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The Myth of the Unbiased Media

Mainstream news organizations, particularly the San Francisco Chronicle, are often biased toward centrist politicians. The problem is they won't admit it.

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Quan believes the negative press she has received is the product of sexist — and perhaps even racist — coverage. Elmano Gonsalves, an Oakland native who launched a campaign earlier this year to expose what he views as media bias against Oakland, believes that some of the negative coverage Quan has received is a product of a San Francisco-centric media that doesn't like his hometown. "It seems like they go after Jean Quan for everything," he said. "But [San Francisco Mayor] Ed Lee doesn't get that kind of scrutiny."

Indeed, the free pass that Lee has received in the mainstream press is noteworthy. But it's also strong evidence that local press coverage has not been racially motivated: Lee and Quan are both of Chinese descent. There's also little evidence that the Bay Area mainstream press has been biased against female politicians. US Senator Dianne Feinstein, for example, has enjoyed extremely favorable news coverage in the Bay Area (while Stark and Honda have not).

It's worth noting that Feinstein is a moderate. "I think it's clear that [Quan] is a target because she's a progressive," said Tim Redmond, a longtime liberal San Francisco journalist and former editor of the Bay Guardian, a progressive alt-weekly that shuttered last week. Redmond has long contended that the Chronicle and other Bay Area mainstream news organizations have sought to marginalize — and even villainize — both liberals and conservatives. "They're much more critical of people who are at the end of the political spectrum," he said.

But some critics contend that media bias itself is not the problem. The problem is that the mainstream press adamantly maintains that it's unbiased. As a result, mainstream news consumers often wrongly assume that they're reading "objective" political coverage when such a thing may not exist.

The belief that objective journalism is the most trustworthy form of news reporting is still a dominant paradigm, however, and is unlikely to change any time soon. Still, the media landscape is evolving. NYU journalism professor Rosen contends that digital news consumers are increasingly skeptical about what they read, and expect journalism — whether its objective or advocacy journalism — to be more transparent.

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