The idea of fake news isn’t new, but it’s an idea that’s been weaponized to a remarkable – and remarkably troubling – level over the past few years. Which is why Skewed: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Media Bias by Larry Atkins (an adjunct professor of journalism at Temple University, Arcadia University, and Montgomery County Community College) is such an important book that arrives at a critical time.
If you click over to the Trump Twitter Archive and search for “fake news,” you’ll find our current president has used that term in his tweets 38 times in the first four months of 2017.
Think about that for a moment. Every three days, on average, the leader of arguably the greatest experiment in human governance, one of the hallmarks of which is a free press as enshrined in the First Amendment, is declaring that press to be fake. The implications are staggering.
Not a typical rant
“I have always had an interest in advocacy journalism,” the Philadelphia-born Atkins told Broad Street Review in an email interview. “It tends to be one of the most interesting classroom discussions. My book is not the typical rant against ‘the liberal media’ or ‘the corporate conservative media.’ I'm a staunch liberal, but I attempted to write a fairly centrist book that provided all sides of the issue.”
Indeed, Skewed is a meticulously researched volume (with 56 pages of notes and citations) that provides a detailed and authoritative context for discussing media bias. Atkins explores the history of advocacy journalism from the earliest days of our country, and anyone not aware of touchstones like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and muckraking journalism will gain valuable lessons in how the sorts of things we’re seeing today, while incalculably amplified in volume, are certainly not unique.
That meticulous research, and Atkins’s nature as an academic, means reading Skewed can sometimes feel like sitting in a classroom – but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? The rush for ratings, the clickbait headlines, the need for profit, and so much more have all contributed to driving news media to extremes that feed bias. After all, it’s more fun to throw pies, be snarky, and hurl insults, as many books about media bias do, often by their very titles. Media critic James Wolcott’s Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants and Senator Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them are two obvious examples. Due diligence, fact-checking, and thoughtful consideration all demand greater focus and attention, but the rewards are significant.
Reason to be optimistic
One of the real rewards of Skewed turns out to be a healthy optimism for the future.
In what I believe is the best and most important chapter of the book, “The Importance of Being a Savvy Media Consumer,” Atkins details some of the work being done to raise the consciousness of Americans as a whole on the issue of media bias.
“I was aware of the concept of media literacy and news literacy,” Atkins said when asked about the biggest surprise he encountered researching and writing Skewed, “but I was unaware of how many organizations are involved in promoting media literacy. I also learned that there are many universities and high schools teaching the subject.”
In the course of exploring some of the work being done, Atkins provides a variety of tools anyone can use to help raise their own media literacy. Among those tools are a number of questions and warnings everyone can take into account when reading or watching the news – such as, “Beware when media outlets are just repeating or reprinting a story written by another medium without doing their own reporting or verification.”
Atkins cites questions and warnings like this as tools to be taken into account when reading and viewing news, but they’re also important yardsticks with which all of us who participate in political discussions online should measure the stories we share and the comments we post.
A serious book for serious people
Skewed is essential reading for anyone who claims to be a thoughtful follower of national and global politics. It implores us to have a relationship with the news media that’s more sophisticated than skimming headlines and regurgitating talking points, a relationship characterized more by striving for a deeper understanding of issues rather than striving for the next snappy retort to post on Twitter or Facebook.
It’s a serious book for serious-minded people who desire to be seriously informed.
Of course, that’s my own bias speaking.