As the owner of one of the twenty five largest PR firms in the U.S., I take the responsibility of studying media bias quite seriously for business reasons, and personal passion. This week, media bias was put in the spotlight after Us Weekly published a cover story: "Babies, Lies and Scandal: John McCain's Vice President." Juxtaposed with Us Weekly's recent cover story featuring a smiling Obama family, "Michelle: Why Barack Loves Her," it's understandable why pundits claim bias. While idealists might suggest otherwise, the concept of an unbiased media is simply impossible.
I encounter media professionals on a daily basis that clearly have an agenda set before they begin researching a story. This may be shaped by their background, a pushy editor or producer, or closely held prejudices. The impact of this discrimination cannot be understated. Media bias influences our politics, moves stock prices and makes markets, ruins and builds lives, and destroys marriages. Sometimes this is the illumination of the truth from honest, hard-hitting journalism. But often times it's because of ideological reporters bent on an agenda they have defined or an issue they have self manufactured.
For this reason, we counsel clients involved in controversial issues or politics that the media is not always your friend, and proceed with caution. With certain clients not regarded as mainstream by the American media, whether Russian oligarchs, or Christian evangelicals who we have represented, we have on occasion with certain media outlets found it simply impossible to get a fair shake in the media because of extreme partiality and foregone conclusions. We were forced to approach the media in the same way we would approach a hostile government investigation. When in the midst of a crisis, you wouldn't speak to the police without an attorney, and you shouldn't speak to the media without a PR professional by your side. This is an example of bias at its extreme, and perhaps yesterday's US Weekly column and the attention it's receiving is also extreme. But is it shocking?
Whether political, cultural or sociological, each of us holds certain ideas and beliefs closer than others. A favorite food, a chosen religion, a respected author – all of these represent our everyday prejudices. It's human nature to have inherent biases based on background, whether from an ivory tower education, nationality, race, or wealth. While ideally, media professionals would be able to toss these predispositions aside, it's simply not the case.
Furthermore, as much as the media denies it, bias creates tension and drama, which sells more magazines, attracts more viewers, and keeps online visitors coming back for more. Especially in an age when a new, unbridled media is quickly usurping the old, the rules of objectivity will continue to be quickly brushed aside.
Publisher Jan Wenner has contributed $5300 to Obama's campaign since 2007, so it's not surprising that his magazines have published positive stories about the democratic presidential nominee while harshly criticizing Sarah Palin. Conversely, as Democrat Barack Obama sits down tonight with FOX News' Bill O'Reilly for an interview, the chances aren't high he will be treated exactly as fairly as McCain. Obama knows this, and so does everyone watching. Networks know who their audiences are and know they are chosen over another network for their biases, not condemned for them.
Politicians of both parties are cognizant of media bias and are right to treat media with a stick and a carrot. A few months back, Obama banned The New Yorker from his press plane on a "foreign policy" trip, and recently, McCain cancelled a planned CNN interview. On election night, I imagine McCain will be watching FOX; I doubt Obama will be. O'Reilly's no spin zone isn't exactly CNN's no spin zone.
The simple fact is that in life and in business, like it or not, all people – men and women, black and white, young and old – are subject to different rules. Why should the media be expected to behave differently while the rest of the world stays the same? It is what it is. Quite simply, its time to call a spade a spade – media is biased. The difference is that good media outlets do their best to mask their biases, but all journalists, just like all people, are biased in some way. US Weekly simply wasn't masking their efforts this week. As Rudy Giuliani said last night at the Republic National Convention: "Anyone who says there isn't media bias is living on Mars.''
Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5W Public Relations/5WPR (www.5wpr.com ), one of the 25 largest PR firms in the U.S., headquartered in NYC with offices in LA. As CEO of 5WPR, Torossian was named to Advertising Age's 2006 "40 Under 40" list, PR Week's 2007 "40 Under 40" List, and is a member of Young Presidents Organization (YPO).