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John Bruce Leonard

On Media Neutrality

Analysis of the concept of media neutrality reveals it to be an impossible dream wed to the dogma of democracy itself.

The growing and increasingly indisputable influence of ‘media bias’ on the ‘free reporting’ of the press has reached such a pitch in our day that it has come to constitute one of the facts which must be addressed by any movement or worldview which would diagnose the ills of our society and offer alternatives to the same. This question is first and most obviously a practical one: if the media is not in fact the impartial body of fact collection and dissemination it likes to pose as being, if in fact it visibly takes sides in the political and social disputes of our day, then it becomes an instrument in the hands of certain powers, and stands against real social, political, or cultural change, and perforce against the aforementioned movements or worldviews. Any ‘dissident community’, ours most emphatically included, is sure to be touched by this state of affairs. We are then forced to ask penetrating questions regarding the nature of the media and the possibility of its being or becoming ‘neutral’; and these questions in turn are certain to lead us deeper, to several essential conditions of the age in which we live.

The first difficulty with the proposed neutrality of the media1 is to be found in its very act of gathering and presenting material. Any organ of the media – be it a newspaper, a television news programme, or an internet news hub – must select and sort its ‘stories’ and ‘reports’, and it can only do so on the basis of certain definite standards which permit it to discriminate between the essential and the unessential, the ‘report worthy’ and the trivial. It cannot rely merely on what is publicly interesting at a given moment, because an essential part of its ideal role in society is rightly seen to be precisely that of introducing the public to the important stories of the day, and to that extent educating the public interest. The press is therefore necessarily the arbiter of what deserves attention and what does not, and it cannot make these determinations in a spirit of perfect ‘neutrality’. Although in general, there is nothing controversial in this selection,2 nonetheless at the periphery, in the choice of secondary material (which nonetheless makes up a sizeable portion of the news reported on any give day), one always finds that the media discriminates between one thing and another on the basis of identifiable and evidently non-neutral standards.

It is the optimistic myth of the proponents of democracy that ‘the people’ should somehow magically in the main favour democracy above all other regimes; this is not only naive, but patently historically false.

This is, it might be argued, relatively unimportant, even if true; for certainly, as has been allowed, the most important stories of the day are not subject to this breach in neutrality. We proceed then to the little deeper layer.

The media is tasked primarily with the presentation of ‘news’. News indicates those events and happenings which make up the important part of the historical events occurring in this very moment, or in the very recent past. The media must then present these events and happenings in their essential outline, and if it is to do so in a neutral way, must present them without taking sides on the vital questions involved. For instance, the media might report on what the major candidates of a political campaign have done and said, but it may not offer its own judgement on the rightness or wrongness of these deeds and sayings. It can point out contradictions in the actions or speech of the candidates – for this ‘sticks to the facts’, and therefore falls easily beneath the umbrella of neutrality – but it cannot formulate judgements as to whether a perfectly consistent act or speech is desirable or undesirable, fair or unfair, advantageous or damaging to a country or a region.

Yet if the media is to constrain itself purely and exclusively to relating ‘facts’,3 it fulfils only half of its duty to ‘inform’ the people. For it is clear that the more important questions regarding any event are not what happened and where and when, but what the relative value of these happenings is, within their historical context. The media, if it is to fulfil its duty as the educator or the supplement to the educators of the people, must touch as well upon the vital questions, the questions of value. Yet the media cannot itself make evaluations on these questions without compromising its neutrality. It is therefore forced to take recourse to intelligent and well-informed individuals, who are not constrained by the bonds of neutrality, to make evaluations for it. These are the so-called ‘pundits’, who are for the reasons outlined absolutely indispensable to the existence of the neutral media.

It is impossible, however, to grant every single political viewpoint its own pundit. A line must be drawn somewhere or other, and the question is ever – where?

