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August 27, 2005

Salon-a-Thon: Media Bias

Shakes here…

Ezra tells me he’d like to hear my response to his Media Bias posts, so off I go…

Mannion and Ezra are both right and wrong. Mannion, the observer, sees a press who had it in for Clinton, and Ezra, the wonk, sees a press who rightfully turned the stupid actions of a president into news stories that sell. They aren’t, as they first appear, contrasting theories of what happened. What’s missing is the connecting piece between the two that Shakes, the anthropologist, can’t help but see—human nature, that confounding and unshakable thing that makes a term like “media bias” not a theory, but an inevitable and intractable fact. The media are, in the end, just people, and people are not objective, even if the press is meant to be.

It’s not only just possible, but likely, that the media covering Clinton, who, as noted in Ezra’s piece, were Clinton supporters to the man, were frustrated by a successful president who undermined his ability to effectively do his job because he couldn’t keep it in his pants, who handed the “family values” crowd a scandal on a silver platter. There were none too few voters who were incensed by exactly that—who felt betrayed—and the members of the media are voters, too. If they had it in for Clinton more than Ezra suggests, their reasons may have been more personal than Mannion suggests.

I said in my piece yesterday about Froomkin’s report on the media BBQ at the Bush ranch, in which it was reported that “a small handful watched askance as the rest fawned over Bush, following him around in packs every time he moved,” that the media has a crush on Bush, “and damnit if crushes don’t turn a person into a fool faster than just about anything else.” And I think the same applies to their coverage of Clinton. Ezra notes, for example, that “Klein was a sycophant till he became disillusioned by Clinton's brazen adultery;” sycophancy is, in the end, little more than an overwhelming crush. Mannion notes, for example, that the press regarded the Clintons as undeserving of “all the success they’d enjoyed at ages younger than too many of the reporters covering them and too close to the ages of all the rest of them;” jealousy is just another shade of crush. And if crushes can turn a person into a fool, a crush betrayed can turn a person ugly.

Attributing loftier motives to the media, or reducing their motives simply to writing what sells, isn’t necessarily wrong; it’s just that they’re all part and parcel of the same notion—that the media are compromised by their own feelings, because they are humans, not objectivity robots. Neither being disappointed by a president one believed in, nor being invited to a president’s house for dinner, is a small thing for a single person. We tend to ignore the potential effects of such things on the media, because “the media” is a faceless, abstract thing, but it’s comprised of individuals. Failing to acknowledge that “the media was invited to the president’s house” and “Joe from the Daily Rag was invited to the president’s house” are two very different things, especially if you’re Joe, is ignoring human nature to the detriment of this exploration.

The media are further compromised in the current political climate because they’re faced with an administration which repeatedly exhibits such wanton contempt for the truth, that genuine objectivity would often require calling the president, a member of his cabinet, and/or a close advisor a liar. (This brings us to Ezra’s second piece.) Giving ample time, as Ezra suggests, to “everything going wrong in the country, they're certainly not buying the spin on Iraq, they're certainly not glossing over gas prices,” isn’t really the point. Ample time only matters if the time given produces something closely resembling reality, something genuinely objective, and the media has (repeatedly) mistaken objectivity for giving equal time to opposing sides, sans critique, irrespective of how fallacious one side may be. This tendency manifests itself most evidently in coverage of wedge issues like gay marriage and intelligent design, which weren’t mentioned in Ezra’s piece.

To wit, a recent AP story contained the following paragraph:

The theory of intelligent design says life on earth is too complex to have developed through evolution, implying that a higher power must have had a hand in creation. Nearly all scientists dismiss it as a scientific theory, and critics say it's nothing more than religion masquerading as science.

Two big problems here:

1. Identifying intelligent design as a “theory,” while also referring to the theory of evolution in the same story, is, if I’m generous, bad application of language as theory is used in its scientific sense (“a set of related observations or events based upon proven hypotheses and verified multiple times by detached groups of researchers”) in regard to evolution and in its layman’s sense (a proposed but unverified explanation) in regard to intelligent design. If I’m not generous, it’s a cynical attempt to imbue both sides of the debate with equal viability. While both sides have a right to their arguments, the suggestion that both are correct in their assertions their beliefs belong in a science class is sheer claptrap.

