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August 26, 2005

Media Bias

(This is really long so, uh, sorry about that)

I think we in Blogland can sometimes get too excited about building press persecution sets. Witness, here, Digby on the press's hatred for Hart, and Mannion on its revulsion for Clinton. Happily, Hart and Clinton are the two politicians I know the most about. I got into politics because I wanted to work for Gary Hart, who I first got a wonk's crush on while reading Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes. When I began working for the nascent Hart campaign in 2003, I read just about every news story ever written on the guy. We're talking thousands of Nexis results between 1984 and 1988, in addition to books, journal articles, and memoirs. I'm rather confident I know about as much on Donna Rice as anyone.

Clinton was my next stop. I read Maraniss, and Primary Colors, of course. I read Michael Kelly on both family members, Hendrik Hertzberg, Chris Hitchens, James Carville, John Harris, the whole crew. I loved reading about the guy, I still find him the planet's most fascinating politician. And the two echo each other fairly well. Clinton is Hart with less vision, Hart Clinton with fewer social skills, and I think it's helpful to view them as a progression, particularly when trying to apprehend the press corps' apparent animus.

To go chronologically, did you know, in the early 1980's, Hart told a Washington Post reporter that he believed in "reform marriage"?

Like, heavy, man.

That'd pop up every so often in coverage of the guy, mainly in long-form magazine profiles, like Mickey Kaus's Hart cover story for The Washington Monthly. But the funny thing is, it was mostly forgotten by 1988. The press barely ever brought it up. Run a google search, the closest thing you'll find is an allusion in a CNN article. Even when Donna Rice broke, they didn't really go into it. And hell, Hart had enjoyed brilliant coverage in the years before: he was a Man of Ideas, a Politician who Thinks, a Leader who Reads. He predicted the fall of the Soviet Union and was the first to blabber about post-industrial societies. He wanted to reform the military and rewrite the tax code. Did you know Hart's issue pamphlet was 75 pages? 75 pages!!! Everyone who read the coverage on him did. I don't know if they read the pamphlet or not, but they sure heard about its length.

When Donna Rice broke, the press did turn on him. They tore him to shreds. Were they wrong? Yes, they sought blood. But, and I'm saying this as someone who worked for Gary Hart and would vote for him in a second, Hart did his best to help them out. When the feeding frenzy began, he fed it. It was like watching Keynesian economist handle a scandal: when the press wanted more Hart gave them less, when they were ready to accept less, he gave them more. Countercyclical scandal management doesn't work. He was rightfully annoyed at their intrusion into his public life, but he handled the situation with anger, with defensiveness, with rage towards the media. All perfectly reasonable responses, but for a guy who'd dared reporters to peer into his underwear drawer and hinted that he and Lee had an open marriage, he shouldn't have been so shocked.

If you want to know why the press corps didn't let go, though, here's part of it. The famous picture on the boat? The boat was called Monkey Business. When Hart sought solace, he retired to his home in Troublesome Gulch. It was the perfect storm for headline writers. It was the perfect scandal. And Hart, who had always held himself up as a cerebral man of ideas, an intellectual gliding above the partisan and small-minded Senate he occupied, disappointed everyone. This wasn't a torrid affair, it was a stupid boat trip. In part, that's why he was turned on so ferociously. The press bought into the spin they'd given him and when he destroyed, or at least hijacked, the narrative, and then had the gall to demand that they return to covering his ideas and policies, they turned on him.

Was it right? No. But it wasn't that the press hated Gary Hart. They didn't. They may have had questions about him and thought he was odd, but they also found him brilliant and mysterious. But then, when Gary Hart screwed up and all the circumstances around his fuck-up made for good copy, the questions won out over the affection. And when Hart dealt with the intrusion ineptly (particularly after he'd spent months claiming the character problem wasn't a problem because it didn't exist), the affection slunk away. Before that, the press basically liked Hart. At the very least, their coverage of him was strong and positive. But a scandal of his own making -- he was, after all, cheating in the midst of a run for president -- drove him out, and he blamed it in everyone but himself.

