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August 26, 2005

More on Media Bias

Alright -- I know this'll be even less popular than the last post, but since I've already sprayed flame-retardant on, let's do it: Is Bush really that popular with the press corps?  Shakes, Mannion, and Paul all say he is.  But I'm not sure where they're seeing it.  I get three papers in my inbox each morning and, I've got to tell you, not one of them shakes my faith in liberalism.  All I seem to read about are a) Iraq going to hell, b) gas prices rocketing towards the heavens, c) protesters on Bush's doorstep, d) John Roberts mocking women, and e) the health care system crumbling. 

So when Shakes says the media is afraid to criticize him, what does she mean?  The folks who do supposed "objective reporting" are certainly giving ample time to everything going wrong in the country, they're certainly not buying the spin on Iraq, they're certainly not glossing over gas prices.  I mean, granted, I'd like to see the New York Times put "BUSH A DOUCHE FOR GOING ON VACATION" in 48-point type in tomorrow's edition, but that's not really how they do things, so far as I know. 

In the election, coverage seemed pretty good.  The media certainly gave Kerry the debates, or at least followed Bush's lead in doing so.  The last week was packed with stories about all the weapons that the Bush administration's allergy to postwar planning had let slip into the hands of terrorists.  The nation's editorial pages overwhelmingly backed Kerry, just as they now spend their time criticizing Bush.  So what's the deal here?  What're we upset about?

Shakes links to Dan Froomkin going over a shady, off-the-record barbecue that Bush apparently has each year.  The press corps can come, they can't write about it, and everyone puts down their day jobs and relaxes together.  Now, I'm with her in thinking that that's probably not what the White House press corps should be doing, but I mainly feel that way for the optics of it.  Maybe I'm giving these folks too much credit, but a chicken leg doesn't sound like enough to make me ignore body bags.  But then there's this, from Ken Auletta at last year's 2003's barbecue, which suggests these aren't always fawning, sycophantic affairs:

Last August, in Crawford, Texas, George W. Bush gave a barbecue for the press corps. Bush has let it be known that he’s not much of a television-news watcher or a newspaper reader, apart from the sports section; and during a conversation with reporters he explained, perhaps without intending to, why his White House often seems indifferent to the press. “How do you then know what the public thinks?” a reporter asked, according to Bush aides and reporters who heard the exchange. And Bush replied, “You’re making a huge assumption—that you represent what the public thinks.”
I asked Bartlett whether the exchange at the barbecue in Crawford, where Bush told journalists that they did not represent what the public thought, suggested Bush’s disdain for the press. “He resents the press’s ‘exclusive’ pipeline to the public,” Bartlett replied.

I don't know that that necessarily went over so well with the press.  But in some ways, that's not the point.  I think Bush should be exposed for more of the disengaged plutocrat he is, but I don't actually think the press has been derelict in that duty.  Americans basically know who the President is.  Last year, come election time, only 32% thought he represented their interests rather than those of large corporations.  For Kerry, the number was in the low 60's.  Americans don't think Iraq is going well, they don't like Bush's plan for Social Security, they don't think he's doing anything on health care, they don't think he's helping the economy, they don't, in fact, think he's doing a good job on anything at all.  To me, that means the press has done reasonably well at reporting the story. 

When Paul goes after the press, he laments their unwillingness to go after a guy who has taken a year off, launched a terribly misguided war, pushed a failed Social Security plan, screwed up with NCLB, destroyed our surplus, lost the debates, and so forth.  But on every one of those issues (well, at least those we have polling for), Bush is way, way down.  Much under 50%.  And that, basically, is why I'm writing this post. 

What're we expecting from the press?  They can't instigate impeachment proceedings.  They try and report the news, often fail, but, in any case, seem to have given Americans a fairly good picture of what a bad job Bush is doing on the issues.  And yet Bush still beat our guy.  Even after Americans watched Kerry whup him in the debates.  Even after the press codified Kerry's whupping.  We still lost.

It's our job to elect Democrats, not the press's.  It's our job to win campaigns. It's our job to run candidates who'll have the courage to call the President a failure and demand accountability.  It's our job to organize against John Roberts.  It's our job to talk to enough friends and make enough noise that skittish politicians realize it's time to withdraw.  Paul's raging against the press, but they, so far as I can tell, haven't done anything wrong.  Not anything they don't usually do, anyway*.  Our impotence is not their fault.  It's our fault.  It's our fault because we didn't see and stop Rove's evangelical mobilization.  It's our fault because we've left the airwaves to them, ensuring that every rural resident outside FM's reach ends up listening to Limbaugh.  It's our fault because we let the exurbs and suburbs get taken over by conservative megachurches, without even attempting to build a religious left.  It's our fault because Kerry's Hispanic outreach blew, because there's no progressive Fox News, because the liberal media isn't liberal. 

