What is a biased publication?

September 22, 2006


The discussion of Wikipedia has been interesting.  I have lived abroad for the last 30 years, and this has led me to read almost all publications with a healthy amount of scepticism.  When I read La Corriere dell Serra, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Le Monde, and The New York Times, I sometimes wonder if I am even reading about the same planet.  Concepts of the truth can be a very flexible matter, and there is not place on earth where the truth seems more elastic than the United States .


I think Wikipedia contains many biased articles, but I cannot think of any encyclopedia that doesn't.  My edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, was published in the mid 80s and is dedicated to Ronald Regan -- a gesture (even if routine) that hardly inspires confidence in its impartiality.  And yet it is considered the gold standard of encyclopedias.


A simple example might illustrate the bias of the Britannica.  For the last 100 years the US has consistently conducted massive interventions in Latin American countries, either directly or through proxies, that have often been extremely violent.  If you read the Britannica's entries for Latin American countries, this fundamentally important aspect of their history is seldom mentioned, and if so, in an often evasive manner. 


Every country seems to harbor its dirty secrets that somehow do not appear in its media.  Bias almost seems to be an inherent part of nationalistic identity.  During the mid 80s, for example, around 200,000 Mayans were systematically murdered by US-backed death squads in Guatemala , but how often do you hear about this act of genocide?  So little is said about the US backed mass murder in Guatemala that it is often referred to as "The Secret Holocaust."   (The Yale University Genocide Studies Program has useful information about it at: http://www.yale.edu/gsp/guatemala/index.html  .)


Ironically, it is exactly Wikipedia that often fills in the gaps on topics such as that, that are omitted by more established encyclopedias and other "respectable" publications.  Ironically, if you want an overview of the unspoken history of violence in Central America , Wiki can be one of the better sources.


For another example of bias closer to the purpose of this discussion list, the New York Times has consistently attacked or undermined the IAWM's protests against the Vienna Philharmonic's historic policies of excluding women and members of visible racial minorities.  The principle person behind this bias is the editor of the music section, James Oestreich, who is an apologist for the Vienna Philharmonic.  Without the Internet, classical music's dirty little secret about the VPo would likely have never been exposed, much less protested.  To this day, almost all major papers speak of the orchestra's sexism and racism only in oblique, veiled tones.  All those fine, dressed-up white folks in places like Carnegie maintain their bourgeois discretion.


And where does this bias come from?  Among other things, the Times's music section has never had a full-time woman member in its entire history.  Anne Midgette is the only regular woman writer they have ever had, and she is only a stringer paid article by article.


Over the years there have been many criticisms of the Times' political reporting that have been well documented and justified, and yet it is considered the paradigm of journalistic integrity.  And shall I even mentioned programs like Fox News and CNN?  So just what is our standard of truth?


Recently a scandal surrounded the music magazine Fanfare because it had an undisclosed policy of granting reviews and interviews based on how much advertising was purchased by recording companies.  It is a payola system that completely corrupts all accepted standards of journalistic integrity, and might even be illegal.  And yet the magazine was defended by Kyle Gann (a former writer for the Village Voice and a musicologist hardly known for his impartiality), Alex Ross (the music critic for the New Yorker), and Frank Oteri (the editor of the American Music Center 's webzine, New Music Box.)  Does this say something about the standards of journalistic integrity in American classical music?


So what is the moral of the story?  A careful, accurate scholar should read ALL publications with a sceptical eye, regardless of how esteemed they might be.   How plausible is the article?  Does the author have an agenda, and is it justified and well-argued?  How well documented is article?  How many corroborating cross-references have been listed, and how many can be found in additional research?  Who is the author and what claims for his or her reliability can be made?  How have other scholars reacted to the author's work?


For what its worth, I have noticed that a couple Wiki entries link to articles I have written about women in music.  See this article about Sergiu Celibidache:  




And this one about the Vienna Philharmonic:




There is even one that includes my criticisms of the esteemed German historian, Ernst Nolte, who grotesquely rationalizes the Holocaust:




I have no idea who wrote these articles, but I think they are balanced and fairly written.   The first two contain information about women in music that would be unthinkable in almost any other encyclopedia.


I think there is a good deal of phony, academic self-righteousness and hypocrisy revealed by blanketly condemning Wikipedia when one considers how much false information permeates our media universe.  It is exactly Wiki's populist origins that give it a unique perspective that in -some- cases can be very useful.


The simple fact that one can debate with the Wiki editors about its inclusion of women in music shows that it might in some respects have a unique position and value among encyclopedias.  As Ms. Whistlecroft notes, it is up to you to enter the fray.


William Osborne