Biased reporting is old news

David MoonBlog

by David Moon

After being accused of political bias in selecting news stories to feature on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg vehemently denied the accusations, then hosted a group of conservative pundits and promised not to do it any longer. The traditional media wailed in indignation at the prospect that the social media giant might intentionally and surreptitiously be trying to sway public opinion.

Newspapers have been in the business of intentionally and surreptitiously swaying public opinion since Og chiseled out the local cave happenings on stone.

In 1828 practically every newspaper in the U.S was either an unabashed supporter or critic of Andrew Jackson. Some of the anti-Jackson pieces written about the war hero’s marital life made Clinton/Webster Hubbell rumors look like Sunday school chit-chat.

Throughout most of the 19th century, newspapers were routinely subsidized by political parties and elected officials. To purchase influence, elected officials would dole out public printing contracts to newspapers and hire newspaper editors as part-time aides.

Horace Greeley started the New York Tribune in 1841 specifically to support the abolition of slavery and to further the Whig, and later, Republican party agendas. Socialist newspapers prospered in the early 20th century—until the federal government used the Espionage Act of 1917 to revoke their mailing privileges.

When Democrat Grover Cleveland was elected president in 1884, the Republican Los Angeles Times—either in protest or denial—simply failed to report the news for more than a week.

There was a time when the most powerful men in a community were the town’s sheriff, wealthiest citizen and newspaper publisher. The three of them would make the decisions about things such as government contracts, who would serve in what political offices, what businesses would be favored/disfavored—then use their respective powers to affect their plans.

The information business has almost no barriers to entry or geographic constraints today. While this allows for the proliferation of kooks, it also fosters and distributes provocative and meaningful thought.

Provocative thought isn’t very useful, however, when it is consumed only by those of a like mind. It’s hard to learn much from your parrot. Consider occasionally watching MSNBC instead of Fox News or listen to Bill Press instead of Rush Limbaugh. Even if it never changes your mind, it might confirm your convictions.

Try this with your investing, too. Intentionally seek out intelligent voices that disagree with your investment decisions. If half your net worth is in gold, quit reading the “Doom and Gloom” report. Find accomplished analysts who don’t like gold and see if they make sense to you.

Mark Zuckerberg isn’t plowing any new ground. And I’m guessing that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos didn’t purchase the Washington Post for a quarter of a billion dollars solely in the hope the newspaper might be profitable.

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management, a Knoxville-based investment management firm. This article originally appeared in the News Sentinel (Knoxville, TN).