The media must therefore decide whose voice, and which political views, are acceptable to the public discourse, what persons and which perspectives have a right to be heard. The media is in this way responsible for conferring legitimacy on political views. Surely part of the standards upon which it makes such determinations will be what voices have the greatest sway in the public sphere; these obviously must be given ear in any public forum, for the simple reason that they are present and potent in the affairs of the day.4 Many of the pundits selected by the media to air their opinions will therefore be the representatives of these major political forces. Yet, to say it again, the media has a responsibility which transcends mere aping of the public opinion, insofar as the media is thought to be part and parcel of the educative process of democratic society, which aspect is universally considered indispensable to democratic society by every major theorist of the same, beginning already from the great Enlightenment philosophers like Locke and Rousseau.5 The media must therefore seek in some manner to inform the public on important questions of which the public knows nothing. Then the media must seek as well to inform the political views of the public, to edify and rectify them. Must it not in some cases seek the alteration of the very perspective which the public adopts?

Or, to begin with a more concrete question – by what standards will the media determine which pundits it should invite or report, and which it should shun or ignore?

A specific example of everything which has been said above will help us to clarify this essential point. Supposing a major public figure has just delivered an important address. The media cannot limit itself to printing the speech verbatim, nor to showing video playbacks of the address; to restrict itself to mere ‘reporting’ of this kind would indeed be an obvious dereliction of its truer duties. Neither can the media (save in certain special cases in which, say, a given newspaper or television programme has openly defied the principle of media neutrality, and has publicly adopted some explicit political bias) deliver its own opinions on what has been said, apart from pointing out various ‘objective facts’, such as where the public figure has strained or broken the evident bounds of some prosaic factuality; for the media’s expression of its own opinions regarding the truly important content of the speech, its moral or political side, would obviously compromise the media’s neutrality. The media must give the public some insight as well into the moral and political content and quality of the speech; in order to do this without transgressing its neutrality, it must have recourse to third parties, to commentators, who are not constrained by neutrality. But if these men are not constrained by neutrality, they will in many cases if not in all be committed to one or other of the contrasting political viewpoints of the day; they will be, that is to say, biased or partisan. The media must then select more than a single one of these men; it must present various pundits from a range of different viewpoints, who can competently present their peculiar perspectives and adversarially critique those of the others. The media becomes a forum for the political arguments of the day, without itself taking any position on them; thus it retains at once its neutrality and its duty.

Yet it is impossible to represent all existing viewpoints; there is neither space nor time for such. It is equally undesirable to represent only the most entrenched and conventional of these viewpoints, for this becomes stale and formulaic, and also once again betrays the role of the media in forming public awareness about as many facets of a ‘story’ as possible, as many refreshing and edifying viewpoints as possible. The media will therefore select a number of under-represented voices or perspectives to discuss the politician’s speech – as, for instance, the representatives of various small (or in America ‘third’) parties.

It is evident that certain perspectives will never be permitted a platform by the media. These excluded perspectives are commonly called ‘extreme’; it is hardly an accident that the voice of ‘extremists’ is rarely if ever permitted to breach the charmed circle of media commentary.6 The media, it is clear, draws boundaries around the accepted ground of political thought, and defines the limit between what is acceptable or mainstream, and what is unacceptable or ‘extreme’. Views which approach but do not supersede those boundaries are occasionally permissible; whatever lies beyond these boundaries, is anathema.

The media by its nature draws boundaries around the accepted ground of political thought, and defines the limit between what is acceptable or mainstream, and what is unacceptable or ‘extreme’.

But the media itself does not stand at the periphery, but rather at the centre; it is indeed in reference to this centre that the media feels itself entitled to determine what voices are mainstream and what are ‘extreme’.

