The Signpost


Where Is Political Bias Taking Us?

Contribute  —  
Share this
By Atsme
Editing American politics articles can be wearying

Some of the most controversial topics to edit in Wikipedia are in the political arena. Just the thought of editing even one political article can have a chilling effect. With temperature in mind, I'll add that the heat generated on talk pages by some of the political discussions makes temperature predictions for global warming pale in comparison. I know several admins who would go out of their way to avoid the area altogether – like purposely crossing a busy street in the style of Pamela Karlan[1] – you'd have to hog-tie 'em and drag 'em into that arena but not without a fight.

The issues

The biggest issue confronting us with our political articles is political bias, which is second only to Wikipedia's own systemic gender bias. The number of active male editors in the political arena dwarfs the number of active females, and the same applies to real-world career politicians. Such an imbalance may contribute to the aggressiveness and bullying we occasionally encounter in our bold-revert-discuss collaborations on article talk pages but then, if the balance ever shifted, the discussions might feel more like marathons. It is natural for people to rally around their home team, be it football, baseball, or a political election, and we already know there will always be a few in the group who will take things too far; Wikipedia is not immune, and I doubt we'll see a vaccine for it anytime soon.

Much of our political bias stems from media bias which drives our narrative and inevitably results in biased content in some of our political biographies. The issues are likely to remain for some time before copyeditors move in to make repairs and updates with less chance of being reverted, and often citing better sources that are authored by academics and historians with a retrospective advantage. Another contributing factor to disruption is the rush to publish, which leaves us vulnerable to the same mistakes that are in our cited sources. When there's big news breaking, editors tend to ignore our policies and guidelines on recentism, not news, and news organizations, the latter involving media conglomerates and their echo chambers which threaten free thought and diversity. [2] Such disregard makes it difficult to achieve neutrality, especially during a presidential election year.

Media behind the scenes

My 30 plus year career as a media professional has sensitized me to political bias, propaganda, sensationalism, spin, etc. Spotting it is second nature to me. It wasn't that long ago when such tactics were considered unethical by TV news anchors and bureau chiefs. U.S. public television had to walk an even straighter, more neutral line when it came to politics. [3] They were governed more closely by FCC regulations in relation to each station's source of funding; [4] they did not want to risk losing their broadcast license. [5] When public broadcasters made controversial decisions regarding programming of a political nature, they were careful to not do anything that might exacerbate concerns about the use of taxpayer dollars in media. [6] Both commercial and public stations broadcast over public airwaves whereas networks, cable and satellite transmissions operate under different FCC regulations; none are immune to political pressure and again, there is no vaccine for it. [5][7] If you wanted to keep your job, you learned to leave your biases at the door or be shown the door. Our scripts, productions, and editing were pragmatic and neutral...until they weren't anymore.

I first noticed the paradigm shift from print to digital and analog to digital around 1994. I was producing a one-hour special about sturgeon for PBS broadcast, and never would have guessed that politics would be involved, aside from the subject being so fishy. During production, I had Bobby Kennedy Jr. lined up to do the narration but when I submitted the first draft to my entry station, they rejected Kennedy because of his family's political ties, despite his being a law professor at Pace University and not a politician. That incident demonstrated to me how closely public airwaves were being monitored by the FCC, so I hired James Drury instead, and by 1996, the program was airing on PBS affiliates without incident.[8][9][10] The stations also used the program during local fund-raising drives, which was probably their primary reason for rejecting Kennedy; i.e., to keep it neutral, get a cowboy.

On March 7, 2019, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted an event they described as "troubling trends for press freedom and democracy itself" titled "The War on the Press: A Conversation with Marvin Kalb and Ted Koppel". Koppel's words align with some of the points I've made here, as well as those I made in several article talk page discussions that were not well received and led to my indefinite topic ban from American politics a few years ago. The topic ban was successfully appealed.