It's our fault.  It really is.  Not the press's.  And when we cry that they're not doing enough, I honestly don't know what we think they should be doing.  They reported Abu Ghraib, they've put out a number of other front-pagers on the most terrible torture stories I've heard (remember this one?), they report Iraq's death spiral, they report health care's collapse, they report gas prices, they do all of that.  They don't lay out the blame as clearly as I'd like, but bottom line, that's our job to do.  We should criticize them for it, but at a certain point, it's time to stop believing that the tooth fair will come and change them.  The real problem isn't the long-time hackery of the press corps, but the fact that we've lost three elections in a row now, never put the time into building a progressive media movement, and have let Republicans kill Labor.  We've got no base to strike back from. 

We have to make one.  That's what this is all about.  All the blogging, the Air America's, the Phoenix Project, the magazines, the conference calls, the Center for American Progress, all of it.  It's about getting to a place where we don't have to wish the press would do more, because we can take what they do and make it into more.  But that's our job, as activists and partisans.  We know the press sucks.  They've been doing that for years now.  That's what my whole last post was about; hell, that's what this whole blogging thing's about.  But they're not sucking particularly bad right now.  They're just being their general, bumbling selves.  We have to stop wishing they'd rise up, shake off their shackles, and do our jobs for us.  Because, in the end, there's no substitute for winning.  Not even a strong press corps.

* For examples of the press being worse than it usually is, look to the Gore campaign or the runup to the Iraq War. 

August 26, 2005 in Media | Permalink


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Preach it, brother.

Posted by: Cincinnatus | Aug 26, 2005 6:32:24 PM

Ezra has appropriately exonerated the news media from charges of bias. However, has it ever occurred to anyone on the way far left (those who think Michael Moore and Moveon.org are mainstream) that the reason why Democrats have lost election after election may not be lack of 'strategy' and salesmanship as Ezra apparently believes? Do they ever wonder why Hillary, with her obvious desire to win the White House, has moved toward the middle...voting for the war, voting for the extra 87 billion, and lately saying that pulling out troops at this time is not a good idea, etc.? What does she know that they don't?
If you wish to sell a product that the public doesn't want, you must either lie about the product or change the product to something more palatable. That is what Hillary is doing and it just might pay off for her. Take a hint. My fondest wish is that I could, again, vote Democratically.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Aug 26, 2005 6:38:21 PM

What makes you think Hillary "knows something they don't"? We have absolutely no proof this strategy of hers is working.

Posted by: Geoduck | Aug 26, 2005 6:53:22 PM

What makes you think Hillary "knows something they don't"? We have absolutely no proof this strategy of hers is working.

Nobody talks about Kucinich as their possible candidate, do they?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Aug 26, 2005 6:57:47 PM

"has it ever occurred to anyone on the way far left"

You mean all seven of them?

Posted by: Total | Aug 26, 2005 6:58:00 PM

I think you're missing the forest for the trees. The bias has less to do with the content on any individual story, but a pattern of what gets reported and how much attention it gets.

Compare the coverage of the Plame affair to Whitewater. Compare the coverage of "Iraq sought yellowcake uranium from Niger" to "I did not have sex with that woman . . ." Compare the coverage of candidate Gore to candidate Bush.

Bush is going through a bad patch now, and getting some bad press. But he had a virtual free pass from the press for nearly five years, and I'm not sure how you missed it.

Posted by: Greg VA | Aug 26, 2005 7:04:16 PM

Digby has an alternate view.

The world of news is more than the NYT, WaPo and LA Times. It is more about The Oregonian, or the Indianapolis Star. And Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. And more importantly, local TV news channels that barely cover politics of any sort, particularly national and international news - which they cherry pick from the 'story of the day' from the wires and networks. Michael Jackson.

Yes, party supporters must do the hard work of winning elections, but if they can't rely on some basic fabric of understanding and facts laid down by non-party media, the task is almost impossible. That understanding and facts IS NOT being laid down today unless one spends Ezra-like amounts of time digging through the net to get a better view of what's really happening.

Example: How many hours per day is electricity on in Baghdad, and how does this compare to pre-war figures? Small fact, but telling.

Example: What is the history and current conflict between Shia and Sunni about?

Example: Where are the US troops concentrated in Iraq, and what do they do everyday?

The big complaint that really can't be argued with is that even when a significant Dem. leader or group makes an important statement or suggests a policy, the media often ignores it, or 'balances' it with off-point, non-factual, or attack arguments from the Repubs. Dems have NO megaphone, even for good ideas. That is a media failure. Period.

