May 13, 2004

Biased, Or. . .

Mitch Berg, over at Shot In The Dark, had a recent post that touched on the topic of media bias or, more specifically, liberal media bias and liberal agendas.

I don't necessarily discount the existence of liberal bias in the media. After all, some of the recurring themes in the media today, such as abortion rights, gun control and environmental issues all have a decidedly liberal slant. Print and television broadcast media, I think, tilt more towards liberal idealogy, while talk radio leans more to the conservative side.

This is just my own 29-year-old, basically know-nothing mind working here; I have no facts and figures to back up these assertions, but from where I sit, they seem to ring true. I mean, if all the media is truly controlled by a liberal agenda, it would seem counterintuitive that three of the last four presidents have been basically conservative Republicans. So, although I don't disagree that liberal media bias exists, I don't think it's as pervasive or, for that matter, influential, as some people might think.

As I mentioned on Mitch Berg's site, I don't think it's liberal bias that sets the tone so much as it is an unspoken media agenda to displace whoever sits in the White House. I wrote, in response to an individual, Flash, who maintained that the media tends to favor the party in power:

Flash, I have to call "bullcrap" on you, not so much on your assertion that the media is conservatively biased (I think there's bias represented on both sides relatively equally), but on your claim that the media tends to lean toward the party in power. That's wrong. Bzzzzt, wrong answer! Prior to Nixon's Watergate, that may have been the case, and certainly Kennedy's Camelot was adored by the media despite extraordinary failings in the man both personally and politically. However, ever since Watergate and Woodward & Bernstein, the wary and allergically suspicious media has switched gears and they work around the clock to bring down whoever may be sitting in the White House, and it doesn't matter which party is in office. From Iran-Contra, to "No New taxes," to BJs in the Oval Office, to an "illegitimate" war, the media believes it has a duty to take down the sitting Prez. It's engrained in their thinking.

Unless you've been living under a rock, with your fingers in your ears, on the far side of Mars, you'd know that the media hasn't given Bush a "pass" on ANYTHING. It's the reading public that gives Bush a pass, which irritates the media something fierce. Each new poll that comes out that has Bush tied or leading Kerry leaves the talking heads in the Big Media nonplussed.

Just watch, if Kerry takes office, his seat won't be lukewarm before the media starts working to bring about impeachment on the man. Such is the legacy of Nixon.

The Nixon presidency forever changed the media mindset. Since Nixon, the media has veiwed those in power, rightly or wrongly, with extreme suspicion. As far as the media is concerned, a sitting president is guilty of something, anything, until proven innocent, at which point the president will be assumed to be guilty of something, anything, else.

I don't have the newsroom experience of Mitch Berg or James Lileks. I've only worked in two newspaper newsrooms, The Winona Daily News and The Stewartville Star, both of which pale in comparison to metro dailies, and my current job as news editor for a bunch of IBM magazines can hardly be considered newsroom experience. Still, one anecdote comes to mind that I think augments my point pretty well.

Back in the halcyon days of 1998, while working as a reporter for the Winona Daily News, at the phenomenal rate of $6 an hour, the newsroom was abuzz because then President Clinton was about to admit to the nation that he did indeed have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky. Every television was tuned in to the event.

I remember it thusly: the cameras apparently came on nanoseconds before Clinton was ready, I think, and you caught a glimpse of the man taking a deep, uncertain breath, knowing full well he was about to make a statement that would basically fly in the face of everything he told the American public previously. I remember feeling just a little bad for the guy. I mean, there he was, being called on the carpet to admit he had sex with a fat chick. Got caught, damnit. I could relate. At 23 years old, that sounded like a typical weekend.

"Oh man! He's scared! He knows he's screwed!"

That came from one of the senior reporters crowded around the TV. He sounded giddy, almost truimphant. And the others gathered around twittered in agreement. That's when I realized that they all pretty much wanted the guy to fall, for no other real apparent reason but because he was the sitting president.

So, no, the media does not tend to skew in favor of the party in power. The media is suspicious of power in all its forms, except for the power of the media. Which is ironic, because I somtimes think the media is the most powerful entity on the planet and I think, at times, that the media needs its own suspicious media to hound them and keep their power in check.

And I think that's where bloggers come in.

Posted by Ryan at May 13, 2004 10:45 AM

Even though we are often at odds politically, I agree. I think the old addage goes,"Who watches the watchers."