I'm terribly concerned that when you talk about the New York Times these days, when you talk about the Washington Post these days, we're not talking about the New York Times of fifty years ago, and we are not talking about the Washington Post of fifty years ago; we're talking about organizations that I believe have in fact decided, as an organization, that Donald J. Trump is bad for the United States. We have things appearing on the front page of the New York Times right now that never would have appeared fifty years ago. Analysis, commentary, on the front page.
— Ted Koppel [11][12]

Somewhere around mid to late 1990s, I was doing a bit of field production for CNN Headline News, and I remember one assignment in particular in mid-January 1999 that involved an interview with an associate of George D. Lundberg and it coincided with the Clinton impeachment trial. I became a little suspicious while taping the interview because the news anchor's line of questioning steered the response. When I watched the edited segment on the news, it was easy to spot the political spin. In contrast, the Washington Post, which did not align so closely with CNN back then as they do now, published a factually accurate article, same time frame, same subject. Their article stated: George D. Lundberg, for 17 years the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, was summarily fired yesterday morning because of the upcoming publication of an article his boss believes is appearing largely "to exact political leverage" for the president in his current impeachment travail.[13] That particular shoot marked a milestone in my career because it motivated me to focus entirely on nature programming. Nature doesn't play around with politics; in fact, she doesn't play around at all.

Bias, prejudice and POV creep

Red: Are you sure this is where ArbCom dropped the thermostat control?
Blue: No, but look at the chilling effect of absolute power. It may be the answer to global warming.

Not all admins who have taken on the task of arbitration enforcement choose to act unilaterally. The majority are lenient, understanding, even-tempered, proven problem solvers, prefer a consensus approach, and have done an excellent job at leaving their biases at login. We tend to see them as superheroes because they handle the tedious jobs and assume tasks that few are willing to execute. As a result, they have earned the community's trust and are not at issue here; however, political bias can materialize unnoticed.

When enforcing discretionary sanctions, admins are authorized by Arbcom to take unilateral action using their sole discretion against a disruptive editor. I seriously doubt WP has an excess of administrators who are completely void of political bias, but I believe most admins are good-intentioned and will try to do the right thing. Anonymity does tend to make people bolder. It is also easy to get the wrong impression and harbor preconceived notions about an anonymous contributor based on a simple misunderstanding of intent or misinterpretation of something they innocently said or did. It is not always easy to WP:AGF, especially when editing in controversial topic areas. It is also quite conceivable to think real life may be a priority for some admins, who find themselves pressed for the time to properly review a case, and read all the diffs in context in order to avoid rash judgments; that's one rash calamine lotion doesn't help. We are all capable of being overly emotional, getting frustrated and impatient, or saying and doing things we may regret later but admins rarely falter. We are all volunteers, each with our own personal reason for wanting to help build the encyclopedia, while collaborating productively and doing our best to avoid disruption...except when we're not, and then it becomes a war of the worlds.

One of the consequences of Arbcom's decision to delegate such unleashed power to individual admins in the name of AE was a shift in balance that did not actually resolve the problems that crop up at controversial articles; rather, it simply took things in a different direction and opened the door to POV creep; i.e., bias and prejudice, unknowing or otherwise. Today's clickbait media and biased news sources are what I consider interest compounded daily except it's not in the form of money in our pockets, rather it's trouble on our plates. People are naturally drawn to sources that agree with their political POV as evidenced by a January 2020 analysis conducted by Pew Research.[14] To that, add today's journalistic opinion and conglomerates pushing a political agenda in an echo chamber, and we have the perfect storm.

The real issues

Arguing politics with a brick wall won't make you a mortar. You'll just be accused of stonewalling and find yourself on the other side of that wall with a t-ban.

Admins are elected by the community, in part, to take quick action against vandals and stop disruption, not silence political opposition in an effort to prevent disruption. Disruption is subjective and falls under multiple definitions, which increases the potential for POV creep. Do the math: sole discretion + unilateral action + a relatively high level of protection against reversal = Fort Knox. But articles get even more protection via DS because the common remedies used are restraint and restrictions. Restraint comes in the form of indef t-bans, article bans, blocks, iBans, etc. Restrictions come in the form of BRD, 1RR consensus required, semi- or full-page protection, and on and on...all via DS, be it whole or in part, or what one editor referred to as do-it-yourself ruminations that look more like the Mad Hatter at play on the internet than anything Arbcom or the more thoughtful volunteers at AE would consider useful. Whatever we call it, it inhibits the free exchange of thoughts and ideas that WP was founded on. And what exactly do restraints and restrictions accomplish? Discretionary sanctions open the door to gaming and inevitably, to tendentious editing which is what Arbcom's remedy was supposed to prevent.

