The News Media’s Biggest Bias

There’s a story about Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn (1927-2004):

One morning his students saw him reading the newspaper as he ate breakfast. They chided him:

“You tell us, ‘When you eat, eat. When you read, read.’ But now you’re eating and reading.”

Seung Sahn looked up from his newspaper and his breakfast and replied:

“When you eat and read, eat and read.” Then he went back to his newspaper and his breakfast.

The main point of that story is about rules, of course, but I thought of it today for another reason. This respected Zen master cared about reading the newspaper, cared about the media’s depiction of current events. Sitting facing a wall and teaching others about the dharma was not enough for him.

I admit it. I read The New York Times online in the mornings as I eat breakfast, and I watch NBC’s local and national TV news in the evening as I eat dinner. Then I watch Jeopardy, but I digress.

Heap-of-old-newspapers,-selective-focus-000057915480_MediumYou might say I wear two sets of filtered glasses as I read and watch the news. My 10 years of working in busy newspaper newsrooms ground out one set of lenses. I know from experience how hard it is to be both right and timely, competing with other news outlets, a competition in which speed is more important than accuracy. And I understand the biases of the newsroom, which I’ll return to in a moment.

My connection with the dharma forms the second set of glasses I wear. I attempt to see the world (the news) through a Buddha’s eyes of compassion, non-attachment and non-duality. Of course…. Duh! I hope that part’s obvious to those who have been reading Melting-Pot Dharma. It’s the biases of the newsroom I’ll focus on today.

If you’ve ever been written about on a breaking news story, you know how wrong the media can be. After my uncle and aunt were shot to death in their apartment in the suburbs of Philadelphia, the police took me to the crime scene to look for funeral instructions. One of the city’s major TV network affiliates filmed us leaving the building afterwards. I don’t remember being asked any questions, just being filmed. But on the news that night I was identified as Martin Pinsky, one of the victims’ sons.

Conservatives think the media bias is to the left. Liberals think it’s to the right. Hilary Clinton supporters think the media are anti-woman. Bernie Sanders supporters think the media have discounted him because he’s not part of the party establishment. They can all find valid reasons for their positions.

Much has been written about surveys showing that the people covering the news tend to be liberal. I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of that debate, but my own observations tell me that the best characteristics for a reporter to have are curiosity and openness, which are also qualities more likely to be found on the left of the political spectrum. But does that matter? As professional journalists they come to work each day trying to get at the truth despite all the obstacles in their way. If being liberal makes them better at it, more power to them, as long as they stick to the basic tenets of ethical journalism.

Off the top of my head, I suspect that conservatives make batter surgeons and liberals make better psychiatrists. If I or a loved one were ill, I’ll pick the doctor who is best as the job, not the one who agrees with my political views. Why should it be different for the news media?

But the media do have one major overriding bias in everything they do, and that is a bias toward significance, or at least excitement. We all tilt toward self-interest. Reporters, producers and editors would be out of work if they created nothing you’d want to see or read. So every presidential debate needs to have a winner, a loser and momentous import. Every state’s primary process is definitive. Every noticeable dip or rise in the stock market indicates a possibly historic trend.

When reporters return from a news conference they were sent to cover, they need a “lead” — the first paragraph of their story — with a who, what, where, when, why and how. They would not last long if they honestly wrote: “The mayor said nothing of significance at his City Hall news conference today.”

Speaking for those of us wearing eyeglasses of compassion and non-duality, we welcome the day when the media in the United States perceive the murder of black schoolchildren in Nigeria and the persecution of brown families in Myanmar as more newsworthy than the little or nothing said at the mayor’s news conference. But if our lenses are corrected for non-attachment, we know we will have to wait, and we’ll be patient.

— Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)

Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Jnana Hodson says:

    Excellent description, and the master’s reaction had me laughing loudly.
    Your experience of being in a news report supports my feeling that those of us in the journalism biz need from time to time to be on the other end of the story.
    Have you ever wondered if paying reporters and editors more than the bottom of the college-educated income levels would change the liberal vs. conservative identity? It’s hard to identify with the rich when you can rarely rent a lousy apartment in town. And that was back when newspapers were highly profitable.
    Maybe we should have gone begging door to door with rice bowls?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. melhpine says:

      LOL about begging with bowls. We’d be like the town crier, going door to door with news in exchange for scraps of food. But your comment about those in the news business needing to experience the other end made me think of what happened the night before what I described here about my uncle and aunt:

      Liked by 1 person

  2. amiezor says:

    Wonderful context to the seemingly circus-like political game.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. melhpine says:

    Reblogged this on Melting-Pot Dharma and commented:

    In honor of the Unites States’ Independence Day Weekend, I planned to write today about the media, which is under attack. And I mean, yes, the mainstream media, which make mistakes but try to adhere to long-in-place ethical standards. Than, after reviewing this post from February 2016, I decided I could take the rest of the day off and simply re-post it. In still conveys what I want to say.


  4. pjlazos says:

    Great post, Mel! Love the idea that conservatives make better surgeons and liberals make better psychologists. I think you’re on to something!😘

    Liked by 1 person

    1. melhpine says:

      And I wrote that long before I saw this article:

      Liked by 1 person

      1. pjlazos says:


        Liked by 1 person

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