Three important points follow from this. In the first place, it is finally clear that, no matter its pretences or its wishes to the contrary, and no matter what our democratic ideologues have to say on the matter, the media emphatically takes its bearings by public consensus, and can do no other. This public consensus is formed and maintained by powers other than the media’s. The media, which is supposed to be in part the political educator of human beings, is in fact radically the product and the servant of the true political educators of human beings – those who stand, as ever, in other spheres.7

In the second place, the ‘extremes’ are revealed to be of two different kinds. Firstly, there are those who take the mainstream view to its excesses, pressing it to its outermost logical conclusions; this includes political views such as communism, radical libertarianism, anarchism, etc. This is the true extreme, and, while it is generally excluded from the media, the boundary line between it and the ‘mainstream’ is somewhat porous and labile, and at times exceptions are made. One is more likely to hear the views of a hard-line communist on a major news network than the views of a hard-line fascist. This because the former actually has some deep ideological affinities with the social order in which we live.

This leads us then to another kind of view, one which is generally designated ‘extreme’, though this term is in fact meaningless with reference to it. These are political worldviews or viewpoints which in fact issue from a radically different fount of premises or principles than those which actuate the better part of human beings in our day – worldviews, therefore, which have nothing essentially (though they of course might have many things incidentally) in common with the mainstream vision which presently governs the societies of the West. These are views, to wit, such as those encapsulated in National Socialism, Fascism, and similar non- or anti-modern attitudes. The fact that these views are called ‘extreme’ is most telling of the contemporary moment; we have grown so accustomed to presupposing that every worldview has its final aims in common with every other (since democratic times, despite their fictions to the contrary, are in fact the most uniform and intellectually monotonous of all times), that we do not perceive the true and deep and transhistorical variety of possible political opinion. Rather say, we somehow sense it without ever realizing it, and shun those worldviews which shed the odour of such diversity; we inoculate ourselves against taking these views seriously, by praising our own ‘diversity’ of opinion to the skies, though it is a diversity of appearance only, like to that of a flock of sheep which have all been dyed in a rainbow of different colours. These ‘extreme’ views, which would better be called radical or revolutionary, depending on when and where they appear, are utterly excluded from the productions of the media – save when their most foolish and blundering representatives are brought on stage for purely educational purposes, to be pilloried in the public eye, that their natural pariah status might be thereby reconfirmed.

The final point to follow from these observations leads us to a yet deeper level of our investigation: for we are finally in a position to understand in what precisely ‘media neutrality’ consists. The media, as we have said, determines the boundaries around the territory of acceptable discourse. It does so by defining the difference between moderate and extreme; and in order to make this definition, it itself must emphatically occupy the former position. It takes up, that is to say, the centre of political discourse, holding fast to that point which represents the unambiguously common ground of all major political viewpoints. The media thereby rests principally on the no-man’s land standing between the real political differences and conflicts brought by the various political parties and movements of the day; because of its central position, it can claim the power of an unbiased arbiter to this contest.

Naturally, it succeeds in this role to varying degrees, and its ability here is conditioned by any number of specific practical difficulties which beset the media in any democratic clime and time, such as the existence of hidden vested interests, the perverting influence of powerful or affluent lobbies or interest groups or individuals, the natural and personal biases to which important media figures inevitably adhere, etc. etc. But these, though important, are but accidental difficulties, whereas we are interested here in the necessary problems of principle involved in the idea of media neutrality itself. And in principle, it is clear from what has just been said that ‘media neutrality’ in a certain sense does not, and cannot, exist; the media cannot possibly do other than commit to certain political views or premises or axioms. Its commitment is shrouded and concealed, because it commits to nothing less than the dogmas of the day, which, being universally accepted, are universally invisible; but this commitment exists nonetheless, and, rather than speaking of media neutrality, we would be much more consistent and accurate to speak of media moderateness or media centrality.