Few editors have dared to speak up about the issues because of the chilling effects of having admins with unbridled power targeting specific editors and creating designer sanctions customized for that editor only. Any admin who believes they know an editor well enough to predict their responses and actions is involved in the sense that preconceived notions take the form of prejudice and are a valid reason for Arbcom to consider some form of admin rotation in controversial topic areas.

I'm not sure how we went from a panel of arbitrators imposing binding solutions to individual administrators imposing binding solutions, with the exception that admins can use sole discretion with unbridled power that individual arbitrators don't even possess; Arbcom must act as a panel. With reference to the amendment portion of my ARCA case last year, the relative responses to my DS/AE questions by three arbitrators were encouraging. Hopefully, the committee will see the need to rein in the unbridled power they've delegated now that some of the unforeseen consequences have come to light, including micromanagement of an entire topic area, POV creep and neutrality questions, prejudice, an unhealthy degree of INVOLVED and overreach that goes beyond the scope of regular administrative duties. Such absolute power doesn't just create a chilling effect, it creates glaciers, and Arbcom has full control of the thermostat. The question is, will they take the necessary actions?


  1. ^ Wallace, Danielle (2019-12-05). "Pamela Karlan says she once crossed the street to avoid a Trump hotel in DC". Fox News. Retrieved 2020-05-19.
  2. ^ Bagdikian, Ben. "Democracy On Deadline: Who Owns The Media". PBS. Retrieved 2020-05-19.
  3. ^ Newton, Ken (2015-11-27). "Public Service and Commercial Broadcasting: Impacts on Politics and Society". The Political Quarterly. 87 (1). Wiley: 31–38. doi:10.1111/1467-923x.12214. ISSN 0032-3179.
  4. ^ "CPB FAQ". CPB. 2016-01-06. Retrieved 2020-05-20.
  5. ^ a b Bullert, B.J. (1997). Public Television: Politics and the Battle Over Documentary Film. Communications, media, and culture. Rutgers University Press. p. 18. ISBN 978-0-8135-2470-2. Retrieved 2020-05-20.
  6. ^ Waldman, Steve (July 2011). "Public Broadcasting" (PDF). The Information Needs Of Communities: The changing media landscape in a broadband age. FCC. Retrieved 2020-05-20.
  7. ^ Media Law and Ethics. Taylor & Francis. p. 328. Retrieved 2020-05-19.
  8. ^ ""Sturgeon: Ancient Survivors of the Deep". Chicago Tribune. 1996-05-26. Retrieved 2020-05-11.
  9. ^ ""Sturgeon: Ancient Survivors of the Deep"". The Cincinnati Enquirer. 1996-09-01. Retrieved 2020-05-11.
  10. ^ ""Sturgeon: Ancient Survivors of the Deep"". Wausau Daily Herald. 1997-05-25. Retrieved 2020-05-11.
  11. ^ "The War on the Press: A Conversation with Marvin Kalb and Ted Koppel". Pulitzer Center. 2019-03-01. Retrieved 2020-05-12.
  12. ^ Wemple, Erik (2019-03-20). "Ted Koppel: Post, NYT have 'decided...Trump is bad for the United States'". Washington Post. Retrieved 2020-05-12.
  13. ^ Brown, David (1999-01-17). " Special Report: Clinton Accused". Washington Post. Retrieved 2020-05-11.
  14. ^
In this issue
+ Add a comment