As for Clinton, I've never believed the press was biased against him. I think press protocols were biased against him, I think sensationalism was biased against him, I think the Republicans realized how to manipulate the press against him, but I don't think individuals in the corps tried to give him bad coverage. Gennifer Flowers, one way or the other, was a story. So was Paula Jones. The White House, by acting as if they had something to hide, made Whitewater worse than it was, and Vince Foster's suicide added a very strange dimension to the coverage. Monica Lewinsky was, of course, a story, and no one who watched television, if they were given a hypothetical situation that was similar and asked what the press would do, would've thought it'd end with anything but wall-to-wall coverage, particularly once the Republicans began impeachment proceeding and thus gave the newspapers new procedural stories to report each morning. Travelgate, Whitewater and the others were piddling distractions, trumped up stories pushed by Republicans and badly handled by the bumbling infant administration. But Monica was Clinton's fault. It wasn't that he was too earthy or too sexual, he actually did hook up with a White House intern after Paula Jones and Flowers and the Arkansas Project and all the rest. That wasn't a hateful press, that was a stupid president.

It was also, however, a stupid press, who were slaves to reporting rules and competitive pressures they couldn't control. In Hendrik Hertzberg's Politics, he makes an interesting point on the press and Clinton, the sort that I think we don't hear enough:

The group of people I'll call The Press -- by which I mean several dozen political journalists of my acquaintance, many of whom the Buchanan administration may someday round up on suspicion of having Democratic or even liberal sympathies -- was of one mind as the season's first primary campaign shuddered towards its finish. I asked each of them, one after another, this question: If you were a New Hampshire Democrat, whom would you vote for? The answer was always the same, the answer was always Clinton. In this group, in my experience, such unanimity is unheard of.

Joe Klein, David Maraniss, these were folks who believed in Clinton, but later became disillusioned (though, remember, Joe Klein wrote one of the better defenses of Clinton's record in The Natural). They didn't hate the guy. But Clinton's life was salacious. Scandal swirled. As with any magnetic, outsized persona, there was a lot twirling around Bill's orbit, and with news coverage as it is, what got covered was what got ratings. Sex and scandal. When the Press covers a politician like Clinton, they cover him as celebrity because that's the box he fits most neatly into. And, like a celebrity, what gets the most coverage is acting out, acting bad, acting strange, acting interesting. Clinton the wonk certainly made the news, but Clinton the sleazeball made it more often because Clinton the sleazeball was, on an essential level, more interesting, just as Tom Cruise the maniac is a better story than Tom Cruise the competent action movie actor.

In his post, Lance attributes far more bad motives and a far deeper thirst for vengeance than the press corps deserves. In his telling, they're villains. A bunch of incestuous squares furious that the guy they'd wanted to be in high school was once again beating them in the Oval Office. In Lance's telling, they wanted to get 'im, to crush 'im, to teach 'im. But that, I think, is kinda belied by the facts. Maraniss's portrait of Clinton was basically sympathetic. I've read and reread it. It was salacious, sure, but the guy comes off fairly well. Klein was a sycophant till he became disillusioned by Clinton's brazen adultery, but even he came back to the fold to defend the Clinton administration on the merits. These guys didn't want Clinton to fail, they wanted him to succeed. The press corps, which if not liberal is certainly intellectual, didn't like the genial idiot that was Bush I, didn't like the bumbling actor that was Reagan. They were ecstatic to have a brilliant Democrat amble on up to save them from these dunces. And then Clinton failed them. Clinton the Rhode Scholar let Clinton the horndog almost destroy his campaign and then kneecap his presidency. Clinton, in the end, failed them just as Hart had failed them. The dick beat the brain. And their hopes of having a great progressive to cover were flushed down the toilet.

