Biased reporting is such an inescapable reality that discerning news consumers must be able to identify and articulate the forms of it bias takes. Few outlets provide a better example of such clearly unfair treatment as televised interviews.
At their best, interviews give us a chance to learn more about the most pressing issues of the day from experts on the topic. At their worst, they give the interviewer the chance to amplify one side of the argument while undermining the other.
A perfect illustration of bias took place on the May 11, 2021, edition of MSNBC’s “Ayman Mohyeldin Reports.” The interview features numerous tactics commonly used during biased interviews. While Mohyeldin invited two sides of the Israeli-Gaza conflict — Palestinian activist Mohammed El-Kurd and former Israeli Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Mark Regev — their treatment could hardly have been more different.
Selection of a biased interviewer
One way to assure a lopsided interview is to assign the story to an interviewer with a personal stake in the argument. “Conflicts of interest come in many shapes — financial holdings, romantic relationships, family ties, book deals, speaking engagements, and others,” according to the NPR Ethics Handbook (produced at taxpayer expense). The deception goes further if the viewers are unaware of this conflict of interest.
Ayman Mohyeldin was born in Cairo to a Palestinian mother, according to the Middle Eastern edition of GQ magazine, yet this fact was not disclosed to the audience during this segment. As if to remove all doubt, the morning of the interview, Mohyeldin tweeted: “The latest Israel-Palestine crisis isn’t a ‘real estate dispute.’ It’s ethnic cleansing.”
— Ayman Mohyeldin (@AymanM) May 11, 2021
Framing of guests (e.g., poisoning the well)
Another tactic to create a biased interview involves the way the guests are presented. The way an announcer introduces each guest to his audience primes viewers for how they should react: Which details the host chooses to include or exclude can influence the way the audience cognitively processes the information each guest presents.
In this segment, Mohyeldin described his first guest, Mohammed El-Kurd, as a “Palestinian facing eviction” — that is, as someone personally affected by Israeli encroachments. He introduced Israeli Ambassador to the United Kingdom Mark Regev as an Israeli government official, presumably responsible for the other guest’s plight — which is exactly how Mohyledin framed his questions.
Questions contain either an invitation or an accusation
The most transparent kinds of bias involve the questions the interviewer asks, as well as differing treatment afforded to the guests. To help locate the bias, listen carefully to the question and see whether it contains an invitation or an accusation. A friendly interviewer will invite his guest to give his or her side of the story. Questions of this sort usually contain phrases like, “Tell us about …,” “Set the stage for us …”, or “Give us your analysis of ….”
A hostile interviewer will embed an accusation into his question. These questions usually contain negative data, a hostile/demeaning quotation, or a seemingly authoritative consensus that contradicts the argument that the guest is making. The interviewer is acting as a de facto debate opponent rather than eliciting information.
These devices are key ways reporters expand or contract debate. An invitation tells the guest to respond to the question; it gives the guest an opportunity to repeat prepared talking points about the underlying issue. An accusation constricts debate by demanding the guest respond to a narrow issue, usually something that undermines his argument. Since interview time is precious, that means the guest will have less time to discuss his or her talking points and make the strongest case for the opposing side.
But discerning news consumers must make one more distinction: Citing an objection to the guest’s viewpoint does not in itself mark a hostile interview. In fact, one variant of this tactic can actually work as an invitation: the invitation to refute a straw man argument. In these cases, the host will invite his guest to respond to opponents who are not present and, thus, unable to make a stronger case for themselves.
The way to tell the difference is the level of specificity and detail contained in the accusation. Extended quotations (often placed on the screen to make them more memorable), a series of statistics, or appeals to authority are intended to knock a guest off-base. A vague or unattributed objection, preceded by “How do you respond to those who would say …,” is an invitation to refute. This kind of invitation is a form of poisoning the well that keeps viewers from taking the other argument seriously when they hear it.
In this interview, Mohyeldin asked El-Kurd three questions, each of which contained an invitation. He began, “Walk us through the situation. What has it been like for you and your family during this latest escalation that we have seen play out?” Later, he told El-Kurd, “I want you to tell us and our viewers what this is to you and your family and to other Palestinians experiencing this,” and adding, “I want to give you a chance” to respond to the U.S. State Department.
