In the annual meeting of the Disney Company’s shareholders on Wednesday, Justin Danhof, the general counsel for the National Center for Public Policy Research, which owns Disney stock, asked company president Bob Iger what he intended to do to about a liberal bias in the company’s news outlets, including ESPN and ABC News:
It’s particularly strange to hear Danhof cite Rob Parker suggesting that Robert Griffin III was “a cornball brother” for being engaged to a white woman and possibly having Republican political beliefs as evidence of some sort of liberal bias on the part of ESPN. The idea that it’s liberal to believe that people should date and marry within their racial and ethnic groups as a form of solidarity has no particular basis in the existing discourse. And while it’s not unreasonable to debate why African-American or Latino voters tend to vote Democratic or Republican based on those parties’ histories and platforms, I don’t know that there are a lot of people on either side of the aisle who saw Parker’s condemnation of Griffin as a constructive contribution to that debate. But in any case, it wasn’t as if Disney endorsed Parker’s analysis of Griffin’s racial loyalties. ESPN suspended Parker for 30 days over the comments and ultimately chose not to renew his contract, citing his comments about Griffin as a factor.
The example of Brian Ross suggesting that the shooter at the Aurora, Colorado midnight screening of The Dark Knight is potentially a better example of bias, but it’s also a case study in how a broken reporting and vetting process can interact with political assumptions to put bad information on the air. The problem is less that Ross made that assumption—I don’t think there’s anything wrong about thinking through potential political affiliation and other motivations or influences as inspirations for reporting— but that he broadcast it without ensuring that it was factually accurate. If there were procedures in place that prevented Ross from attributing political motivations and organizational affiliations to the man who turned out to be James Holmes without solid reporting behind it, then the fact that he considered Holmes’ affiliations off-air wouldn’t have mattered. And it’s not as if it would be appropriate to have a rule that prevented, say, the on-air identification of Holmes as a Democrat or a member of an Occupy group, if that had turned out to be correct. The problem isn’t politics. It’s fact-checking. Iger’s acknowledgement that “we have at times either presented the news in a slightly inaccurate way through mistakes or in ways that we weren’t necessarily proud of,” is the right problem to identify. But it’s true that it would have been helpful if ABC News president Ben Sherwood had been more willing to publicly address the procedures or violations thereof that lead to Ross’ broadcast, which would have shifted the emphasis from political problems to reportorial ones.
Shifting that debate won’t satisfy everyone, of course. There are some conservatives who will always work backwards from outcomes, convinced that reporting that doesn’t reach conservative conclusions must be flawed because it didn’t arrive in a place that confirms their worldview or that makes them comfortable. But news organizations should stick to fixing processes that produce both inaccuracies and the perception of bias, rather than letting themselves be nudged into seeking outcomes that will take heat off of them.