Criticism Politics The Media The Opinionsphere

On Media Bias

There was a time when news organizations could pronounce the Conventional Wisdom of our society as a whole authoritatively. This Wisdom was not decided on by the media – but rather once it had reached a critical mass of acceptance among the media professionals, the political class, and the public at large, a news organization would close down the debate and declare it so. Before this point, various news organizations would be engaged in the battle for what was accepted as true and what was not. Pronouncing and explaining the Conventional Wisdom was the main focus of the biggest news organizations of the 1950s and 1960s. Time magazine, the New York Times, CBS News – all prided themselves on this. But there came moments when a news organization catalyzed opinion so suddenly, when they played a decisive role in creating the Conventional Wisdom. For example, when news organizations showed the images of the children with fire hoses turned on them – and vicious dogs – in Birmingham, the brutality of the oppression of black Americans was driven home. When Walter Cronkite declared “the bloody experience of Vietnam is a stalemate” and that the war was “unwinnable,” Lyndon Johnson famously declared he had lost “Middle America.”

Right-wingers – seeing how the media had decisively affected the course of both the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam protests by influencing the Conventional Wisdom – began a deliberate campaign to undermine the media’s ability to play such a role again. They promulgated studies of media bias, promoted conservative media and commentary, opposed regulations ensuring the equal treatment of controversial subjects on public airwaves, and constantly repeated the talking points about a liberal media elite. By the 1980s, they had mainly succeeded in delegitimizing the mainstream news organizations in the eyes of conservatives, right-wingers, and Republicans – but independents and those towards the left continued to see these news organizations as legitimate.

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that progressives, liberals, and Democrats, began to seriously question the legitimacy of these news organizations – as the Clinton witch hunt became frenzied. Most though just saw this whole episode as tawdry. They saw it reflecting badly on both the president and the news organizations who followed each revelation with tabloid-like zeal.

The real turning point came in the lead-up to the Iraq war, the success of Fox News with their Orwellian slogan, “We Report, You Decide,” and the election of 2004 – as Karl Rove and the Republicans attempted to influence those outside of their base with a deliberate strategy of manipulating the media. The last straw for many came in 2004 as Rove sought to discredit John Kerry by promoting the extreme allegations of a handful of Vietnam veterans who accused Kerry of faking his injuries. News organizations, wary of being branded “liberal” and adhering to standards of faux-objectivity, reported the story in their classic, unenlightening “he said, she said” style. What they did not report prominently was that many of these reporters had researched these allegations and came to the conclusion that Kerry’s Swift Boat attackers were wrong in their accusations. To report this truth would be to compromise their objectivity and take a side in a presidential campaign.

Liberals, progressives, and Democrats – seeing how these news organizations had been deliberately manipulated by Rove – began to realize the flaws in these news organizations and how they affected the public debate and the Conventional Wisdom. From this came the boom in the progressive blogosphere – some, like Talking Points Memo and Huffington Post focused on reporting from a progressive perspective; others, like the Daily Kos, MoveOn, and myDD on creating an online communities for progressives.

By the 2008 election, both Democrats and Republicans contested the Conventional Wisdom of the mainstream news organizations constantly – and partisans on both sides developed their own communities around their own set of agreed facts and opinions – creating their own “conventional wisdom.” It seemed that there was only one group left trusting the legitimacy of news organizations – independents.

[Image by Chris Seufert licensed under Creative Commons.]

Criticism Law Politics The Opinionsphere

Yes, the Senate Can Refuse to Seat Roland Burris

[digg-reddit-me]Ever since Governor Blagojevich announced his appointment of Roland Burris to take Obama’s Senate seat, the Conventional Wisdom has been that while Blagojevich’s actions are unseemly they are within the law – and more importantly, that Harry Reid and the rest of the Senate can’t do anything to stop Burris from being seated. The LA Times opined:

Exasperated as they are at being outfoxed by Blagojevich, his colleagues and critics must face the fact that he is still the governor of Illinois and empowered to appoint an interim U.S. senator. It’s not a pretty situation, but it’s the law.

The Wall Street Journal suddenly discovered the Constitution and the Rule of Law after eight years of amnesia1 and declared that this was a matter of “Harry Reid v. the Constitution,” claiming without equivocation that Blagojevich had “every legal right” to appoint Burris, that the “Beltway Democrats can’t inject themselves into what is clearly a matter of Illinois law,” and finally that:

Nowhere in the Constitution is there a “qualification” saying that a Senator must not have been appointed by an embarrassing Illinois Governor…now that Mr. Burris has been appointed, Mr. Reid can’t legally deny him his seat. If this is the way Democrats are going to use their new monopoly on Beltway power even against a member of their own party, we’re in for an ugly couple of years.

David Gregory, temporarily sans smirk, parroted the same Conventional Wisdom on this morning’s Meet the Press.

This Conventional Wisdom holds that the 1969 Supreme Court case of Powell v. McCormack limits the Senate’s power to take action pursuant to Article I, Section 5 of the Constitition. The Article states:

Each House shall be the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members…

Powell limited this power by holding that:

In judging the qualifications of its members under Art. I, § 5, Congress is limited to the standing qualifications expressly prescribed by the Constitution.

What the LA Times and Wall Street Journal and David Gregory fail to take into account – whether deliberately or not is unclear – is that the Powell case revolved around the question of whether the Congress could judge the qualifications of a member and exclude him or her for bad conduct while Reid is making his case under the Senate’s power to judge the process by which it’s members are selected or elected. On Meet the Press, Reid said that he didn’t know of anything Burris had done wrong or any qualification he lacked. Rather Reid pointed to the tainted process which lead to Burris’s appointment as the problem. This is an entirely separate issue from the one decided in Powell – in which a duly elected Congressman was denied his seat for misconduct during the previous session of Congress:

Our examination of the relevant historical materials leads us to the conclusion that …the Constitution leaves the House without authority to exclude any person, duly elected by his constituents, who meets all the requirements for membership expressly prescribed in the Constitution.

The key phrase being “duly elected.” The Senate still has the power to judge the returns and the elections – and this power was not limited by Powell. The corruption of the process leading to Burris’s appointment is also what Reid & co. keep harping on – rather than Burris’s qualifications. An election of a Senator marred by corruption, like a corrupt appointment, is to be judged by the Senate. Akhil Reed Amar and Josh Chafetz explain the history of this power and it’s previous invocations.

If Reid chooses to push this claim of Constitutional authority and refuses to seat Burris, he may well prevail, proving once again John Kenneth Galbraith’s prescience:

The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events.

  1. That’s unfair. The Journal always remembers to invoke the Constitution when slamming Democrats. It only ignores it when Republicans are acting unconstitutionally. []