Reporters have a job to do. They have to cover what their editors think are stories. They have to cover what people watch and read. And that, generally, is conflict or sex. Newt Gingrich's constant scandals of the week created conflict, Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky created sex. So that's what they covered. The Clinton administration, when it wasn't campaigning, never made an effort to dominate news cycles. Here and there they'd announce a new initiative, but that'd be that. What was the press supposed to say? And meanwhile, everyone in the Administration was leaking to their favorite reporters, scandals were building, Reno, who never liked Clinton, was appointing prosecutors, Republicans were holding hearings...which made for better copy?

The press knows they do a shitty job. Like doctors aware their Hippocratic Oath is now subordinate to some insurance bureaucrat, reporters know their fantasies of Watergate and Kennedy have become a reality of meaningless scandal and George W. Bush. But they cover stories on protocol, they do as they're told and write as they must, and all the way through, they hate themselves for it. They want to do better, to be inspired, to cover FDR. And yet, the way things work out (and this is not, contrary to popular opinion, the sort of thing they control, particularly not with Fox News and Matt Drudge and The Washington Times offering alternatives if consumers get bored), they end up covering stories that reveal FDR had a wheelchair, Kennedy had a sex addiction, and inspiration is just a cruel joke. And so they cover that, maybe with more zeal and zest because, in their disillusionment, pounding the story home offers a sort of catharsis. When it grows and the ratings spike it's like the public patting them on the back, telling them they're doing the right thing.

But they don't hate Clinton. Clinton hated Clinton. Newt Gingrich hated Clinton. All the leakers in the Clinton White House hated Clinton. This wasn't the press's initiative, it was the genius of Clinton's enemies in realizing that, so long as they gave scandals new wrinkles and stories each day, the press would keep covering them. We wanted to know why the Downing Street Memos didn't get more newsprint. Part of it, frankly, was that there was nothing to write after the first day. Conyer's hearings didn't go anywhere. Nothing new came out. No one in the Bush White House leaked information. Contrast that with Plame, which sat silent until the leaks started dribbling out and it exploded. Then the spigot shut back down and the press has nothing to write. When Fitzgerald comes back with his report, or sources close to the prosecutor begin guessing at the contents, it'll return to the news.

Democrats are bad at playing this game. Republicans are good at it. We call the result bias, but it isn't. It's our own goddamn failure, and their goddamn discipline. If the Bush White House leaked like the Clinton one did, it'd probably have become the Kerry White House. But they don't. The few exceptions, Richard Clarke and Paul O'Neill, got a lot of coverage but, like all stories of that nature, they died after a few weeks. The Democrats are cowed and, after a year or two at the beginning, in the minority. We can't launch hearings, we don't have a Gingrich lobbing bombs, we don't have the courage, audacity, or majorities to break into the press cycle. And so we remain on the outside, looking in, hoping events turn our way.

Journalists can't control the Media. And they hate themselves for that, they hate that these jobs they once idealized have turned out to be so rote, so small, so quotidian, so powerless. They wanted to inform the public, speak truth to power, and all they're doing is rewording press releases. A case could probably be made that the disillusionment is greater when they like someone and he disappoints them, but what we're seeing is not, as Digby put it, a media afraid of politicians whose traits make them jealous, and it's not as Lance framed it with a bunch of villainous elites plotting to ruin whoever they believe spoke out of turn. It's not that they lack the requisite viciousness, it's that they lack the requisite power.

The press, on a very basic level, is pavlovian. It functions in an understood, albeit stupid, way. Reporters are slaves to the rules of "objective" reporting. That's why the right can think they're biased and so can we. The media reports on Iraqi casualties because they make for new news on the conflict. They reported on Whitewater because the leaks and Republican investigations made for fresh stories. They reported on Donna Rice because it was a perfect story and Gary Hart's subsequent actions offered ever more fodder for the press. And they reported against Clinton and Hart because the stories their personal lives offered were more appetizing to the media beast than the stories their policy plans offered.

And when an interesting story is deemed to salacious for the weak-kneed cowards in the "MSM", there's an alternate avenue leading to coverage. If another paper is reporting something interesting, soon enough, they'll have to follow suit. The right wing has outlets that push those stories the media won't touch. So titillating stories appear on Drudge, on Rush, in The Washington Times, or on Fox News. The mainstream media ignores them for a few days. But now they're out there. CNN can't have everyone flipping the channel to Fox, so eventually, they cover it. The Washington Post can't have everyone watching CNN, so they write a story. And now the smear is news. Democrats have no similar institutions, though a case could be made that the blogs are getting close.

