its cue from our own biases. So it’s hard to attain universal agreement on whether a particular news organization is or isn’t neutral and non-partisan. 

      Someone once said that in order to produce a fair and unbiased documentary about the Holocaust,  there’s no need to give Holocaust deniers equal time, because being fair and balanced doesn’t require treating the views of crazy people with the same respect as one treats the views of the cogent. 

      On the contrary, to allot equal time and consideration to the ravings of lunatics as one extends to legitimate points of view would expose oneself as quite biased in favor of the lunatics.  If you appear to lend equal weight to the opinions of an evolutionary biologist as you lend to those of a creationist who insists that 6,000 years ago all living creatures fell from the heavens fully formed, I’d say you’re more on board with the creationist than with the biologist. Otherwise, why so respectful toward the madman? 

      Likewise, I believe that many people—including journalists and groups of journalists that make up news organizations—regard the mindset of those on the opposite side of the political aisle relative to their own as so off-the-wall crazy that treating them with a certain measure of overt contempt  constitutes unbiased journalism in their eyes, just as dissing  Holocaust deniers violates no standards of fairness in reporting.

  • Richard

    Interesting. You’re right.

    I suppose it needs a scientific measure. Take a large number of subjects randomly and have them complete a tick-box political questionnaire specially designed to show political leanings. Avoid voting preference as too unsubtle. Then have them watch the same news, current affairs and comedy programmes of the organisation suspected of bias for six months. Every seven days get them to repeat the questionnaire.

    At the end of the six months examine the results for change and determine whether, when and to what extent leanings have changed towards or away from the suspected bias.

    • Cyberquill

      Yes, you might be able to show a left/right bias in this manner. But does such bias, if it exists, necessarily mean that the organization is doing anything wrong and needs to be fixed? 

      See, the trouble is that every respectable news organization, hopefully, will be somewhat biased against, say, neo-nazis, because neo-nazis are idiots, and it would simply be wrong to report on the Nazi Party in the same way as reporting on the Labour Party. 

      You can’t really charge someone with being “partisan” for taking a stand against manifest  insanity, irrespective of how popular a particular brand of insanity might be. 

      In fact, it can be said to be the very responsibility of a respectable news organization to refrain from reporting on wrong-headed and nefarious elements in as neutral and respectful a manner as if reporting on the activities of Prince Charles, thereby bestowing legitimacy upon those elements. 

      It sounds good in theory to say that news organizations should simply give equal and neutral  consideration to all points of view, leaving it up the people to separate the legitimate ones from the rest.  

      In practice, alas, this may be neither possible nor desirable, because reporting on ( in terms of time allotted and manner) equals empowering, and rudimentary ethics, which are by nature subjective, demand extreme caution with regard to the latter. 

      Therefore, being ethical — and we certainly expect our news organizations to be ethical — virtually requires a hefty dose of bias so as to guard against doing harm by empowering the wrong crowds. 

      There’s no ethics without bias. And therein, I believe, lies the rub.

    • Richard

      I agree that judicious selection in reporting can be justified, and so any bias discovered in the measurements may be defended appropriately. The measurements would be there simply to establish the facts.

      • Cyberquill

        OK. Sounds good. Let’s do it. 

        • Richard

          I shall need a CEO and adequate support personel. Then there are the premises and my expenses …

          • Cyberquill

            I’ll be the CEO. I don’t have a job anyway. You just take care of the funding. 

            • Richard

              I shall refer all these questions to the committee set up for the purpose.

            • Cyberquill

              Alright, but first we must apply the method you suggested to assess the biases of this committee. 

            • Richard

              Everything’s on hold. The Amalgamated Union of Spin Merchants and Graffiti Writers have called a strike with immediate effect and indefinite duration while these proposals remain on the negotiating table. They are building a little room for negotiation but are pessimistic about the outcome.

              As their President, Fred Daub, says, “My members are adamant that these elitist threats to their right to write anything about everything anywhere must be defeated and demand assurances about their jobs, pay and conditions.”

  • Testazyk

    I agree we don’t need this sort of thing.  For one thing, some people out there might really believe it. 

    • Cyberquill

      I suppose that’s the objective behind doing this sort of thing. 

  • Barry Hill


    Great post. I wonder if it’s as simple as the most convenient definitions for both?  look at this video and around 4:48 Jon says he is a comedian first. Maybe I am just naive?

    Jon does a great interview here… I thought he was hysterical.

    Anyway, thanks for this.

    • Cyberquill

      Thanks for the clip. I hadn’t seen this one.

      The thing is, O’Reilly keeps insisting he’s a “registered independent,” not as a conservative. This tells me that CNN didn’t use self-reference as a basis for their labeling.

      • Barry Hill

        Oh, I get it. Good point!

  • Richard
    • Cyberquill

      … the bongs of Big Ben. 

      Big Ben, the loady. Love it.

      • Richard

        One huge ego, eh? I don’t mind, though.

        The point is, I suppose, that the media have a very biased idea of the nature of impartiality and one they can trim to answer any criticism.

        • Cyberquill

          Of course. As have us media consumers. 

          • Richard

            Yes. Though media consumers’ biases do not have constant, initially unquestioned, widespread, free, unrestricted publicity. They have formidable opponents.

            • Cyberquill

              Yeah, but a consumer’s bias may skew his or her verdict when it comes to assessing the bias in a given media outlet.

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