We have said that the media ideally occupies the common ground between the major political disputes of the day. The existence of such common ground is of great interest; for it points to a certain extent of unspoken agreement between all the governing political forces of the day. This state of affairs, which is manifest to anyone who has won the least degree of real distance from our times, is incarnated in a commonplace of our speech: namely, the famed ‘left-right political spectrum’, which, as any and all spectra (be they of colour, of sound, of electro-magnetic forces, etc.) presupposes a fixed substrate of commonality to all of its various parts. That substrate, in the left-right spectrum, is nothing more nor less than the adherence to the political and social ideals which had their birth in the Enlightenment, and which might loosely be reduced to the unshakeable belief in human equality.8 The most important political fact to issue from this basic principle is of course the unquestioning adherence to democracy as the only just system of human governance.

Now, many keen commentators have observed that the ‘left-right political spectrum’ is, for a number of reasons both evident and subtle, presently failing. It can no longer be taken as a clear and unexceptioned gauge of all possible political stances, as it was once uncontroversially taken to be. It appears that a number of political positions have emerged in our day which simply cannot be located on that spectrum, because they seize aspects of it willy-nilly, now from the right, now from the left, now from the centre, and to form from this ‘heterogeneous material’ what seems to be, from the perspective of the spectrum itself, a kind of pastiche of the resulting parts. At the same time, many of these ‘arbitrary’ assemblages have shown such a resilience and durability that it is impossible to accuse them of rank inconsistency – though this does not stop one from doing so under various slurs now in currency, most prominent among them ‘populism’. A ‘populist’ party or movement is taken to be actuated by a political vision which is nothing but the artificial and unsustainable accumulation of various incompatible positions which happen to tickle the fancy of a large contingent of ‘the people’ at a given moment in time. Though it is indisputable that such weird hodgepodge creatures do exist, and are indeed to some extent even autochthonous to democratic climes, it is equally indisputable that not all of the ‘populist’ parties that have emerged in late years are of such a character. It must therefore be acknowledged that the ‘left-right’ spectrum fails to encapsulate the entire range of human beliefs on political things.

But though this has been noted by many, its deeper reasons have remained elusive and almost untouched, no doubt in large part because most of those who are witness to political events in our day unconsciously adopt a kind of pseudo- or crypto-Darwinistic approach to the same, and thoughtlessly chalk everything up to ‘evolution’ and to natural changes in the political climate, when in point of fact it is the political system of the day itself which leads to this confusion.

The failure of the left-right spectrum is the natural consequence of the coming of democracy, of democracy’s taking the place of constitutional republicanism.9 A constitutional republic is based on certain unwavering laws (either unchangeable or very difficult of the changing) which are encapsulated either in a written constitution or else in a body of firmly established legislative and juridical precedent, which acts as an unwritten constitution. A constitution of either sort is precisely as the anchor to the bark; it marks the central point around which the ship may orbit as it will, but never past a certain fixed point which is determined by the length of the chain attached to the anchor – which is to say, the fixed boundaries of the constitution itself.

Democracy is subject to no such limitations. It is the happy myth of the proponents of democracy that ‘the people’ should somehow magically in the main favour democracy above all other regimes, feeling their own best interests to lie in it; this is not only naïve, but patently false in any confrontation with almost any historical manifestation of democracy you please. In point of fact, ‘the people’, better called in democratic times the mass or the multitude, is largely fickle and easily deceived; moreover, precisely in those cases that it is best educated, it sometimes begins to perceive the real and profound problems with the democratic order (broadly speaking, its kakocratic aspect, which vigorously sifts all of society for the most capable of the worst human beings). The masses in democratic times are therefore often enough fain to embrace political orders or ideas which are anything but democratic; this is why democracies have always (save in the very recent past) been looked upon with scepticism, scorn or censure by political theorists, and why they have always been considered by thinking men the least stable and most transient of regimes.

