On Liberal Media Bias
A few years ago, there was a mini-uproar about a supposedly “racist” computer webcam that failed to detect the faces of black folks and others with darker skin tones. As the video below demonstrates, there was definitely something very odd about the way the new HP webcam functioned:
I learned about this via a blog I frequented at the time which focused primarily on race and pop culture. The commentariat was up in arms about the “racist” computer and racist people at HP. Many argued that this was evidence of deliberate racism and that HP did not want black people to buy its computers.
A computer cannot be racist. It is not sentient. It does what its programmers and/or users tell it to do, nothing more and nothing less. So, no, neither the computer nor the webcam were racist. Nor is it the case that whoever made or built the cameras was a racist who didn’t want people to enjoy HP’s products. It would make zero sense for a company as large and with as big a public profile as HP to deliberately discriminate against a significant portion of the market.
But, still, something was up, right? I mean, that video doesn’t appear to be doctored and other videos and stories popped up about similar difficulties. Maybe HP, its employees, and their products weren’t racist, but you still had a bunch of dark-skinned people unable to take advantage of one of their newest products.
The most likely explanation is two-fold:
- The facial recognition technology did read different skin colors differently and, depending on the available light, might struggle to pick up darker skin tones.
- There were few or no darker-skinned people in the rooms that these products were being developed and tested, meaning the problem did not become evident until after roll-out.
So the products did have issues with race in part because of broader issues with race present at HP. But it would be a bridge too far to conclude that HP or its employees were racist, that the outcome was intentional, or that it was part of a broader, concerted effort to deny computers to black folks. What really happened is that the bulk of HP’s developers and testers were lighter-skinned and through a collective and unintentional bias, they rolled out a product that seemed explicitly intended to discriminate.
What does any of this have to do with liberal media bias? WELL, CLEARLY THE FACT THAT MOST OF YOU NEVER HEARD OF THIS HORRID STORY OF RACIST ROBOTS MEANS THE MEDIA IS REALLY BIASED TOWARDS THE RIGHTWING!!!
Wait. No. That’s not it. That’s the opposite of it.
This has to do with liberal media bias because I think the causes of what we tend to describe as liberal media bias work similar to the causes of HP’s “racist” computers. Media cannot be biased; not anymore than a webcam can be racist. The people who create and distribute media… they can certainly be biased. But I’m still not convinced that the broader slant we see in the news is the result of a deliberate, calculated, and orchestrated attempt to further particular goals and stymie others. Instead, what is likely at play is that the rooms where most decisions about media are decided are full of liberals. Maybe not exclusively so, but largely. (I believe Jaybird linked to an article demonstrating as much, which I unfortunately cannot find at this time.) So, if you fill a room with mostly liberals, it is natural that the majority of their decisions are going to be biased toward liberalism. Filled a dozen rooms with mostly liberals and suddenly it seems as if our media is awash in liberalism, carefully selected by a cabal of leftist media moguls who filter down only approved stories to their underlings.
Do I think, on the whole, the media is biased towards the left? Yes. Do I think there is a widespread conspiracy afoot? No.
And just as HP would be best served to seek ways to diversify their product development and testing teams, the mainstream media would be best served to diversify the political leanings of their decision-makers.
It is worth pointing out that I didn’t follow the HP story super closely, so it is possible that there was something else to the ultimate outcome. My reporting on the facts might be less-than-perfect, but as an analogy, my interpretation of those events seems to parallel what I think is going on in the media today.