Media Bias

In the days following confirmed person-to-person transmission of COVID in the United States, my company went on Fox News to promote ourselves. What makes this otherwise bog-standard collusion between business and media interesting is our representative was a Marxist who knew COVID would be a disaster for the United States. Our story was used to support Fox News’ thesis that the entrepreneurial spirit of America’s small businesses would crush COVID. In exchange we received media coverage which helped us sell product. Everyone won.

A common misconception about propaganda is the idea it comes from deliberate lies (on the part of media outlets) or from money changing hands. In my personal experience colluding with the media no money changes hands and no (deliberate) lies are told by the media itself. Lying and corruption on the part of media outlets tends to be unnecessary in all but the most extreme cases (like North Korea). Most media bias actually takes the form of selective reporting.

Selective Reporting

Investigative reporting costs money. Media outlets’ job is primarily curation i.e. republishing information from others in the know. “Others in the know” is mostly companies with products to sell and political parties with ideologies to sell. The cheapest information to access is public datasets (like NOAA weather reports), public records (like Florida state records), public drama (Twitter) and press releases. Press releases are the best because you don’t have to write your own article.

News outlets cannot report everything. If you report only some of the available information then your choice of what to report reflects your bias. Bias and curation are two sides of the same coin. You cannot curate information without imposing bias. Curating information is the imposition of a bias. Combine the Chinese Robbers Fallacy with a large pool of uncurated data and you can find facts to support any plausible thesis. Lest you think this is a partisan problem, check out this hatchet job by the New York Times and compare it to the reality.

The fact news outlets don’t have to broadcast lies doesn’t mean they don’t.


News outlets don’t have direct access information like what the military is doing. The military does. Militaries lie. If a newspaper says Colonel Kurtz says air strikes don’t kill noncombatants then the newspaper is not lying even though they are broadcasting a lie. Even when a news outlet is broadcasting a lie, their government is unlikely to prosecute them for promoting official government policy. Newspapers abnegate responsibility for truth by quoting official sources. You get away (legally) straight-up lying about medical facts if you are quoting the CDC.

News outlets’ unquestioning reliance on official sources comes from the economics of their situation. It is cheaper to republish official statements without questioning them. The news outlet which produces the cheapest news outcompetes outlets with higher expenditure. Besides, it is rarely a good idea to antagonize the government against you—even in a democracy. If you antagonize the government then they might stop feeding you press releases about the wars they’re winning. (Noam Chomsky writes about this dynamic ad nauseam in Manufacturing Consent.)

This is true even for small independent operations. It’s rare for podcast hosts to argue with their guests. This isn’t necessarily unethical. The number of people who dislike you is dominated by the size of your audience, not by how wrong you are. If you have a large audience then people will call you wrong all the time and the right thing to do is ignore them. This applies to both hosts and guests. If an adversary invites you onto their show it is because they think the exchange will net benefit their platform.

If your adversary’s evaluation is correct then you should decline unless you are playing a non-zero-sum game (in which case you are not true adversaries). The parity inverse of a meme is the same meme—at a different phase in its lifecycle. Two-sided conflicts are extremely virulent memes because they co-opt potential enemies.

Debugging Attention

When thinking about things scientifically, it is helpful to ask yourself “What do you think you know and why do you think you know it?” Media bias is not a game of science. It is a game of memetics. Memetics isn’t about truth. It is about attention. Ask yourself “What are you thinking about and why are you thinking about it?”