Bias comes in many forms. The inherent human tendency to lean in one direction due to family, community, ethnicity, gender, race or politics — or simply for pure crankiness and an insecure need to disparage someone or something else — is not likely to lessen anytime soon.
We inherited the word "bias" from the French, where it meant going against the grain. The English language probably adopted it via the game of bowls which, unlike bowling, featured a ball weighted to one side. Think of a pair of weighted dice and how that affects the roll.
Modern media should help us learn more and, through that exposure, reduce bias, but we are headed in the opposite direction. Take the movies, where the simple logic of Hollywood profit margins should dictate a one-to-one correlation between what is produced and what audiences are willing to pay to see. Seems obvious. But gender and diversity bias still rule.
According to a recent study of the 350 highest-grossing films over the last few years by talent uber-agency CAA and tech company Shift7, movies in which a woman was given top billing made more money at the box office. Despite this, a San Diego State University study found that the number of female protagonists in the top 100 films in 2017 had fallen by 5 percent. And last year, a 10-year review by USC’s Annenberg School of more than 1,100 popular movies revealed little progress. Female speaking roles were still only 30 percent overall.
None of this makes sense unless we consider bias among largely-male studio execs. Just as male leads have typically been paid more than their female counterparts, Hollywood won’t let go of the notion that men drive ticket-buying and, they assume, prefer male heroes.
One would think that studio bigwigs would take a cue from publishing, where women read more books than men. Among readers of at least one book per week, women outnumber men by more than four-to-one. Anecdotally, at least in my house, they pick more movies too.
When we shift from gender to political bias, the Fox News echo-chamber effect seems to have had profound consequences that are still reverberating through our public life. According to a recent large-scale experiment by Gallup and the Knight Foundation, those who self-reported as Republican shared via social media stories from right-leaning sources nearly twice as much as Democrats shared stories from left-leaning sources.
In other words, there is a closed loop going on in the Republican head-space that may explain the belief in “fake news.”
We should beware jumping to conclusions based on this scant data, but in an era in which Fox News boasted the most eyeballs for the State of the Union address, and Rachel Maddow on lower-rated MSNBC seems ever on the verge of some revelation that always just slips away, it does appear that conservatives have the larger kettle drum as an echo chamber. Perhaps the true national emergency is not barbarian hordes coming across the border but overpaid pundits dressed in anchors’ clothing and preaching to the choir political revelations.
We have only to look back in anger at the failure of Reconstruction to overcome what was then the bias of Democrats turning back the achievements of Republicans to realize that no party or segment of the population has a lock on good or evil. There is more than enough prejudice to go around.
In a country where The Birth of a Nation masqueraded as history, and Al Jolson wore blackface long before Virginia’s Ralph Northam and NBC’s Megyn Kelly twisted themselves up like pretzels in the press, it is no surprise that populists can still rouse racist sentiment even now in what should have been a time of post-Obama progress. Not so much.
Social media is a double-edged sword, and one can point to as many successes in access to information and post-racial behavior among millennials as one must also observe sad anniversaries such as the Charleston and Pittsburgh shootings, as well as the Charlottesville rally and riot, with no end in sight. Social media played a role in each of these events, both as platform for fringe thought and behavior that would otherwise have stayed under a rock, and as gathering place for solace and shared memory. With increased policing of hate speech and imagery on Facebook, perhaps the seesaw will tilt towards reconciliation and away from bias.
The world we leave our children — warmer or colder depending on the season, more peaceful or more violent depending upon the network news you watch and the politician you listen to, and more long-lived or sicker depending upon your opinion of Obamacare — is one that is, on the one hand, more PC, and on the other hand, not yet fair, balanced or even close.
Dalton Delan is an accomplished American writer, editor, television producer and documentary filmmaker. His column is copyrighted by Berkshire Writers Group.