2. An intellectually honest statement about scientists’ critique of intelligent design would be: All credible scientists dismiss it as scientific theory. Not “nearly all scientists.” Any scientist who recognizes intelligent design as a scientific theory, considering it hasn’t meant the minimum requirements for being categorized thusly, is utterly lacking in integrity. The suggestion that there are respected scientists within the scientific community who recognize intelligent design as a scientific theory is misleading at best and outright bullshit at worst.

This is exactly the kind of nonsense (favoring the Bush administration) that can be found in the news regularly, the kind of spin as part of an attempt to appear objective that prompted Paul Krugman to note:

If Bush said the earth is flat, of course Fox News would say "Yes, the earth is flat, and anyone who says different is unpatriotic." And mainstream media would have stories with the headline: "Shape of Earth: Views Differ;" and would at most report that some Democrats say that it's round.

You can take out the partisan references, replacing “Bush” with “The Flat Earth Society” and “Democrats” with “scientists,” and you’re not far off from the AP paragraph I excerpted above. Hard to say that Krugman’s mistaken.

Ezra’s not wrong that liberals need to be more savvy when it comes to the media, but his suggestion that “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,” isn’t entirely right, either. Expecting that the media report accurately isn’t the same as expecting them to do our jobs for us. I don’t think it’s remotely unreasonable to expect that a non-scientific philosophy be identified thusly. It isn’t our job to correct the record of every news story that contains such lapses in either good reporting or good judgment.

(And, as an aside, the media are worse than they used to be; there was a time not so long ago that a lunatic like Pat Robertson would not have been a guest on a show like Hardball, but instead resoundingly ignored as the fringe nutzoid that he is. It seems these days that no amount of wingnut conservative vitriol can discredit someone so thoroughly that they cannot be used as a counterpoint to even a highly regarded liberal—an insult to liberals, apart from anything else.)

As commenter Greg VA and Mannion point out, story content is only one symptom of media bias, the other being what gets reported with regularity. Greg says, “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.” Mannion flushes it out further in comments, noting:

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.

Spot on. In the end, they can’t give up their crush. He hasn’t betrayed them; he has them around for dinner.

Ezra says that because 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,” it suggests that the press has done reasonably well with its reporting. I’m just not so sure it’s causation, rather than correlation.

Murders and ice cream sales always go up at the same time, but it’s not because ice cream evokes murderous rages, or because murderers reward themselves with a scoop of vanilla. It’s because of heat. When it’s hot, people want ice cream. When it’s hot, tempers are shorter.

It isn’t heat, however, that links the media’s Bush bias and American’s waning support. It’s that he’s throwing a party while the country falls to pieces. The press, indulging their ardor, think that’s just swell. The rest of us think it stinks.

August 27, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Ezra: what she said.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD | Aug 27, 2005 2:19:31 PM

A minor point here, but:

"And, as an aside, the media are worse than they used to be; there was a time not so long ago that a lunatic like Pat Robertson would not have been a guest on a show like Hardball, but instead resoundingly ignored as the fringe nutzoid that he is."

I don't really agree with that. With Hardball in particular, Matthews' near-pathological hatred of Clinton led him to allow all kinds of maniacal shit to be spewed on his show about various Clinton myths and "scandals," as Bob Somerby has occasionally reminded us of.

Posted by: Haggai | Aug 27, 2005 2:55:30 PM

Haggai - I probably should have been more specific. I wasn't really talking about that recently. It was really the advent of cable news shows like Hardball that brought that kind of lunacy into favor, in an attempt to siphon ratings from network news staples like Meet the Press, who in turn started bringing in fringies to compete.

Posted by: Shakespeare's Sister | Aug 27, 2005 5:46:38 PM

Gotcha, Shakes, I agree.

Posted by: Haggai | Aug 27, 2005 6:59:19 PM

I've noticed for a very long time that the idea that the media merely covers "what sells" is an excuse rather than an explanation for the fact that they only cover certain stories and not others. While I was still working at The Baltimore Sun back in the early '80s I remember having a conversation with an editor about the fact that certain stories that would have been very interesting indeed to readers just weren't appearing in the papers.

The truth of the matter is that the media has always been fairly conservative. It's not an accident that they never mentioned single-payer back when the Clintons were raising the issue of healthcare, for example.

Once upon a time, some positions were "too liberal" and others "too far right". These days most of those issues are still "too liberal", but nothing seems to be "too far right". You can blame whatever you want, but the bias is there all the same.

I wrote about the process in How you became crazy, but I'd still like to know why the media

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