This apparent digression brings us back to the question of the media. We have stated that the media occupies the central ground in the day’s political disputes; but in democratic times it is inevitable that the tectonic plates of political thought shift wide and fast, so that sooner or later gorges and abysses appear between the various dominant worldviews of the day. The distances between these positions are unspannable, because the positions in question rely on incompatible and mutually exclusive principles of statecraft and social order. The media, for reasons we have already discussed, cannot remain neutral in the face of these differences, because in the midst of this cacophony and confusion there is no longer a right gauge of what is ‘mainstream’ and what is ‘extreme’ by which it may orient itself; the media must choose sides, and it will surely do so, if not on the basis of its simple economic interest (what ‘stories sell’ or whence comes its funding), then on the basis of which side best preserves the democratic order which is the evident and necessary prerequisite to any ‘free media’. The media, that is to say, must choose a bias, must toss aside the robes of its fictitious ‘neutrality’ and reveal itself for what it is: deeply and inevitably partisan, since the centre which it holds has now itself become the expression of a distinct and enclosed political commitment, an island separated and distant from all the other views afloat within the sea of democracy.

This is one of the great consequences of the coming of truly democratic times, and it is a consequence which everyone feels, and few know how to explain: it is referred to, somewhat naïvely, as the emergence of ‘media bias’ and the growth of ‘partisan politics’. More precisely, we might say this: we are seeing the emergence of the prejudicing of the media, its emphatic and obvious closure to any number of political views which propose alternatives to the reigning order, and its consequent opening behind the scenes to those powers which seem to be (though they almost never are) capable of protecting the democratic order in which alone the ‘free media’ finds air to breathe. Given the great sway that the media has in any regime in which it exists, and most especially in our hyper-technified, mass modernity, this movement of the press from what might in general be called a ‘neutral’ or central position, to a decidedly sectarian and dogmatically closed position cannot help but lead to vicious ramifications for the entirety of the social order.

The times demand of us that we proudly and consciously take up the warrior ethos which is one of the best parts of our Western heritage in order to confront these difficulties with full awareness of their meaning.

A word then on what all of this might mean to anyone who pertains to one of those political visions which are despised, shunned and slandered by the press: it is obvious, to anyone who has agreed to the conclusions we have posed, that the ‘neutral media’ cannot be salvaged, cannot be saved, because the conditions which have led to its partisanship are ineluctable and irresolvable. The emergence of ‘alternative media’ presents one possible solution to this difficulty; but it is a solution in appearance only, because any given alternative media source will find itself confronting the same difficulty faced by the media generally: namely, that it sooner or later must come to terms with the radical differences in the diverse political viewpoints of the day; that it cannot span those differences, because this would demand of it the capacity to sustain a massive internal contradiction; that it must therefore commit itself either to one of these viewpoints, or at most to a family of these viewpoints; that the different ‘centres’ of the media so understood thus stand in relation to one another, not as positions which respectfully diverge, but as outright antagonists, if not enemies, each vying for control of the ‘narratives’ of the day, and of that political and social space in which decisions on the fate of the nation itself are taken.

This directly leads to the rise of the so-called ‘information wars’ or ‘culture wars’ in whose grip we presently find ourselves. The times demand of us that we proudly and consciously take up the warrior ethos which is one of the best parts of our Western heritage in order to confront these difficulties with full awareness of their meaning. Yet this, necessary though it be, does not suffice in address of the deeper question brought before us by our time – the question of truth itself. For the entirety of the ‘truth’ seems in our day to fragment into pieces, and to close itself off into various sectors and hermetically sealed chambers, each one divided from all the others, and each one true only to itself. This phenomenon is denominated ‘postmodernism’.

It should be needless to say that all of this is appearance only; for anyone who has not fallen prey to the delusions involved in ‘postmodernism’, it is evident that we are witness merely to a consequence of the sick time in which we live, and that sooner or later – for better or worse – it must resolve itself. It should be needless to say as much, but in reality it is most evidently not. We seem at present to be overpowered by a growing and increasingly powerful relativism, against which it is impossible to combat, as it like the hydra springs up with two more heads for each one that is truncated: he who speaks of ‘truth’ today with confidence and surety often enough seems to stand before this relativistic wave as a single man before a swelling tide, who would beat it back with a cane.

