I recently had Vietnamese food with my friend J., and this is what he said on the topic of the mainstream media: “I know, there are dangers to treating all of the mainstream media as a monolith, but in some respects it is useful to treat it as a monolith. The mainstream media presents one centre-right to right-wing viewpoint”. Then I came home and read Scott Alexander complain that the mainstream media is biased to the left and is not even trying for balance. Since I also just read that msnbc hired George Will and the New York Times started a “say something nice about Trump” corner, hired Bret Stephens and Erick, Son of Erick, I am not particularly sympathetic to Alexander’s claim. I am, however, interested in how is it that both these claims seem so evident to the people who made them.
Of course, on one level this is what you would predict: The internet makes everyone think their side is perpetually losing and everything is terrible. And J. is politically to my left (he is a Communist, I think), and Scott Alexander is politically to my right. So of course they would position the biases they see this way. But I think there is more to it than that J. is to my left and Scott Alexander to my right.
You could also say that J. is more interested in the media’s presentation of economic issues, whereas Scott Alexander is more interested in the media’s presentation of cultural issues. The mainstream media is farther left culturally than it is economically. But again, I think there is also something else going on.
And the something else is this: there are two competing notions of “idea-space” being considered. J. is talking about something like the “theoretically available idea-space”: there are many possible ways to organize the economy, but the media is talking within the narrow confines of one method! Scott Alexander is talking about “currently popular idea-space”: 46 % of people voted for Trump, yet way less than 46% of the media is pro-Trump. J. would probably agree with something like this political compass meme where the message is “there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans”, whereas to Scott Alexander, the two are opposite poles – “red tribe and blue tribe“.
So when we say we want the media to be balanced, which version of idea-space should we be talking about? Both approaches have potential pitfalls. The problem with “potential idea-space” is that some ideas are just really bad and don’t really deserve media time. And anyway, the edges of idea-space are often not well defined. We quickly get into the ridiculous (the theoretical midpoint between killing all the dolphins and killing none of the dolphins is killing half the dolphins). The danger of “currently popular idea-space” is that the media can then easily be manipulated to pretend there are two sides to every story, even if one side is obviously correct. If this is done by deliberate extremism, this is called “shifting the Overton window”. Otherwise, it simply entails the media reflecting the biases of the populace, rather than teaching them anything new. This is also how we get a US media that was for roughly one year incredibly interested in e-mail server management (although it must be admitted that the media also had near-constant Trump coverage to the point where it would be tuned out by anyone).
For my part, I think that the range of opinions presented in mainstream media is indeed much too narrow. But I have no idea how to develop good criteria for where that range should be, and what should be included.