Posted by: Lily at May 13, 2004 12:14 PM

According to the Center for Media and Public Relations, during their first hundred day sin office the last three presidents received the following percentages of positive news coverage on broadcast TV news:

George Bush Sr: 61%
Bill Clinton: 40%
George Bush Jr: 43%

Also, here's a re-post of a comment I put up on A Small Victory a few weeks ago covering this same topic:

TV News Turned Sour on Bush After Iraq War Ended. Study: President's Coverage Dipped Sharply After "Mission Accomplished" Event
Study reports that Bush's overall coverage went from 56% positive after 9/11 to 32% positive during the 6 months that followed "mission accomplished" event (possibly one of the biggest long-term PR blunders of the war). Significantly, the study reports that Bush received only 36% positive coverage before 9/11.

Did that 36% represent liberal media bias, or just media pessimism?
A story from FOX News, quoting a CMPA study, states that, The New York Times, for example, had 33 percent favorable coverage for Clinton on its front pages, while it had 30 percent favorable coverage there for the current President Bush during the first year of their presidencies. So, while the "liberal" New York Times did give Clinton better coverage (and, let's be honest, the domestic scene was a lot better under Clinton), we're still talking about the difference between 30% and 33% positive coverage.

=-=-=-=-=-=-end ASV repost=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

When you actually sit down and start to run the numbers, the whole "media bias" thing is much less of a factor than most people make it out to be. I would actually blame media laziness for the current troubles more than media bias; the general level of discourse on domestic and world events seems, to my eye, to have deteriorated horribly in the last 50 years. One of the things that drove me off ASV was that nobody seemed to think. They just reacted, and if I called their behavior into question they-- and particularly Michele --went off on me for invalidating their feelings.

For god's sake, we're dropping bombs on people. We need to be working off more than our "impression" of who's "right and wrong".

Posted by: Joshua at May 13, 2004 12:30 PM

Oops. I left off another part of that ASV repost:

Study: Network coverage fair on Iraq war
Pentagon newsletter, linking a CMPA article. Fairly straightforward.

Posted by: Joshua at May 13, 2004 12:32 PM

Erm, I'm confused here, Joshua. Are you agreeing with me, or what?

Posted by: Ryan at May 13, 2004 12:40 PM

Yeah...I'm confused too.

Posted by: lily at May 13, 2004 12:47 PM

Ryan: I'm agreeing with you about the "media doesn't back the party in power" thing. I'm disagreeing with you about where the media bias (such as it is) is with regard to your "print & television vs. talk radio" thing. Network TV news has given the last two Republican presidents much better "honeymoon" treatment than they gave Clinton. And also, you left out cable television, which an increasingly significant news source for much of the country. And I'm also, in a roundabout way, disagreeing with you about the "take down the guy in the White House" thing. That's not unconditional: the massive spikes in media approval during the war and the generally "equal" treatment of a very contentious war tend to suggest that the media does have imperatives beyond unqualified criticism of the sitting president.

And I'm also giving you static for relying on your impression of events, rather than looking the information up and seeing what's actually going on. Not that you, as a blogger, have any particular responsibility to do so. But I'm suffering from a little ASV PTSD— I've developed kind of a phobic reaction to unsubstantiated opinions. Not to say we don't all have them, or even that we shouldn't express them. I'm just a little nervous about them at the moment.

Is that more clear, I hope?

Sorry if this comes across as a little twitchy. It really is ASV PTSD. I spent weeks trying to establish inroads with Michele on various issues. And I really thought I was getting somewhere with it and then Nick Berg was murdered and she pretty much went off the deep end (again). It kind of startled me and I'm still a little uncertain about my presentation after the fact.

I guess it's time for another nice long break from net politics.

Posted by: Joshua Norton at May 13, 2004 01:19 PM

So noted, Joshua. As a totally unrelated aside, except insofar as it has to do with Nick Berg, my final hit counter stats for yesterday tallied 852 visitors. I still can't believe it. Holy shit.