Does it suck? Yeah. Is it unfair? Definitely. But at its base, this is how it is. We know how the media react and what they react to. We need to stop pretending, then, that these are autonomous reporters with agency in their stories. They file what sells. They report when new information comes out. And so if we give them stories that sell and new information to sustain them, they'll report. The problem is, thus far, we've only given them those stories when they're about us. Maybe it's time we fed some that cut into the other team. Because the media doesn't look to be getting better anytime soon. Right now, it's only becoming more fractured, more cowed, less able to face down the different interest groups clamoring for coverage. So we're going to have to use it. And despairing over how little they like our candidates isn't the way. Reporters will report what sells. When we figure out how to give them more sellable stories than the other guy then, and only then, will their coverage "like" us.

August 26, 2005 in Media | Permalink


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Nitpick warning. I apologize, but I can't help it. Media is the plural of medium; it is not singular, so the verb should match. The media work, not works, etc. This is funny to me, because you sprinkle a lot of "they"s in there, e.g.,

"We basically know how the media reacts and what they react to." Now, if you had just written, "We basically know how the media react and what they react to," the sentence would have been perfect.

Posted by: Bostoniangirl | Aug 26, 2005 1:38:56 PM

Great post. Really liked this one.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Aug 26, 2005 1:51:04 PM

yeah, really good stuff -- but don't underestimate the fact that it is the consumers of media who actually are getting what they want. Also, I for one would like to see more interpretive journalism -- an emphasis on analysis rather than he said/she said/"two sides have conflicting ideas and god, it is not for lowly me to say who is really right?"

Slightly OT: The best piece of journalism on Iraq, for example, was the e-mail written by the WSJ reporter published on Romenesko. Interesting: no way would that have been published in the WSJ, but it was far better than 99.9% of the reporting filed from Baghdad.

Posted by: Chris R | Aug 26, 2005 2:06:04 PM

don't agree with you, though I have a feeling that your attitude is psychologically healthier than mine. I'm just wondering if you've read the other side, the side of the liberals (atrios, corrente, maia cowan, somerby, etc.) who think there's something seriously screwy with our media establishment? Have you read 1) Gene Lyon's book "Fools for Scandal?" 2) Lyons and Conason's book "The Hunting of the President", 3) Vincent Bugliosi's book "No Island of Sanity" 4) The archives of Bob Somerby's "The Daily Howler" 5) Roger Parloff's and Lars-Erik Nelson's reporting on the Clinton campaign-finance/"bhuddist temple" scandals?

If you send me your address, I'll mail you my copy of "The Hunting of the President" roublen@yahoo.com

Posted by: roublen vesseau | Aug 26, 2005 2:32:47 PM

Yep. I've been around the blogosphere too, you know ;). I just don't agree. Though, we should separate this out: it's not the Conason's wrong, he's not. It's that the media is stupid. We keep expecting them to self-police, to be smarter than this, and they never will be. Republicans know that. Think the media likes Tom DeLay? Of course not, but for the last 8 years, they haven't been able to touch him. Republicans don't care if the media likes them, they've learned how to beat the media at its game so, in the end, the coverage lieks them. And that's what matters. And that, not how much Clinton's sex appeal scares Joe Klein, is what we should be talking about. The rest, I fear, are all excuses.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | Aug 26, 2005 2:56:36 PM

Bias is always more obvious if you disagree rather than agree with it. I am very unlikely to notice any bias that I agree with, it will simply pass below my radar.

That is one reason a liberal and a conservative can each honestly believe that the media is biased against them. Even if the media was perfectly in the middle, they would make mistakes and create biased articles on occasion.

