In praise of (media) bias

The media tries to pretend that it's not biased. In this it gives away its ace in the hole.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
4 min read

Some time ago I discovered that I didn't like reading "the news" very much. Perhaps this resulted from reading too many British newspapers, which don't try very hard to disguise their angle on a story. Some are pro-monarchy, some are pro-business, some are pro-Left, some are pro-Right. You choose the paper that matches your bias.

In the United States, we still pretend to be unbiased. I'm not sure why. I'll occasionally get comments on this blog accusing me of bias in favor of Apple, against Microsoft, or whatever. Of course they're right. I make no attempt to hide it. I find blogs refreshing precisely because, as a general rule, they make no attempt to mask bias. This is what I want: Transparency, not some purportedly clinical examination of "news." I don't believe the latter is possible.

Take a look to the right. CNET clearly displays my bias, as it does for all of its outside bloggers. See the disclosure link? Now go to one of CNET's writers and bloggers' pages, that of Ian Fried, in this case: No disclosure page.

Not that CNET is alone in this. Head over to Tom Yager's blog at InfoWorld. No disclosure. Steve Gillmor over at eWeek? Nada.

Presumably this is because these writers aren't biased? That they have miraculously managed to live on this planet for a few decades as a tabula rosa, writing the world as it sees itself? Let me pause while I snicker into my sleeve.

We don't read these excellent writers because they lack bias. We read them precisely because of their biases. It's the commentary that makes "news" interesting, and that commentary is always heavily flavored by bias.

Bias isn't the problem. Lack of disclosure of the bias is the problem.

This is what makes Walt Mossberg's Personal Technology column for the Wall Street Journal so great. Anyone that reads it regularly knows that Mossberg is heavily biased. He doesn't try to hide it. In fact, unique among technology writers, he actually discloses his bias:

I am not an objective news reporter, and am not responsible for business coverage of technology companies. I am a subjective opinion columnist, a reviewer of consumer technology products and a commentator on technology issues.

Bravo! Now, this would be even better if he spelled out that he generally prefers Apple to Microsoft, etc., but at least he's making a start. The point is that regular readers know where he stands on issues, and it is precisely when we see his opinion on a product diverge from that bias that the article becomes newsworthy, rather than just confirmatory of the established order of things.

It's no secret that I love open source, Apple, and Arsenal (football club), and am not a fan of Microsoft's business practices and its stance on open source. Regular readers of this blog expect to see news related to open source, and I'm sure they generally expect to see pro-open source stories. For those new to The Open Road, my disclosure statement alerts them to this. It provides instant context.

Now consider a post I wrote about usability in software, in which I laud Microsoft and chide the open-source development community. On its face, the post may not be interesting, but it becomes so because of my bias. "Wait, this guy doesn't like Microsoft and he thinks open source can do no wrong. Except here he's saying the opposite. Maybe there's something there." Or what if Mossberg riffed on how great the Zune was? We'd take notice.

Bias makes the news interesting, because it adds commentary. Bias provides context to the news, and makes it personal. Bias allows Les Miserables (French revolutionaries are cool!), A Tale of Two Cities (French revolutionaries are whack-jobs!), and The Scarlet Pimpernel (Keep those French revolutionaries away from those sweet, noble families!) to tell different slants on the same or similar things, and yet all be excellent in their own rights.

It is an unfortunate sham to pretend that journalists can morph into robotic automatons that record the news without sham. Instead of trying to suppress it, we should celebrate it...so long as we disclose it.

The poet Emily Dickinson once suggested:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.

I couldn't agree more. Tell it from one's own, personal perspective. I don't care what CNET thinks - I care what Stephen Shankland, Ina Fried, and Charles Cooper think. Perhaps the media would make more money if it spoke person-to-person, rather than pretending to speak automaton-to-mindless sheep.