Posted by: Ryan at May 13, 2004 01:49 PM

i agree with both ryan's point of media pessimism—bingo—and joshua's addition of media laziness.

nixon changed everything. being 30, the only images of tricky-dick are from my book shelves. but as i try to relate what i see today to what i've read, the impact is huge. today's society, and this is true for the young to middle-aged generations, it has become contemporary to be critical of politics. i don't say this to attack thoughtful and creative approaches to being critical. but, case in point, the criticisms of W's mannerisms and oration—isn't it funny the way he said nuke-U-ler?—are petty. not only that, they're malicious. political cartooning is fine, personal attacks are out of line. in addition, there are many in the media that are quick to criticize but they rarely offer better solutions.

as for media laziness…the media has a responsibilty to educate the public. they fail miserably in this. econ is a great example. with all the media coverage of outsourced jobs, lou dobbs comes immediately to mind, it has become witch-hunt to name companies that are hiring overseas. does the media present the economic factors that influence such decisions? is the data considered on even basis? last time i checked, the word is still out what the effects will be on the long-term economic picture. the media should take responsibilty in public education. instead, they boil issues down to their headline equivilent. this does a great disservice to their audiences.

as for the data joshua presented, i'd agree with that. spin works both ways. it's easy to say that the media is leftist, just becuase they don't present a viewpoint i agree with. i also agree with ryan's gut in thinking that W rarely gets a break in the media. glad it's not just me that thinks so.

Posted by: seed at May 13, 2004 03:29 PM

Actually, Ryan has also made the point about media laziness before.

i also agree with ryan's gut in thinking that W rarely gets a break in the media. glad it's not just me that thinks so.

Just as a point of order: stats indicate he got more of a break than Clinton did and that, in general, both Bushes have gotten more positive coverage than Clinton did, on average.

Though, if you go to the CMPA site, there's an interesting thing: broadcast news reporting on Bush was 100% negative during certain phases of the 9/11 hearings. I can see some cause and effect at work there, but it's still kind of mind-boggling.

Posted by: Joshua at May 13, 2004 03:46 PM

Think you have to look at the Big News Stories of each administration's first 100 days.

Clinton: HilaryCare & it's demise.

Changing his campaign promise to allow gays in the military to "Don't ask, don't tell."

Sending the Haitian boat people back to Haiti.

The first WTC bombing.


Bush II: Fallout from the election.

The nomination of John Ashcroft for AG & the congressional hearings.

The stand-off with China over the spy plane.

blocking U.S. Funds to international family-planning groups that offer abortion and abortion counseling.

created an office to distribute government money to religious groups

sent his $1.6 trillion tax cut plan to Congress.

proposed increasing military spending by $5 billion.

a U.S. Navy submarine accidentally hit and sank a Japanese fishing boat, killing nine people

ordered military strikes against Iraq, destroying radar stations near Baghdad & killing two people

supported reducing carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants to fight global warming, but eight days later, reversed this policy, saying "greener" plants would cost power companies too much money.

decided to reject the Kyoto Treaty

Posted by: Rob @ L&R at May 14, 2004 08:32 AM

After living through the WTO protests here in Seattle and having to answer calls from my parents across the country "Are you alright? We heard they turned violent!" and others, I lost the last tiny bit of illusions I might have had about even-handed or even remotely accurate coverage of news events. I'm not saying the coverage amounted to a conservative bias per se, but the disconnect I saw between events that I witnessed myself or heard from firsthand accounts of people present and the stories running in the national press was mindboggling.
And yes, I do think that the multinational corporations that own the major news outlets spun that story to make all the protesters look like crazy anarchist nutjobs, but I think the major flaws I saw in coverage mostly amounted to laziness. As in news sources endlessly repeating the same accounts over and over again without bothering to do any investigative reporting whatsoever. This fits in with critiques I've heard among journalists that news departments just aren't willing to underwrite actual journalism any more, preferring to get their news from the wire services and relying on an endless supply of infotainment to pad out their twenty-four hour breaking news formats.
No doubt this contributes to what Josh has complained about, the substitution of endless editorializing from pundits in the place of any hard news about politics. Or the way that news sources are now sorting themselves by ideology, basically promising viewers that the news will be pre-spun to fit their own political slant, insuring that nobody ever has to exposed to news that shakes their pre-selected worldview.
I'm not necessarily opposed to advocacy journalism -- that is, journalism that makes its bias clear from the start -- but I do think it limits the chances for any kind of reasonable debate about issues between differing viewpoints, which is supposed to be the foundation of democracy. And to some extent, maybe that is where bloggers come in, because I've learned more about the view from the other side from forums like this than I would learn in a year of listening to Bill O'Reilly or some other self-appointed spokesman.
It makes me wonder how long it will be before blogs and other on-line forums become subject to the same kind of scrutiny that is now being leveled at mainstream media. Janet Jackson's nipple seems to have provided the impetus for yet another wave of calls for restrictions on "offensive" speech. These sorts of "Oh my God! We've got to protect the CHILDREN!" calls for public decency usually precede broader calls for restrictions on "inappropriate" political speech (read "dissent"). How long do you think before some blogger posts inappropriate content (say, some of those pictures that Congress has decided to keep under wraps) and the call goes out to rein in all this crazy online rabble-rousing? (Josh, I'm looking at you.)

