You're Biased, I'm Not

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This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

No good can come from this column.

For me, that is. Or at least for virtual me -- my in-box.

Bias – The Issue – has become the great red herring of political argument.

But it's worse and more serious than just a distraction, albeit an obnoxious one. The omnipresent charge of bias has become an embedded obstacle to normal give and take about politics, culture and current events. The word-weapon "bias" is now a structural bar to communication and dialogue between people who don't belong to the same right-thinking affinity group.

I don't mean to sound like a French semiotics professor, because this is real simple. "I think John Ashcroft is scary," she said. "Well, you're just biased," he said. Discussion over, though a pointless argument may ensue.

"I think rap music is evil," he said. "You're biased," she said. Case closed.

While we all aren't promiscuous bias-blamers, this is no caricature of what it's like for many people who are involved in politics, working at universities, journalists or just curious people who get into arguments for fun.

I guarantee that some percentage of readers by this point will already be sending me irate e-mails saying: (a) Of course Meyer is trying to rationalize away the bias issue because he works for CBS News and is a living breathing epitome of liberal bias, or; (b) Of course Meyer is trying to rationalize away the bias issue because he is a tool of MSM (mainstream media) and corporate pawn of the evil multinational, Viacom.

I can think of only one column that I've written in the past two years that didn't inspire at least a few catcalls of bias, and that one was about my grandmother. I have been accused of being biased against liberals, conservatives, Bush, Gore, Dean, Kerry, Nader, Democrats, Republicans and Greens. Bias has perverted my views of global warming, breast augmentation, cell phones, business crimes, tax policy, Iraq, al Qaeda, tattoos, Paris Hilton, pork barrel spending, Social Security, gun control, "Fahrenheit 9/11," self-esteem, spam, talk radio and girls soccer.

Can one man embody all that bias? Not logically.

At least 95 percent of all charges of bias are puerile and trivial. When most people are in college, at some point they have a Big Epiphany that explains the world to them for awhile. It may be psychological: Everyone is as insecure as I am and that's what motivates people. Wittgenstein is a common inspiration: our world is limited by our language. Kant has given many an ethical epiphany: treat every individual as an end in him or herself, that is, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Another common one involves relativity: Every person's perspective is relative, determined by history, conditioning, social context, biology and scores of other influences. When someone clings to this insight, when they think it explains everything, man, we call them sophomoric. Most people who are interested in news and ideas, at some point realize that everyone – even themselves – is biased. To be a human who makes judgments and uses words is to be a biased person. Objectivity is a goal of many human activities but not an achievable and sustainable description of any individual's reality.

Most people, however, do not stay sophomores for long. They graduate and realize that being biased and understanding that perspective is relative doesn't mean that you don't make judgments or, more importantly, respect the considered and articulate judgments of others.

People who accuse other people of being biased while maintaining their own liberation from all bias are pre-sophomoric. I'm not sure they are freshmen. They are certainly fools.

Bob Schieffer and I shared an office in the U.S. Capitol the size of a walnut for several years. He taught me a thing or two about news, politics and getting through the day, but here's one of my favorites: never argue with the loud drunk at the bar. They don't listen, you can't change their minds and all that can come of it is ill will, frustration and maybe a fat lip.

Bias is the same way. If someone accuses you of being biased, the conversation is over. You're not going to convince them that you're not biased or that they are biased, too. Someone who plays the bias card does not want to understand another perspective even out of curiosity. They just want to hear things they agree with and be able to dismiss all the rest.

When people talk about bias explicitly, they mostly talk about media bias. Thirty years ago, the prevailing theme was a sort of Marxist analysis that all Big Media had an inevitable pro-capitalist, Neanderthal bias. That view shrunk to the margins and the dominant complaint now is that Big Media has a liberal bias, which mostly means pro-Democratic. However, I now get accused of being biased almost as much by the left as the right, but the e-mail from the left is now meaner.

I'm not going to get into those angles here partly because they've been rehashed endlessly. People make good livings doing nothing but pointing righteous fingers at media bias, right and left. But more importantly, I think the whole media bias issue is not nearly as important as the way "bias" is used in ordinary speech. It's used to put some of us on Mars and some of us on Venus. And that's a lot more destructive than the ranting of chat-room addicts and talk show performers.

Maybe this is to be expected in a society that is getting more diverse and in many ways more fragmented.

In everyday life in schools, companies and bars, meaningful, two-way conversation is constricted by the trump card of bias: gender bias, race bias, political bias, class bias, religious bias or cultural bias. Bias is not the same as prejudice. Prejudice should be argued with and outed. But next time you're about to accuse someone of being biased, try to come up with a more clever retort. Or better yet, try to understand their point of view.



Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

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Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones, sometimes in edited form.

By Dick Meyer