Criticism Politics The Media The Opinionsphere

On Media Bias and Conventional Wisdom (cont.)

[digg-reddit-me]I wrote earlier about the history of major news organizations and Conventional Wisdom. It is important to acknowledge though that the role of the news organizations has rarely been more prominent than it was at the beginning of that history – in the 1950s and 1960s.

Where the previous piece ended was with acknowledgement that the Conventional Wisdom of the mainstream news organizations was no longer authoritative – as partisans of the left and right each sought to contest every aspect of the media landscape, and as certain flaws in news gathering, news presentation, and commentary became more apparent.

Those following the biggest news organizations – the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, CNN, CBS, NBC, ABC, TimeNewsweek, the Associated Press, McClatchy, and many of the other top news organizations – can sense a bias if they follow the coverage closely. Though many of the reporters, editors, anchors, and others may subscribe to a mainstream form of liberalism (as polls show), the actions of the news-gatherers and their editors demonstrate that their primary ideology is not liberal but instead is based on cynism and opportunism. (Fox News is the rare case of a newsgathering organization that is almost purely ideological – making its “Fair and Balanced” tagline positively Orwellian.) Even the Huffington Post – which is one of the most liberal news gathering organizations – published off-the-record remarks by their darling, Barack Obama – at a time when it caused him considerable damage. The press went after Bill Clinton – rooting amongst his sexual dalliances – all in search of a scoop. The reporters were pretty brutal in their takes on John Edwards – the most progressive Democratic candidate to have a plausible shot at the Democratic nomination in a generation – even before his affair. If you listen to the members of these news organizations talk – which you can increasingly do with podcasts and other behind-the-scenes takes – the unstated biases are not liberal – but are instead a distrust of every official and every politician – and a desire to make a name for themselves by bringing someone big down with a juicy story.

Another primary aspect of these newsgatherers is faux-objectivity. This sometimes leads to news stories being framed in a manner to give credence to more liberal views (though this primarily is true on social issues rather than political ones) – but more often, it leads to the news stories on controversial topics being presented as “he said, she said.” Campbell Brown presented a perfect example of this faux-journalism recently:

Even as the news organization no longer play an unchallenged role in deciding on the Conventional Wisdom, they still play an important role. No longer can an individual pronounce – as Walter Cronkite did – that Vietnam was “unwinnable” after a news report and succeed in shaping the Conventional Wisdom. No longer can the press hound a president from office on the basis of law-breaking. No longer will those who stand to benefit from the status quo allow a consensus opinion regarding what action should be taken on civil rights or to combat global warming be reached. Partisans would challenge it and attack the messenger – and given the mistrust of most people for the press, they would likely succeed to some extent, which is all they need to paralyze the system.

The most effective way news organizations can – and do – shape the Conventional Wisdom of the public as a whole is to make some conclusion they have reached implicit in their coverage. Some recent examples of such nuggets of conventional wisdom from the press – which are mostly personal characterizations:

  • “Al Gore exaggerates.”
  • “George W. Bush is dumb.”
  • “There’s not much difference between Bush and Gore.”
  • “America doesn’t torture.”
  • “America does torture.”
  • “Dick Cheney is really in charge.”
  • “Joe Biden puts his foot in his mouth.”
  • “Bill Clinton is a philanderer.”
  • “John Edwards is phony.”
  • “Obama throws people under the bus if they’re causing him trouble.”
  • “John McCain is a maverick.”
  • “John McCain is erratic.”
  • “Sarah Palin is out of her depth.”

True, not true; fair or unfair, these conclusions, once reached, became implicit in news coverage, unchallenged by the commentators or the press, and the fodder for late night comedians and political cartoonists. Today, it is probably comedy more than anything else in which the Conventional Wisdom is expressed and accepted.

Probably the most basic rule of faux-journalism is that every event and off-hand remark must be interpreted as confirming the conventional wisdom of the press – becoming part of the litany of “proofs” that the stereotype is true.

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