Discuss this story

These comments are automatically transcluded from this article's talk page. To follow comments, add the page to your watchlist. If your comment has not appeared here, you can try purging the cache.
  • I disagree, we all know there are some admins with more power than others and can get their way. I remember admins violating strict ARBCOM rules, and yet nothing happened because of status. There most certainly is a hierarchy and that is chilling and when those admins have absolute power to block and ban, then it makes people shut up in front of them. Sir Joseph (talk) 19:56, 31 May 2020 (UTC)[reply]
  • Atsme, thank you for providing this context. The BBC article was, at various points, disturbing (e.g., the parts about harassment and death threats) and puzzling, or perhaps just written unclearly (e.g., the article appears to equate "fear[ing] for [one's] safety" and having one's work "contested"/receiving "negative feedback"). The article Gender bias on Wikipedia invokes images of a scrap pile—an unorganized collection of many potentially useful bits and pieces. If you're open to a suggestion: it may help to clarify to whom the "we" in "we occasionally encounter" refers. -- Black Falcon (talk) 04:43, 1 June 2020 (UTC)[reply]
  • You are quite welcome, Black Falcon. As for clarification, "we" would be any editor who edits political articles and happens to encounter such a discussion, hopefully not as the target of bullying or aggression. I set-up "us" and "we" in the lead sentence of that section. 😊 Atsme Talk 📧 13:37, 1 June 2020 (UTC)[reply]
  • You make a good point in that last sentence. "Not that fun" can be a death knell for something that's 100% volunteer driven. That noxious aroma could put off more and more people from more and more topics. ☆ Bri (talk) 03:15, 1 June 2020 (UTC)[reply]
  • Thank you for mentioning the overturn issue, Nosebagbear. Disruption in one admin's eyes may not be disruption in another's, and the same applies to PAs, as exampled in this discussion. Another problem with difficulty in overturning, it handcuffs an editor to the actioning admin (apologies for using my case diffs but I cannot make bold statements without evidence and they're handy), and that simply doesn't work, especially when an admin wants/expects the editor to rethink their approach generally which I consider cognitive restructuring, and an attempt to modify an editor's thought process so that they fit into a particular mold in the homogenized utopian community built in the mind of the acting admin. That is not the job of our administrators, especially if the case was one where there was no disruption worthy of triggering an action in the first place, and it can and does happen. I think it does more harm than good to the project. Admins were elected to stop disruption, not prevent it based on their POV, political persuasion and/or prejudice against an editor, unknowing or otherwise. Prejudice and bias is hard to detect when you're the one wearing it. Atsme Talk 📧 15:17, 1 June 2020 (UTC)[reply]
  • IP editor, who registered to vandalise Paatal Lok by calling it "Hinduphobic" (basically a term used by right-wingers in India against movies, TV shows and their cast if the villain happens to be an "upper caste" Hindu) - Got banned immediately, no issues.
  • Some Indian editors, requested in a half-polite half-rude manner on Talk:2020 Delhi riots that it be noted that Muslims started the violence (I personally believe both sides were acting out of hatred). This request was denied by other editors multiple times, because mainstream media showed the side on which Hindus were mainly committing crimes, while biased sites were showing what the right-wingers wanted.
  • An experienced editor was editing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (basically the Bharatiya Janata Party’s parent organisation) in ways suggesting that it was a Hindu supremacist organisation, but added sources. While adding sources is good, the issue lay in the type of sources, and in the fact that many of those sources seemed to be inherently biased.
  • Not on Wikipedia, but an amateur journalist working for an Indian right-wing fake news outlet (technically, they do report real news, but they twist it to match their agenda) wrote an article about Wikipedia being a haven for leftists and all such nonsense, when he got banned for adding his reviews to movies and harassing other Wikipedians.
  • The same media outlet above later doxed the experienced editor in the third case (they found his name, education, employer and some people demanded that he be fired and arrested for bias, and even filed a case with the police! Of course, I don’t know if he was fired or arrested but I guess multinational corporations and the police have better things to do than appease Indian jerkservatives who are hurt by what they read from some American servers).
  • So to conclude, political bias is a bigger problem in some areas, and it has already reached serious levels. With these levels of harassment and misbehaviour, we may need stricter rules than before. RedBulbBlueBlood9911Talk 14:57, 2 June 2020 (UTC)[reply]
(You will notice I have not argued why biased writing is wrong on the basic principles of NPOV, encyclopedic writing, and ethical behavior. I am arguing for what might convince editors who might be willing to change: strategy, tactics, and exposure to the real strength of the opposition.) DGG ( talk ) 01:10, 5 June 2020 (UTC)[reply]


The Signpost · written by many · served by Sinepost V0.9 · 🄯 CC-BY-SA 4.0