One new ranking on Media Bias Chart 4.0, added upon request by many commenters, is Wonkette. It’s in the bottom left corner of the chart. Apparently those at Wonkette were so displeased by this ranking that they wrote this article–Wonkette is Fake News Like Louise Mensch, According to World’s Best Fucking Chart— about it, which employed most of the factors that resulted in its low ranking in the first place. It was the first story on their page for most of today, which is, um…flattering, I suppose? I proceeded to get lots of opinions from Wonkette’s readers about how my overall chart is great but my placement of Wonkette is so very wrong. A word of caution—if you like all the placements except the placement of your favorite source, consider that your view of that source is likely influenced by what their messaging tells you they are, which is not necessarily what they are. Our rankings use content analysis, which is often inconsistent with organizations’ own slogans or marketing messages about themselves (e.g., though Fox claims to be “fair and balanced” our analysis shows otherwise).
4 Letter Words Create High Scores for Bias
The main reasons for Wonkette’s low quality placement are that in our ranking methodology, highly unfair characterizations of political opponents, such as ad hominem attacks, name calling, and foul language result in low scores for quality and high scores for bias—even if it’s for humor.
I see they object to this. I am not calling them “fake news.” That term is not on the chart. Note that the category they are in for quality is “propaganda/ contains misleading info,” which is an “and/or” category. That is, the category is propaganda OR misleading. My ranking categorized them as “propaganda” because its articles get such high scores in the “unfairness instances” metric on the article grading rubric. Propaganda is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.” Many Wonkette headlines are also misleading—for example, though the headline says otherwise, the chart does not say it is “fake news,” and, it is ranked meaningfully higher than Louise Mensch’s blog, Patribotics. However, Wonkette’s articles can be categorized more often as “propaganda” than “misleading.”
Their Defense is Not Really a Defense
The defenses offered on behalf of Wonkette tend to fall into the following categories:
- It’s funny/it’s just a joke/it’s “clever snark”
- They tell you it’s a supposed to be funny
- It’s based on facts/ cites to other news sources
Satire and humor leads to bias.
These defenses fail to save it from a low quality score in our rankings for the following reasons:
“It’s funny/it’s just a joke/it’s “clever snark”
This is true. Their writing is hilarious, especially as viewed through the lens of other liberal, internet savvy, politically astute readers who love a sick burn. However, things that are funny can also be unfair at the same time. So insults, ad hominem attacks, curse words, and name calling, WHILE VERY FUNNY, are still unfair means of persuasion. We categorize several rhetorical devices and statements as unfair in our rankings. A general guideline for what counts as “unfair” are 1) practices not in accordance with journalism ethics and writing style guides and 2) types of information that would not be admissible in court according to rules of evidence. I’ve written more on the “unfairness instances” metric in this previous post.
You may not be convinced that funny insults make a source low quality (just merely biased, you may concede), especially if you like and agree with them. If you like Wonkette and the names it calls Republicans and Trump, consider what you would think of the quality of a source on the right if it regularly called Hillary Clinton a bitch or a hag or worse. Also consider what moderate or slightly conservative readers would think of the quality of Wonkette’s stories in terms of how persuasive they are to them.
They tell you it’s a supposed to be funny/snarky/mean.
Prefacing a statement of questionable merit by telling someone you are going to say it is rarely a defense to the merit of the statement itself. For example, if you say “no offense” before you say something offensive, or “not to be racist,” before saying something racist, or “at least I’m being honest” before saying something mean, it’s still offensive, racist, or mean. Telling you it’s supposed to be unfair is not a defense to writing something unfair.
Is it factual news from a news site or just a satirical blog?
It’s based on facts/ cites to other news sources
Notwithstanding some misleading articles and headlines, Wonkette’s defenders argue that most of its stories are based on other fact-based reporting stories. This is true—most of Wonkette’s articles cite to other sources. As I stated earlier, they are not “fake news.”
However, there are many reasons a source can be low quality even though it is “based on facts” and is not outright false. For example, it can have poor grammar or spelling, lack context or be incomplete, or present poor arguments. It can also be so speculative as to be misleading (as is the case with the Palmer Report—that’s another post). None of these are the case with Wonkette; Wonkette’s quality placement is based almost completely on its quantity and severity of unfair characterizations.
Many observers of the chart mistakenly assume the vertical quality dimension is simply a measure of truth to falsity from top to bottom. That is part of it, but note that pretty much every category other than the bottom-most one (Contains inaccurate/fabricated info) is mostly “based on facts.” There are simply many other ways news sources can be high or low quality.
Some may object to the quality taxonomy (the vertical axis) itself that would result in the placement of this kind of content so low. An underlying premise in my ranking of quality is the question “how effective is this source at convincing the other side?” (especially when considering or analysis/opinion). I argue that extremely mean humor/satire is a very ineffective form of persuasion.
The final wonk…
I admit it was my subjective decision to have that underlying premise, but I submit that this type of content only serves to reinforce one’s existing beliefs and alienate the other side, and is therefore, highly polarizing. There are certainly lots of sources that do this: for example, John Oliver, Bill Maher, and other evening comedy shows also use pretty cruel humor. There is an audience for it because it is cathartic. There is an important place in our discourse and democracy for humor—we need to have the freedom to be able to make fun of our leaders. But to the extent people rely on it for 1) news ( i.e., fact reporting) and 2) takes on the news (i.e., analysis/opinion), I think that kind of content is highly polarizing, and thus, extremely damaging.
As support for the proposition that it is damaging, I point to the state of our country’s current discourse and the resulting election of our current president.
I’m not saying these sources have no merit. Humor has purpose. I watch these shows. I’ve read lots on Wonkette. But to the extent people rely on these for news, I argue they should not rely on them, and to the extent these sources try to fill the space where news is, they do damage.