How many people will know that Wes Clark made an important statement today in WaPo?

Ezra, I think you ignore how strong-man governments suppress the truth by cowing and co-opting the media. Fear, lack of access, retribution, social acceptance (or not). This is the current situation in our democratic republic. In many respects, we do not now have a free press. We have business enterprises that filter information to protect themselves, make more money, and serve the few - not the many.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Aug 26, 2005 7:04:56 PM

"Nobody talks about Kucinich as their possible candidate, do they?"

Huh? Was there some massive Kucinich 08 movement that swept the party until Hillary's clever rhetoric squelched it? And how come nobody told me?

Posted by: Ezra Klein | Aug 26, 2005 7:05:18 PM

The event was not held last year because of the busy campaign season.

Posted by: evilchemistry | Aug 26, 2005 7:10:42 PM

Greg: I'd be interested to know exactly what you think should be reported right now on the Plame affair? I mean that very seriously. If you were a reporter, what would you be doing? Saying? Looking into? Until Fitzgerald issues a report or someone else leaks, what can you write? Until Dems pepper their speeches with it, how does it count as new news? Don't, by the way, discount how much being in the minority destroys our ability to focus attention.

As Matt was saying earlier, if we had Speaker Pelosi, the Conyers Hearing on the DSM memos would've been a huge deal. We don't. And so they weren't. Some of this is institutional, it's not about the media, it's about who controls the information. We can;t investigate Niger because we don't have any congressional authority. That's what my post is about. If we had that authority, we could. Republicans had it with Lewinsky, and look what they did -- that's the difference. If the Democratic COngress was running impeachment proceedings against Bush, you can bet your ass the media would cover it.

And Jim, as you say, there are all those channels. But they're not at BBQ's in Crawford. And local papers tend not be people's source for national news. They either use large regional papers (which syndicate much of their reportage from the NY Times and WaPo) or TV news, most of it on mainstream networks. In the post you link to, Digby's talking about major media -- the so-called "kool kidz". And as for my response, see my post below this one ;)

Posted by: Ezra Klein | Aug 26, 2005 7:12:29 PM

EC: that was my bad. It was 2003, not last year. I'm not quite caught up with the whole 05 thing.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | Aug 26, 2005 7:13:37 PM

Events and Reality are conspiring against Bush; the Press Corps are Swiss.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Aug 26, 2005 7:20:09 PM

Those last two paragraphs should be bronzed. or something, Ezra.

Still, the fact that corporate right-wing Media is pretty much all the Media we have is a problem.

I fear Democrats, by and large, have not yet awoken to the fact that the Republican right-wing has, in effect, overthrown the government, and not just shifted policy a few degrees to the right. An authoritarian plutocracy is just waiting for the concrete they've poured, to harden through a couple more election cycles.

If history is any guide, the next great re-alignment in American politics will not happen until 2040!

If the Republicans do not completely self-destruct, if all depends on institution building in the Democratic Party, then it will be a very long haul.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Aug 26, 2005 7:33:36 PM

There may be a split between the media's personal like or dislike of a politician as a person and the media's like or dislike of a politician as a candidate. It goes without saying that Al Gore was disliked as a person by the press. However, many in the press probably preferred him to be president than GW Bush. There was much love for Clinton because it was considered that he could be a Great President. However, there was much resentment towards Clinton because Clinton The Man did not live up to expectations that many in Washington had for him (being from Arkansas was the beginning of this, and it went downhill from there).

By contrast, I think it is clear that the press corps likes hanging around with Bush, personally, even if one could claim that there's a dislike for his presidency and campaigns.

The case with Hart may be the same. Paul Slansky, in "The Clothes Have No Emperor: A Chronicle of the American 80s" was brutal towards Hart, clearly disliking him as a person, even if Hart's "I'm the reincarnation of Bobby Kennedy" shtick was appealing to the white upper-middle class professionals that the Washington press corps is overwhelmingly composed of.

Posted by: Constantine | Aug 26, 2005 8:06:48 PM

i wrote a long thing here but it was incoherent and i really didnt feel like proof reading it, so here is the shorter version:

screw the media, let us win on the backs of massive grassroots mobilization. onward liberal soldiers!! spread the word of populism, that we may destroy the corporate greed that envelopes the fair capital of this incredible nation!!

i think that about covers it.

Posted by: almostinfamous | Aug 26, 2005 11:03:28 PM

I'm not sure what they should be reporting about the Plame affair right now. I am sure, however, that if it had happened during the Clinton administration it wouldn't have laid there for months and months and months, virtually ignored until the mean judge threatened some reporters with jail time.

