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.]

Election 2008 McCain Obama The Media The Opinionsphere

How the Media Created Independents

[digg-reddit-me]Many pundits and both campaigns have declared this the year of the independent voter ((It’s also the year of the Hillary voter, Reagan Democrats, and the libertarian voter.)) – and both presidential campaigns are making serious attempts to reach out to these unaffiliated voters. It is often noted that not all of these independent voters are created equal. They can be divided into three roughly described camps:

  • the partisan independent who is a conservative or liberal, in all but name, who generally consumes media appropriate to his or her silent affiliation (e.g., the independent who watches Fox News, listens to Rush Limbaugh, and reads Ann Coulter, and agrees with all these sources or his or her liberal counterpart);
  • the issue independent who has strong positions on particular issues and will vote for whatever candidate supports those issues (e.g. a pro-life independent who is against the death penalty, war, and abortion who doesn’t know who to support this election cycle);
  • the character independent – whom this piece is about.

The character independents (hereinafter, just “independents”) supported McCain over Bush in 2000; and Obama over Clinton in 2008. In this election season, independents supported Obama over Clinton and his opponents and McCain over all of his Republican opponents, and in the polls so far, the independents are breaking evenly between Obama and McCain.

How is it that this group can be so evenly split – see-sawing this way and that – when the differences between the two candidates they are viewing are so stark?

I have a suspicion as to what’s going on here – as I am in many ways a character independent myself. My central idea is this: These independents are media creations – not media creations in the way that soccer moms and security moms were – stereotypes created to give flavor to election coverage – but creations of the media environment itself. Independent voters are individuals who have internalized the media’s approach to issues.

A while ago, I wrote a piece about a fundamental flaw in the mainstream media coverage of virtually every issue, every event, and every policy. While opinion columnists and the partisan press often take a side in reporting these issues – for example, “Global warming is real;” or “Obama is not a Muslim;” or “As far as we can tell, the Swift Boaters are just making stuff up” – the mainstream media will report both sides of each issue or policy or accusation. Within their piece, they might give slightly more credence to one point of view than another – and end the piece on a high note for one side or another – but they are generally careful to avoid taking sides, even when the facts support one side overwhelmingly.

The problem is that the mainstream media has adopted an understanding of fairness that treats competing claims as equally valid, irrespective of the opinion of the reporter, or even of the facts. ((This is demonstrated rather clearly in this piece in the Washington Post from 2004 that asserts that both Kerry’s account and the Swift Boaters’ accounts “contain significant flaws and factual errors” while only providing evidence to back up the flaws and errors in the Swift Boaters’ allegations. The main flaw in Kerry’s information is that he did not provide enough evidence to disprove the Swift Boaters, while the Swift Boaters also provided no evidence to prove their case. Thus, overall the piece portrays it as a wash.))

The mainstream press attempts to adapt every story into their he-said, she-said paradigm – rather than fulfilling their journalistic responsibility to attempt to write the first rough draft of history, however flawed it may be. They avoid the facts at hand and instead merely transcribe the competing allegations, careful not to let their own reporting interfere. This leads – for example – to 53% of stories in the mainstream press about global warming to question the basic premises of this theory, while within peer-reviewed scientific journals, 0% of stories call into question the basic premises. This disconnect between reality as understood by science and the reporting on the science is what has lead to a 15 year interim between the scientific consensus on global warming and the finally emerging political consensus. If the reporters covering this story had done their work properly, they could have called the global warming skeptics what they were – oil industry shills – instead of reporting on their work as independent and nearly as credible as the vast majority of scientists.

Most voters’ only contact with any presidential candidate is through the media – so it is only natural that the media substantially affects their choices. ((This goes for those whose main sources are partisan media as well.)) An independent-minded person viewing or reading media that presents every issue as he-said, she-said has to develop a method of resolving this conflict between  the he’s and she’s. While a partisan will pick a team, and strongly tend to come down on the side of that team, an independent takes pride in seeing both sides of every issue – just as the media does. But while the media can avoid taking a side, an independent must – every two years or so – vote and make a choice. ((I don’t mean to suggest that independents don’t have strong opinions and preferences; rather, once they have resolved how to deal with the media’s framing, they often have very strong opinions.))

While the media is always able to find opposing sets of competing allegations, reality is not so simple. The media shouldn’t give equal time to claims by McCain that offshore drilling will reduce oil prices significantly and by Obama that it will not. They know one side is wrong and the other right. The media shouldn’t give equal time to scientists and skeptics about global warming. One side has evidence – the other side only has money. Since the right learned to manipulate the media by directly contradicting their opponents’ positions, no matter the facts, they have won election after election.

By distorting the news to fit into their paradigm, the media has created a class of voters who see both sides of every issue – even when the facts clearly favor one side. For the past ten years, as the media has been manipulated, so have they. And obvious policy choices and elections suddenly become competitive. This same pattern is emerging this year as the media treats Obama’s policies and McCain’s policies equally – even when one is reality-based and the other defined by political expediency. And so, independents are split equally so far in a year that should favor the Democrats.

But you can see that the Republicans are getting nervous – as the media finally began to cover the McCain campaign with the same intensity it has been using to cover Obama’s because of the Palin pick. Yesterday – all night – the Republicans attacked the media. They want to raise doubts in the minds of independents in case the media finally turns on them. In the end, it’s clear how the media will cover these attacks. They will get McCain operatives to give quotes bashing their reporting, and then they will get some reporters to comment on how they’re trying to be fair. And independents will see both sides.

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Obama World Tour Round-up

Even Obama’s supposed private moments on his world tour ended up generating positive headlines.

There was this supposedly private exchange between Obama and Conservative party leader, David Cameron, in London caught by ABC News:

“These guys just chalk your diary up,” said Cameron, referring to a packed schedule.

“Right,” Obama said. “In 15 minute increments …”

“We call it the dentist’s waiting room,” Cameron said. “You have to scrap that because you’ve got to have time.”

“And, well, and you start making mistakes,” Obama said, “or you lose the big picture. Or you lose a sense of, I think you lose a feel- ”

“Your feeling,” interrupted Cameron. “And that is exactly what politics is all about. The judgment you bring to make decisions.”

And then there was the prayer note Obama placed in the Western Wall in Jerusalem which was taken out by a student and published on the front page of the Israeli paper Maariv:


Protect my family and me. Forgive me my sins and help me guard against pride and despair.

Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just.

And make me an instrument of your will.

The student later apologized and replaced the note in the wall.

Meanwhile, after McCain make Obama’s trip more and more newsworthy by challenging him to go to Iraq and around the world, he was left in America whining about the media’s “love affair” with Obama – even as a new survey came out showing that though Obama received more coverage than McCain, a larger percentage of the stories were critical of Obama.

Despite this overwhelming media bias in favor of McCain, Obama is leading in virtually every poll.  And if – as has traditionally happened – the media closes ranks with the Democrats come late October, this bodes well for Obama.