Roger Ailes, Adam Carolla and confirmation bias: A study of stereotypes in media
In my book, Race-Baiter, I talk a bit about a concept called confirmation bias; the practice of accepting evidence which backs your perceptions of events and issues, while rejecting or downplaying evidence which contradicts those ideas.
For example: If you think an acquaintance is a moocher, you remember every time he (or she) borrowed money and didn’t pay it back. But you may overlook the few times he bought you dinner or brought over groceries.
It’s a natural, human tendency. But when it’s applied to issues of race and culture, confirmation bias can produce some awful echoing of stereotypes.
Which brings us to a couple of figures in media making news this week: comic, radio personality and podcaster Adam Carolla and Fox News Channel mastermind Roger Ailes.
Carolla had a recent dustup with California’s lieutenant governor, Gavin Newsom over the question of why some ethnic groups in America seem to have an easier time succeeding than others. And Ailes is featured in a Vanity Fair magazine excerpt from a new biography out March 19, in which the Fox News chief, among other things, asserts that President Obama is “lazy.”
When Newsom pointed out that half of Mexicans and African Americans in California have no access to an ATM or checking account, Carolla pounced.
"What's wrong with them?" the comic said. "I want to know why those two groups don't have access. Are they flawed?...I want to know why they are struggling. Do Asians have this problem? Why do so many (black people and Latinos)? Blacks have been here longer than we have. What about Asians--they were put in internment camps. Are they at the check cashing places?”
Newsom wasn’t prepared for this onslaught and fumbled his answers. I don’t know where the lieutenant governor got his data, but I might wonder if the neighborhoods where many black people and Latinos live lack banks and ATMs. Particularly if you don’t have a car, it might be difficult to get to a bank regularly, particularly if you don’t have a family history of banking to teach you how it all works in the first place.
I found it interesting that Carolla automatically assumed the issue at hand was something the people themselves were doing or not doing. The feels like an easy answer which ignores everything from failing schools – I learned about checking accounts in fifth grade, at a private school my mother paid dearly for me to attend – to decades of redlining and segregation.
I thought about confirmation bias again when reading the Vanity Fair excerpt of Ailes’ biography, written by Zev Chafets, a journalist with mainstream media credentials who has written a sympathetic biography of another reclusive, polarizing, in-your-face conservative media giant, radio star Rush Limbaugh.
Journalists yesterday seized on Ailes’ comments about President Obama during Democratic operative Hillary Rosen’s unfortunate statement that Ann Romney had never worked a day in her life. “Obama’s the one who never worked a day in his life,” Ailes said of the son of a single mother who became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, a state Senator, U.S. Senator and America’s first black president by the age of 50. “He never earned a penny that wasn’t public money…He’s lazy, but the media won’t report that.”
Hmm. Does that mean all the politicians in government don’t work? That conservative icon Ronald Reagan, who served as governor of California and a twice-elected president, wasn’t working in those jobs? That the guy who beat Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Mitt Romney and the combined might of the nation’s conservative media apparatus to win election as president twice is somehow secretly lazy?
Journalists have consistently pointed out that Obama so far has taken less vacation time than George W. Bush or Reagan and that he golfs less than even the current Speaker of the House. But confirmation bias ensures that every vacation or golf outing Obama takes is lodged in the minds of his enemies, while those taken by Republican presidents are minimized, forgotten or explained away.
Accusations of laziness also sting because Obama is black and such accusations have been used to minimize the achievements of racial minorities before. Given how often some conservatives – and perhaps Carolla – have demanded people of color work to overcome limited personal circumstances, I am surprised that so few give Obama credit for what he has overcome in life.
I’ll be talking about this stuff in a lot more detail next week at the Poynter Institute, in one of the Community Conversations arranged as a fundraiser for the journalists’ school which owns my employer, the Tampa Bay Times. Click here for more info on the event, which also features WTSP-Ch. 10 anchor Reginald Roundtree and Poynter faculty member Kenny Irby.
But both Ailes and Carolla seem to offer textbook examples of cherry picking data to serve their own stereotypes about people. That such visible media figures can do this so regularly only highlights how dysfunctional our public discourse has become.