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University of Chicago economists Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro have just released a paper, Media Bias and Reputation, redefining the reasons that news organizations give a certain slant to their reports. (Since it's 47 pages of academic-speak and mathematics, I made do with the summary on slate.com.)
Their main premise is that media outlets are interested in proving their accuracy in order to promote public demand for their product. Since average readers or viewers have a limited ability to assess the accuracy of many reports, they tend to grade them according to their personal beliefs. Therefore the newspapers, TV channels and Web sites often distort their reporting to conform to what they understand to be their customers' viewpoint.
Since the media is careful not to ruin its reputation for accuracy, this distortion occurs mainly in fields that involve information that can't be disproved, such as foreign affairs, to which readers and viewers have little, if any, access. Other fields, like sports or the weather, are rarely slanted. According to Gentzkow and Shapiro, the tendency to distort news to confirm to the public's views is less prevalent where there is healthy competition between different media organizations, since in such an environment, there is greater pressure to maintain one's credibility. But for the most part, most news outlets confirm their audience's views.
The paper bases its findings on American organizations, such as Fox News, CNN and The New York Times. I am testing the theory on the Israeli press.
Israel's media are often accused of dictating to the public what it should be thinking. But is it, perhaps, the other way around?
This is a bit of a "chicken-and-egg" question. Take Ha'aretz, for example, a left-leaning, secular, liberal newspaper serving a mainly like-minded audience. During the Oslo years in the 90s, it was at the forefront of the "Peace Camp," advocating support for the Palestinian Authority and deriding the right-wing opposition and settlers' camp. That could have been the result of the viewpoints of the paper's owner, editors and reporters as much as it was a reflection of the readers' stance.
But in the first years of this decade, when the Palestinian terror attacks intensified, Ha'aretz visibly shifted toward the Zionist center - showing a much higher degree of sympathy to the Israelis - despite the views of its owner and some senior writers. Its editors at the time, Hanoch Marmari and Yoel Esteron, admitted to having consciously changed tone due to the drastic shift of the public against the Palestinians.
Over the last two years, with a new editor at the helm, Ha'aretz has shifted back against toward its traditional views, in spite of there being no corresponding change in the public's feelings. So it seems that in Ha'aretz's case, Gentzkow's and Shapiro's theory doesn't apply - since the paper believes it can prove its accuracy without pandering to public opinion.
THE OTHER two main Hebrew dailies, Yediot Aharonot and Ma'ariv - and the main TV channels - however, seem to confirm the theory.
Seen as defeatist by the Right and jingoist by the Left, the two mass-market tabloids take great pains not to offend the sensibilities of the vast Israeli middle-ground. Take, for example, the report in Yediot on Monday of a wedding held by settlers at Sebastia in central Samaria. The paper dedicated a whole page to the story of a 100 paratroopers having to stand in the rain to guard the guests. It didn't question whether the army's effort was justified, preferring to emphasize the discomfort caused to the soldiers by the "unfeeling" settlers.
There is a clear calculation here. The IDF is the public's most consensual institution, while the settlers are viewed by Israelis, on the left and on the right, as a nuisance. On the other hand, if IDF soldiers disobey military regulations and accidentally kill a Palestinian child, the story would be on the front page of Ha'aretz, yet receive only a short mention on an inside page of Yediot and Ma'ariv.
Recent coverage of the political scene also proves the theory. Right-wingers claim that the media began rooting for Ariel Sharon only when he committed himself to pulling back from the Gaza Strip. In fact, Sharon was getting good press even before that - when polls indicated that the majority of the public considered him to be the only trustworthy leader around.
Indeed, polls played a major part in these elections, with the press feeling free to attack Kadima only when it became clear that public sympathy with Olmert and his colleagues was beginning to wane. Another good example is the coverage of the Pensioners Party. Treated as a group of deluded old fogies throughout the campaign, when it turned out that a significant number of voters (including many trendy youngsters) supported them, the media suddenly began taking them seriously as politicians.
Seen through the rules of bias set out by Gentzkow and Shapiro, the all-powerful Israeli press seems a lot more fearful of alienating its public than we normally give it credit for.
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