Friday, February 23, 2007

Negative Space

rodin_thinkerA friend of mine posted a piece that leads up to a question for which I will give an answer in due course... but first, a thought experiment.

I want you to think of two movies made in the last ten years. Pick any movies, A and B, that you want, with the following restrictions on your choice: Movie A must have a villain who is a billionaire industrialist. Either he is rich because he was evil to start with and his wealth came from unscrupulous business practices, or he was not bad initially but has been corrupted by his wealth. For movie B, on the other hand, you must pick one with a hero who is a billionaire industrialist. He must be admirable both personally and in his business dealings. He must be sane and sensible and, while he may be a bit eccentric, he must be respected by others in his industry.

I'll give you a minute...

[Jeopardy theme plays three times... de de dee de dee de dum...]

Got them? No? Why not?

Let me guess. Picking movie B is hard, isn't it? There are hundreds of choices for movie A. Almost any thriller will do. But finding movie B is tough. I can think of two, right off hand, that seem to meet the requirements: The Edge, 1997, and Meet Joe Black, 1998. Interestingly, both billionaires were played by the same actor -- Anthony Hopkins. I don't know why he has cornered the market on admirable billionaires, but there you go.

So the point of my thought experiment is to suggest that the portrayals of the very rich in popular films are almost always negative, and unless we believe that almost all real-life billionaires are evil geniuses it is hard to escape the conclusion that we are looking at some sort of bias, at least from a statistical point of view. But many phenomena that are exceedingly clear at the macro level become very difficult to see when one looks at the individual instances and it is very difficult to find a film that, all by itself, is demonstrably unfair to the rich. It is perfectly fair to write a screenplay in which the villain is very rich. There are many real-life examples of evil billionaires (George Soros comes to mind for me but you can substitute your favorite rich SOB) and it is perfectly fair to write such people into a work of fiction.

Bollywood features from India deliberately attempt to have equal portions of everything in each film -- equal amounts of comedy, drama, action, romance, music, etc. -- and with that one possible exception there is no requirement that every movie should portray every possible type of character. This means that one can never criticize any single film for a negative portrayal of the super rich. The filmmaker can always say "Yes, I could do a story about a heroic rich guy, but that is not the story I am doing right now." It's not his job to correct the balance of the industry. He is supposed to give the public a film they will enjoy and to give the production company a film that will make them money. It is not the fault of film A that film B never seems to get made. One will never find proof of Hollywood's anti-industrial biases by looking at individual films or filmmakers. The bias is altogether obvious in the large but it disappears in the particular.

Which brings me to my friend, Calvin, and his posting (also here) about the female Pakistani minister shot dead for 'breaking Islamic dress code.' It has to do with Zilla Huma Usman, the minister for social welfare in Punjab province of Pakistan who was shot dead for not wearing what her killer considered to be proper Islamic head wear. Calvin wonders why her story doesn't get more play.
So far I have not seen any outrage expressed about this. You'd think that someone, some human rights organization somewhere, could put out a press release or something. And given that the fanatic committed this murder in the name of Islam, wouldn't you think that someone in a position of authority in the Islamic faith would speak out against what's being done in Islam's name? So far, I haven't seen any. At least no statements have made it into Google's search engine yet. In the land of free speech, has Keith Ellison, the Islamic member of the House of Representatives spoken out? Nothing on his official U.S. House web site. No press release. No statement. No nothing.
So, why doesn't her story have more legs? Why do you have to read about it here, or in some random LiveJournal page, instead of in the Associated Press? [To be fair, it did make the AP wire but very few outlets picked it up. here is a story from Fox News.]

The news outlets might point out that thousands of people are killed every day, most of them for reasons fully as stupid as not wearing a head scarf, and they can't all be worldwide news. The front pages just aren't big enough and the news media have to pick and choose what they think will interest their customers. One can easily criticize news organizations when they write stories that aren't fair -- but it's harder to criticize them when it isn't fair that they didn't write a story.

In general, if your perspective differs from that of the editors of a news outlet you will find the negative shapes formed by missing stories easier to discern. If you mostly agree with the editor's world-view, this "selection" bias becomes hard to see. And since editors agree with themselves 100 percent of the time, and since they agree with one-another nearly as often, they are genuinely mystified by charges of bias.

I, for one, can't even argue honestly that the story really is that interesting. Pakistan is a long way away, after all, and the guy who shot her was clearly a crank. There is no particular reason why the story should get a lot of play. Its lack of coverage only stands out against the bright background of other stories of even less import that are covered 24/7 for weeks. No one was killed or injured in the scandal at Abu Grahib, for instance, but we heard quite a bit about that... yes, quite a bit... too much, in fact. Please forget I brought it up.

Update: Brent Bozell has a piece on bias via story selection that echoes some of my points.

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