I agree with Ezra, and have argued this with conservatives who worry incessently about the horrible liberal media, that the media is more incompetant than biased. Most of us have read a news story about something that we know a great deal about (leave aside politics a moment, just something mundane) and are amazed at how much of the story is just plain wrong.

This doesn't mean the person writing the story is a horrible journalist, simply that journalists have to know a bit about everything, but cannot, and do not, know everything about anything. This means that they will get the detail wrong a lot of the time.

There is no conspiracy.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Aug 26, 2005 3:06:23 PM

I think you make a number of valid points, but I thought Digby did too. How do you explain the press' hostile coverage of Gore? He didn't hand them scandal the way Hart and Clinton did.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD | Aug 26, 2005 3:25:11 PM

Ez --
Well, you've kept your future employment prospects sunny and bright, havne't you?
I covered both Hart '84 and '88, as well as Clinton '92, and Gore '00. The travelling press corps in all of those campaigns was shot full of loathing fot all three guys, albeit for differing reasons. This culminated in two amazing scenes in 2000 -- one at Hanover and one in Des Moines -- where reporters in the press room booed Gore during his appearances, a violation of protocol that will get you tossed from every press box in the American league.
Most of the political press corps in this country have the historical sense of a handball, the attention span of a flea, and an insecurityn about both that would take a lifetime to unravel. The distinguishing fact about all three politicians -- interesting that Gore was elided from the discussion - is that they were manifestly smarter than most of the useless Heathers assigned to cover them
The only part of your post I agree with is that there is nothing that can be done. They are sycophantic dribblers in the employ of corporate brigands.

Posted by: Jim Madison's Dog | Aug 26, 2005 3:30:32 PM

A lot of this seems, well, obvious to me; perhaps it's my longtime love affair with all sorts of media (is that the right usage, bostonian?), but these questions of bias and such seem like the starting points for much of Press Think and Buzz Machine, among others, and I tend to start from there, not try to explain the "root causes" quite so fulsomely.

In any case, I think the part that gets lost in focusing the Hart and Clinton stories on what the media did is overlooking the thing that did them in - America's contradictory nature, particularly when it comes to sex. "Sex sells" doesn't begin to cover it. In the end what was the big deal with Hart? He had an affair with a cheerful, fun-lovin gal and while his marriage hit a rough patch, it basically went on. And well, we all know what Clinton did... but anyway, what's odd is the way we make a big deal out of illicit affairs, while simultaneously reveling in the seamy details.

In other words, it'd not the media, or their perceived biases or incompetencies, that should give one pause when analyzing Hart and Clinton. It's the audience. Until Americans can a)lighten up about peole's choices when it comes to sex and b)decide, colectively, that some things are really just private matters that the public has no real interest in collectively, we'll get what we say we want - lush, salacious gossip about celebrities who misbehave, especially sexually.

What it comes down to, in evaluating Hart and Clinton is, do you think the sexual affairs totally undermine the rest of the who they are and what they did? All the rest, at least to me, is window dressing. If you can set aside the affairs, or place them in a full context, then fine, but making clandestine affairs the judgement point for leaders is a lost cause, at least from what I've seen. I do think both of them got the bad rap they got for hypocrisy more than anything else - it's pretending that you're not sneaking around that gets on most people's nerves, not the affirs themselves - but that's my point. We make it impossible for people to be up front about sex and then punish them for sneakig around and lying. And that's just twisted, really.

Posted by: weboy | Aug 26, 2005 3:34:04 PM

man, EK you need a margarita!

Posted by: almostinfamous | Aug 26, 2005 3:37:29 PM

is a better story than Tom Cruise the competent action movie actor.

Man, that would be a story.

Sorry, great post. Though I do want to hear how you shoehorn Gore into this framework, as my namesake above asks.

Posted by: Allen K. | Aug 26, 2005 3:48:25 PM

Dean didn't hand the media scandal either. He got excited and they practically turned him into the antichrist.

Media consolidation and neocon crime partner's ownership of it, eg General Electric. These are reasons, not excuses, imo.