Mohyeldin also gave El-Kurd an invitation to refute to the other side: “To those who say this is working its way through the legal process and through Israeli courts — what would you say to them?”
Note the lack of specificity and the briefest possible allusion to the Israeli government’s position. No details were given.
By contrast, Mohyeldin’s discussion with Regev was replete with accusations. He began by asking the ambassador to address El-Kurd personally: “Can you commit to him and his family that they will not be expelled from their homes?” This made Regev seem personally responsible for El-Kurd’s fate and, thus, make the audience dislike him.
Mohyeldin then played an extended videotape of an Israeli settler boasting of taking Palestinian land. When Regev responded that the man was a private citizen, Mohyeldin replied, “OK, so if you’re saying he’s a private citizen, let me play for you what the deputy mayor of Jerusalem said ….” He followed that quotation with another extended accusation:
As you very well know, the international community does not recognize your sovereignty over East Jerusalem. A spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner said that any actions in Jerusalem that are enforced that would ultimately evict Palestinian families, under international humanitarian law may amount to a war crime. What do you say to the international community who does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over East Jerusalem and says what you’re doing to families like Mohammed El-Kurd’s and others is possibly a war crime?
Compare the level of specificity and the heated language in this accusation to the invitation to refute that he offered El-Kurd.
Interruption is another common marker of media bias. Hosts let guests who share their views go on at length, or steer them toward a better soundbite, while they cut off or speak over guests who conflict with their own bias.
This was the most evident form of bias in the interview. After Mohyeldin talked over top of Regev twice in a row, Regev responded, “The guy speaking before me, you didn’t interrupt once. Not once, and you’re not letting me finish a sentence, sir. I don’t want to complain, but please.” Mohyeldin immediately interrupted him again.
In all, El-Kurd spoke for three, uninterrupted bursts: 1 minute, 28 seconds; 1 minute, 15 seconds; and 49 seconds.
Regev spoke for 44 seconds; 36 seconds; 5 seconds; 4 seconds; 9 seconds; 7 seconds; 31 seconds; 19 seconds; 50 seconds; 49 seconds; 1 minute, 24 seconds; and 39 seconds.
Challenging or championing the narrative
An interviewer can guide the audience’s reaction by choosing whether to challenge or champion the guest’s statements. If he challenges the statements, he will respond to a statement with an accusation. If he decides to champion the guest’s narrative, he may affirm the tone, confirm the importance of the speaker’s point of view, or allow the guest’s most extreme statements to go unchallenged. Conversely, the most innocuous statements from the other side devolve into a contentious debate.
In this case El-Kurd accused the IDF, whom he called the “Israeli Occupation Forces,” of perpetrating “state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing” with a level of violence that “is incredibly absurd” and “fascist.” The nation of Israel “came about by stealing people’s homes and stealing people’s lands and destroying people’s villages,” and it now continues the practice through “a supremacist judicial system, a colonial judicial system.” Mohyeldin did not accuse him once of misspeaking. Similarly, Mohyeldin kept his silence during his recent interview with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), when she described Israeli policy as a form of “apartheid.”
Revealing or concealing the interview
Finally, bias may occur through selectively editing video. While this is less of a concern during a live show, like Mohyeldin’s, it affects the video segments released on social media.
In this case, MSNBC posted the full interview with El-Kurd on YouTube but only the second half of his interview with Regev. Luckily, Mohyeldin shared the full interview with Regev on his Facebook page.
These are just a few tactics employed to tip the scales during an interview. Recognizing them can help a viewer understand the host’s bias and the questions which need probing if he hopes to get to the bottom of the topic, instead of passively adopting the bias of his host.
Ben Johnson (@therightswriter) is the Media Reporter at The Daily Wire. He previously worked at the Acton Institute, FrontPage Magazine, and LifeSiteNews. He’s the author of three books, including Party of Defeat (2008, with David Horowitz).
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.