Posted by: flamingbanjo at May 14, 2004 12:02 PM

You bring up some interesting points, flamingbanjo. As to your last point, I think if characters like Drudge and Ted Rall (or, for that matter, some of the creepy stuff at Democratic Underground) can exist openly, the freedom to blog will be pretty secure for some time. Of course, I could be woefully wrong there.

Laziness in the media is definitely a problem. I saw it countless times in the newsrooms I've worked in. Make no mistake about it, with the exception of field reporters who dig in the dirt and do real work, journalism is a cushy field to be in, and those in the biz, I think, strive to make it even cushier. And lazier. The negative spin you address during WTO protests doesn't stem so much from conservative agendas, so much as those images make for the easiest and most in-your-face sale.

The problem is, when the laziness, combined with the opinions and agendas of the supposedly un-biased journalists, ends up in print, well, you end up with some pretty heavily skewed, and largely un-researched crap.

I'll say one thing for the terrorists of the world: they're excellent at playing the media. Each grainy video or audiotape they release usually gets top billing in the news worldwide, because it's easy stuff to snap up and comment on, even though each tape is basically the equivalent of bad home videos and should never really be news in the first place.

Posted by: Ryan at May 14, 2004 12:36 PM

On that last point we agree. The desire for sensationalism in the news allows a handful of sadists with a video camera to effectively set the agenda for an entire nation of people. As I was hearing some of the more hardline reactions to the video, which basically seemed to amount to "now you see why we can't pull our punches when dealing with these people", it was as if I was hearing somebody using the actions of the KKK to characterize all Americans, or saying that Lee Harvey Oswald represented the will of all Republicans.

Posted by: flamingbanjo at May 14, 2004 01:24 PM

allows a handful of sadists with a video camera to effectively set the agenda for an entire nation of people

I had an idea for a gag the other day but couldn't figure out the best way to frame it:

Headline: "Osama bin Laden Orders Bush to Go Pee, or Face a Dirty Bomb in New York"

Text: "President George W. Bush was hospitalized early last night, 12 hours after Osama bin Laden ordered him to go pee, 'or I will detonate a dirty bomb in New York City.' The President immediately refused to go pee, stating flatly that, 'The United States does not negotiate with terrorists.'
"Mr. Bin Laden has since admitted to an Arabic language news source that there is no dirty bomb. 'Where the hell would I get enough uranium for a dirty bomb? I just realized one day— it just hit me. Bush will refuse to do whatever I tell him to do, no matter how destructive that refusal might be to his reputation or his country. So fine. At first I thought of ordering him to breathe, but then I realized he'd just pass out and start breathing again whether he meant to or not. That's when I had the 'no peeing' idea. Unfortunately, I didn't count on the catheter thing. I should have talked to a doctor first.'
"A spokesperson for the White House stated that President Bush will not be fooled by bin Laden's 'psychological warfare tactics', and that 'it will be a cold day in hell before George W. Bush takes a piss just because Osama bin Laden told him to.'"

Posted by: Joshua at May 14, 2004 01:53 PM

Drudge and Ted Rall (or, for that matter, some of the creepy stuff at Democratic Underground)

Of course, the thing about those folks is that they're just ranting. So they're not terribly dangerous because they're not dealing in facts. Their writing is almost completely content-free. Most people know that about them, so they get relatively little play (funny side note: as much ranting as Michele does against DU for being a "major" left-wing news source with a degree of influence that carries a certain journalistic responsibility to be objective or whatever-- she actually gets about twice as much traffic as they do, and clearly feels no such obligation to objectivity.)

On the other hand, corporate communications nets did put the kebosh on Michael Moore's new movie (and I hate to use that example, because I thought Bowling for Columbine was a big stinky pile of shit that drew no end of false and misleading conclusions). I think if a news source came out that was pushing the fruit of actual investigative reporting and had enough power to really challenge corporate hegemony, that news source would experience significantly more turbulence than DU, Rall and Drudge do. Alternatively, if a media source was figuring out a way to strain the content out of the ranters, I could see how that would lead to a general crack-down on "irresponsible" political speech on the web.

Something else about the web— at the moment, it's still not being used by that many people. As that changes, attitudes about content will change too.

Posted by: Joshua at May 14, 2004 02:03 PM
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