Posted by: evilchemistry | Aug 26, 2005 4:51:55 PM

I actually don't fit Gore into the framework. Lance and Digby posted on Clinton and Hart and whether the press liked them. I think with Gore, it's fairly clear the press did not like him. I also think he ran a shitty campaign, Nader was a huge factor, and I didn't know anyone excited for Al so I'm not quite as ready to hand his whole defeat to over to a hostile press corps, but I don't think he suffered from the same affliction as Hart and Clinton. They were politicians the press liked and got badly disillusioned by. Gore, I think, was a different sort of thing.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | Aug 26, 2005 5:24:36 PM


As I said in my post, the Media is a hydra. Lots of heads thinking different thoughts. I don't remember 88 well-enough. I wasn't paying close attention. My sense of things was that the Media gave Hart every chance to shape up and for some reason he wouldn't or didn't. But as for hating Clinton I have two names for you.

David Broder.

Maureen Dowd.

People not without influence among their peers.

Posted by: Lance | Aug 26, 2005 5:40:40 PM

PS I meant to say that for some reason Hart wouldn't or couldn't shape up. Obviously, he didn't. You'd think it would have been easy for him to give up Donna Rice for a few months.

Posted by: Lance | Aug 26, 2005 5:42:47 PM

Ezra, sorry for the double post, but focusing on the time of Hart (and to a lesser extent, Clinton and Gore) is irrelevant.

Cable nets, particularly Fox, are now running at least half the discourse. The right-wing's use of disciplined talking points now permuates every cable net. It used to be talk radio where urban myths and falsehoods -- Vince Foster was murdered, Kerry shot himself, etc... -- now it is everywhere.

The "media", such as it exists, now have to respond to false charges and, more importantly, actually take them seriously (thereby lending them credence) b/c of the 24 hr. news cycle and Fox. Years ago, it was an aberration that CNN would focus on an (amazingly false) American Spectator story on Clinton like they did. Now, it is an aberration when the cable nets (particularly Fox and MSNBC, but certainly CNN) will air any allegation, no matter how spurious.

What I'm asking from the media is less he said/she said reporting and actually providing analysis. Wouldn't it be refreshing if someone other than Keith and Jon (and, soon, I hope, Costas) would call bs what it is: bs.

I'm not optimistic: most of them weren't trained at newspapers, but in local news.

Posted by: Chris R | Aug 26, 2005 6:00:31 PM

A key element on the Right, which the Left does not have, are Cato, Heritage, the Washington Times, Drudge, etc. You said it, Ezr

An obvious to-do for the Democrats is to buy editorial control of a cable news network. MSNBC could probably be had cheap. That this is not being seriously considered shows a certain unwillingness on the Left to simply do what is obviously necessary.

We talk of a 50 state strategy, when what we obviously need to do is take control of Ohio. And, we ignore the necessity of owning a cable news outlet. Sometimes, I fear, we're hopeless.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Aug 26, 2005 6:12:30 PM

I can see someone trying to work their way into the fold. You'll be a good "reporter" Ezra, I'm sure.

Don N

Posted by: Don N | Aug 27, 2005 2:59:58 AM

The White House, by acting as if they had something to hide, made Whitewater worse than it was, and Vince Foster's suicide added a very strange dimension to the coverage.

When did the Clinton White House act like it had something to hide? Whitewater was out in the open, all of the files had already been turned over for examination, and it was the press that simply wouldn't let go of the story in spite of the fact that there was no There there.

Posted by: Avedon | Aug 28, 2005 12:11:31 PM

Reporters are hyenas. Don't matter what's bloody on the savannah. If the king of the jungle is even slightly bloody, the pack will follow. The pack will approach cautiously at first until the weakened beast tires some. Then the hyenas become more aggressive. Few of the jackals will attack alone.

RE: HART. Anyone of adult age in 1988 who thinks Gary Hart could run for anything after the Donna Rice Monkey Business is a true optimist. Anybody who thinks he could run President and win proves the endless power of dreams. If you think the Vietnam War got refought with Kerry and the Swiftboating, one can only imagine what it would have been like with George McGovern's campaign mangager running for president.

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