08/07/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Iran, Al Sharpton, Sarah Palin and Myths About "Media Bias"

Iran and Pakistan and North Korea -- places that the media recently cited as crucial to the future of the United States -- have obviously become less relevant to our fate since Michael Jackson passed away.

That gives us time to ponder, with Al Sharpton, whether the media have been treating Jackson more poorly than if he were white. And to ponder whether Sarah Palin is right that the media have been helping make it impossible for her to govern Alaska, much less America.

As near as I can tell, the King of Pop looked and acted whiter than Palin, and is being given more artistic credit than he is due. And Palin herself seems to enjoy acting like the sort of victim that Sharpton loves to represent.

The late Trappist monk Thomas Merton said that our image of God says more about us than about God. Our image of CBS similarly seems to say more about us than about CBS, a point underscored masterfully by Reason's Matt Welch a few years ago.

Surveys over the years consistently show a political tilt among journalists. This is no conspiracy: journalism is a natural home for liberals who dress badly. The notion of exposing truths in order to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted" comes easily to such persons. Those who worry about social justice tend to gravitate more readily to journalism than to business.

And yet such idealists, once they enter the profession, are swept away by the imperatives of a commercial twister that drops them off, with a microphone, at the entrance to Neverland, cursing the day they eschewed law school. Yes, reporters as a whole are relatively liberal -- but the major bias of the system in which they work is toward trivia, not toward ideology.

These hapless reporters should not have been surprised. In his landmark book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, cultural critic Neil Postman traced how technological advances in communication unwittingly pushed American public discourse from weightiness to mere fluff. When we began to receive more information than we could possibly digest, we grew able to digest only that which is tasty and entertaining -- in politics, in education, even in religion. For all our "progress," we have regressed in the most important matter -- the ability to have a serious national discussion about issues that matter the most.

And with that, we now turn you over to more up-to-the-minute coverage. Coverage that treats Michael Jackson as a bigger hero than Elvis, even though that's not nearly enough for the posturing Al Sharpton. Coverage that quickly forgets about Mark Sanford, even though conservatives often feel singled out for nasty treatment.

"If you stare at anything long enough," Welch wrote in 2004, "it will look more like what you're obsessed with than what it actually is."

Indeed, that is why the sharp-elbowed partisans, the Sharptons and Palins, stare at the media and sense a sinister machine that blocks the world from recognizing their own greatness.

But for the great mass of Americans, who are relatively unobsessed with such partisanship, they merely see the mainstream media as a peculiar form of vaudeville -- which has rarely been more trivial than it is today.