Not that I disagree with the majority of your post, by the way. It's just that I see the bias, day in and day out. It's unmistakable to me. Part of it may be because the Democrats don't have a majority, but I firmly believe that part of the reason for that is because the press bats more often for the other team.

Posted by: Greg VA | Aug 26, 2005 11:56:42 PM

Whoa. I think everybody, Ezra included, needs a week off at the beach - it's not 4 weeks in Crawford, but it can't hurt. :)

I don't think the press can remotely be pegged as pro-Bush, and I've heard about as much of that line as I can take today, since I just saw that "Now" with the guy who's trying to put together a grass-roots anti-big-media campaign. He was positively incoherent, in the best sense. Man, I wanted to go along with him, but he just kept bringing it back - obviously - to the kind of head-scratching about 'how does this man get away with it" that Democrats really need to let go of to get something done.

Enough already. People are just getting over the edge with this global oligarchic conspiracy stuff. So Bush has a barbecue with reporters. Good for him. God knows they could all use a few minutes to relax and not Take It All So Seriously. We all could. Everybody's in such a defensive crouch ready to pounce on the words of the "enemy" that we've lost almost all sight of the purpose of having a national conversation: an exchange of ideas. I don't want more "analysis" - I want more information, I want more investigating, more solid reporting, more questions that demand answers.

I'm sorry some people don't like what they're hearing; I don't love it myself. But I do know it's not reporters who let Bush off the hook; it's the audience. I don't know why Bush gets a pass from a large swath of his audience. I do know that after years of being fed slop and celebrity gossip, many Americans could care less about a deep discussion of pressing issues. I am still naive and hopeful enough to believe that one day karma comes to catch us all, and a generation of Republicans are going to have a buyers' remorse like you wouldn't believe. But we need to stop (literally) attacking the messenger and take a look at those glazed over eyes watching Brad and Jen and Angelina and wondering about Paris Hilton's marriage and Lindsay Lohan's weight. They watch this stuff for a reason, folks. And until someone gets a handle on that habit and how to break it, the rest of this is a lovely gassy conversation, but not really getting us anywhere at all.

Posted by: weboy | Aug 27, 2005 12:47:02 AM

I think it's fairly obvious that some members of the press are quite smitten with Bush. Some were openly in love with Bill Clinton too. Wasn't there an infamous column by a woman journalist who confessed that Bill was starring in her sex dreams? The point I've been working toward in my last couple posts---and I'm not done yet---is similar to the one Paul Krugman made in his column last Monday: the media likes to tell pretty stories.

Bush has been subjected to lots of critical coverage. There have been months and months at a time when the coverage has been pretty much all negative---not because of Liberal bias---but because just reporting the facts on what he's doing reflects badly on him. He's just not doing a good job. But those periods have always come to an end to be replaced by coverage that is practically hagiographic and those periods have tended to last longer and to have had the effect of making people almost forget his mistakes and failures. He keeps getting another chance. This has a lot to do with Bush's "luck" in having been President on Sept. 11, 2001. It has a lot to do with the war in Iraq which the Media has a cynical as well as a patriotic interest in seeing come to a victorious end---they helped start in with their cheerleading and they don't want to have been so wrong or so well used by Rove and Cheney. And this is the point I'm working toward.

George Bush has benefited from the Media's self-protective interest in its own "pretty stories." It's very hard for them to give up a narrative that they've fallen in love with. My point is that part of the pretty story they've been telling has been that George Bush brought back moral clarity to the White House. Clinton "trashed the place" as David Broder said, and Bush, the good husband and devout Christian who spoke his mind and ignroed the polls (ha) would be the kind of upright, moral exemplar that Clinton the philanderer and slick trimmer never was. They've been very loathe to let this one go.

Posted by: Mannion | Aug 27, 2005 9:16:41 AM

"And local papers tend not be people's source for national news."

Which is why "All politics is local" is such an incontrovertible truth. As you may recall when I took Dana Milbank to the woodshed on my blog, Ezra, he had no knowledge of ANY anti-war protest movement in this country. And that's becauseeditors assigned coverage of the massicve nationwide protests during the "run-up to the war" to beat reporters covering "local events."
That journalists of a more exalted stature chose to ignore the actual journalism being done on this issue and these circumstances is typical

"I think it's fairly obvious that some members of the press are quite smitten with Bush. Some were openly in love with Bill Clinton too. Wasn't there an infamous column by a woman journalist who confessed that Bill was starring in her sex dreams?",/i>

Nice try at "balance," binky. Go peddle your trash to Murdoch!

Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Aug 27, 2005 10:23:02 AM


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