We therefore risk here at closing a suggestion of the deepest problem, which all of this has presupposed, but not resolved: namely, the modern substitution of ‘information’ for knowledge, which leads one straight into the shallow adulation of brute ‘facts’ in the place of truth, and the belief that ‘having the facts’ suffices for wisdom. One must withdraw, not from the social order or from the conflicts that this order occasions (these must be confronted head on with all our power, enthusiasm, and will), but rather from the deeper presuppositions upon which it has been built; one must fly back to a philosophical state of mind, the only state of mind which truly can be, not indeed ‘neutral’, but impartial, and by which alone all of these obscure but massively consequential facts will finally stand before us, to be rightly judged.

References

1Here and throughout the present essay the term ‘media’ is to be taken to refer to the mainstream media, unless otherwise noted. This is not at all to disregard the existence or the importance of ‘alternative media’; but no one will claim that these alternative media have even a fraction of the influence of the mainstream media; hence it is natural to give more mind to the latter. The question of the potential neutrality of alternative media will be addressed briefly toward the close.

2Certainly when it comes to most of the ‘big stories’ of the day, no one can deny their relative importance. Yet even this is only a general rule, as there have been cases of ‘breaking news’ which were of obviously secondary importance to the life of the nation. Innumerable examples of this can be offered up; to give but a single one, consider the truly absurd and painfully characteristic period in which the United States press seemed for months on end to be able to talk about nothing other than ‘Octomom’, one Natalie Suleman, a woman who had, through artificial fertilization, wound up with eight children. Surely her situation raises interesting questions of all kinds regarding ethics and science, artificial fertilization, the nature of our times, etc.; but the media, so far from confronting these problems in any meaningful way, was perfectly content to float about in its idle, superficial, and spiritual void, reducing the entire affair almost to a soap opera for the daily consumption of the bored and distractable masses.

3This very concept itself opens up a world of deeper difficulties, but we pass over them in the present subject. Suffice it to note that there are extremely good reasons for suspecting that the famous dichotomy between facts and values is itself utterly factitious.

4We state this as a given; nonetheless, the advent of Trump to the White House of the United States has demonstrated that the media is no longer constrained even to present indisputably popular opinions in a neutral way. The reasons for this will become clear as we proceed; suffice it here to mention, however, that the references which are sometimes made to a battle for the future of our nations are in no way exaggerated, and that the reality of this battle is demonstrated daily by the fact that the media has begun to ‘take sides’ against ‘populism’, even when this dark and ill-defined force is responsible for manifesting itself in the highest political offices of Occidental nations.

5Cf. John Locke, Some Thoughts Regarding Education (1693) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile. So far as the freedom of press in particular is concerned, consider The Federalist Papers, No. 84, ‘Certain General and Miscellaneous Objections to the Constitution Considered and Answered’.

6When it does, it is generally in the context of a debunking or a kind of zoological display of exotic political taxonomies: which is to say, the views in question are not taken in the least seriously, and are presented precisely with the intent of undermining them. A classic example of this, on a relatively high level, can be seen in Christopher Hitchen’s interview of John Metzger; anyone who cares to view the slaughter, which is not without its lessons particularly for the dissident community, can indulge their curiosity here.

7In democratic societies, these are most especially the wealthy ‘elite’, the moguls of our ‘entertainment industry’, and finally the professors of our academia – though it goes without saying that all of these men are ‘educators’ in something other than the edifying sense that everyone likes to believe.

8They include as well several other features, most obviously the commitment to full human liberty and to unlimited progress; but on a deeper analysis, which we cannot submit here, it is evident that the first of these is in fact sacrificed to human equality in any tolerably pure expression of these ideals (which makes indeed for one of the most intriguing dramas of our day), and that the second is far from being perfectly or unambiguously compatible with it (which makes for another). For a deeper critique of the left-right political spectrum, see my essay ‘What is the Deep Right?

9I have addressed this question at greater length in my essay ‘Decorum and Democracy’.

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