Religious critics of American public education who, somewhat correctly, observe that the attempt to remove all religious preference from school curricula results in a de facto religious preference defined by that removal (referred to as “secular humanism”) have identified what may be a broader phenomenon: Attempts to preserve some rigid neutrality result in the production of a residual non-neutral position.
The (in my opinion fortuitous) removal from school curricula of all overtly religious beliefs leaves behind a world-view that privileges critical thinking over faith, scientific methodology over indoctrination, and (perhaps less fortuitously) detached and reductionist curiosity over ecstatic and holistic awe. By removing religion from the schools, we have distilled a residual religion of non-religion. There is no neutral position; pursuit of it produces a different perspective, unlike all of those avoided, but not without a substantive integrity of its own. And by making that residual perspective the one that forms the foundation of American education, one of our major socializing institutions does indeed (again, I think overall fortuitously) propagate it.
The same phenomenon takes place in our news media, though instead of religious neutrality, the media try to embrace political neutrality. But since there is no such thing as “neutrality,” what is really embraced, and propagated, is a residual perspective, one which reinforces prevalent national and cultural ideologies (some of which are demonstrably inaccurate or logically flawed). So, though the bulk of the range of political ideological views in America falls, as a whole, a bit to one side of the range of political ideological views in the world, the “neutral” American media preferences the American spectrum, since it is serving an American audience. This is the same kind of “neutrality” found in the media of countries which have, as a whole, biases we find offensive, biases which are reflected in their national media in the same way that American biases are reflected in ours.
I once attended a presentation about media neutrality by the foreign affairs editor of a major East Coast newspaper (I don’t remember which one now). I asked, in response to something she said, whether it’s fair to say that she tries to piss off both ideological extremes about equally. She laughed, and replied that that’s a pretty good synopsis. Then I asked if that doesn’t mean that, by trying to report from the precise “American ideological mid-point” she is not reinforcing nationwide biases. She told me that that was a stupid question (her precise words), because “that’s just not the way stories are written or selected.” Then, later in her presentation, apparently having forgotten our exchange, she said, “of course, we are Americans, and we favor the American perspective in our reporting.” Fine, but, guess what? That’s a bias.
The issue comes to mind today because a story by RealClearPolitics expands the superficially reasonable theme that blaming voters is a sign of weakness, and inherently wrong (http://news.yahoo.com/s/realclearpolitics/democrats_it039s_not_me_it039s_you). But by equating all criticisms of voters, by all candidates and public servants of all stripes at all times, the author reinforces the false neutrality that there are not better and worse informed ideologies, that there are not better and worse informed popular movements, that there are not more and less brutal or dysfunctional or self-destructive currents that flow through a society. By that logic of false neutrality, the Nazi movement in 1930′s Germany was the moral equivalent of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960′s America, since all social movements, all popular ideologies, are moral and rational equals.
This Bias of Neutrality reinforces the popular belief that politics is, and should be, the competition of arbitrary opinions, since no opinion is better informed or more useful or more accurate or more kind or more productive than any other. And by reinforcing this already far too widespread belief, those who adhere to the most dysfunctional, or brutal, ideologies, are less incentivized to engage in self-criticism, to examine their beliefs, to question whether they are indeed the most accurate or responsible or conducive to the public interest of all possible beliefs.
We need a national media that selects as its non-neutral neutral position, like that embraced by public education, something that is disciplined by evidence and reason, rather than whatever is the mid-point of the spectrum of mostly arbitrary beliefs. That would serve us far better.