Day By Day

Friday, September 30, 2005

Are Bloggers Biased? Prof. Meyers Thinks So

Philip Meyer, professor of journalism at University of North Carolina, has a nasty little think piece in USA Today in which he concludes, on the basis of one example, that while the internet may have democratized the dissemination of news, it has also exposed the deep racist character of bloggerdom.

He starts with a picture of Lee Benboom, a white woman who was photographed outside New Orleans convention center during the terrible aftermath of Katrina, holding her dehydrated baby in her arms. The picture was broadcast nationally, donations to help the distressed woman and child flowed in, she was identified by relatives and found in a shelter and rescued. He then goes on to wonder why there was no similar national response to any of the black people who appear in the background of the picture.

His answer -- bloggers are racists. They respond to a picture of a white woman, but care nothing about blacks.

He then goes on to lament the lack of editors on the blogosphere. He admits that newspapers were once racist instititutions, but now, he argues, editors have transcended their bias and eliminated at least the outward manifestations of racism. In bloggerdom, however, editors are nonexistent and the deep racial bias of the bloggy masses becomes apparent in their sympathetic response to a picture of a white woman in distress. He ends with an admonition not to forget the anonymous black faces.

Read the story here.

This is unmitigated horse hockey. The picture was taken by a photographer for the Houston Chronicle, disseminated by the Associated Press, and was seen by Lee's relatives when it appeared in their local paper, the Wilmington, N.C. Star News. At each stage in this process the image and accompanying commentary was subject to professional editorial oversight. This story was not spread by bloggers, but by news professionals operating through their regular channels. If the picture's prominence reflects racial bias, it is that of the professional editors, not of the readers.

Certainly the picture sparked a response among bloggers, but here Prof. Meyers' analysis is deeply flawed. A student of his who works in Wilmington interviewed the woman and her family and noted that they had received contributions and expressions of concern from bloggers. This is the extent of his evidence. But this is hardly a representative sample of the blogosphere. How many other bloggers responded to pictures of black refugees but did not know how to help because they didn't know who's face appeared in the picture? How many saw relatives and tried to trace them? How many felt an urge to help the refugees regardless of color? Prof. Meyers does not know nor does he care. Any competent researcher knows that you cannot generalize the characteristics of a group from one isolated instance.

Yet Prof. Meyers leaps immediately to the conclusion that bloggers are biased and editors are not, when clearly the evidence suggests the converse may be true. Why should he do so?.

Here I am going to generalize from a single case, but you all can think of many others.

Meyers is a representative of a particularly insufferable class of people -- well-to-do southern liberals who grew up through the Civil Rights Era and were marked by it. Such people see racism everywhere. Usually associated with the Democratic Party, they are anything but democratic. They are heirs to the southern tradition of planter paternalism that embodies a profound distrust of democracy and of the unwashed masses it empowers. Their political equation is simple. Common people are ignorant racists and therefore democracy, by empowering the common man. is empowering racism and ignorance. Much better for real control to remain in the hands of an educated elite whose superior moral sensibilities can overcome the base instincts of the masses and guide them into the paths of moral righteousness [oh yes, there is an unmistakable aura of sanctimony in all of this].

You know the type. Think of Jimmy Carter; Howell Raines; in Prof. Meyers' home state Terry Sanford. Sanctimonious rich white guys who are deeply convinced that everyone else is corrupt and morally incompetent.

Fortunately power has long since slipped from the hands of these men. Their day has passed and the democracy of the internet, which they so lament, is sweeping them into a well-deserved obscurity.

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