Saturday, January 19, 2008

On Media Bias

Over on the sporting pitch, controversy, as usual, envelops the announcement of the latest voting for membership in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Many of the arguments contest the qualifications of one Jim Rice, a Boston Red Sox slugger from the 1970s and 1980s. To a large extent, the debate centers around whether Rice's impressive statistics were impressive enough for enshrinement, given that a) he had a relatively short career, and b) he was a right-handed power hitter who played his home games in a ballpark that disproportionately favored righties.

But the most interesting feature of the dispute involves the alleged role of certain grudge-bearing sportswriters in denying Rice his plaque in Cooperstown. It seems that the selection of each year's class of Hall of Famers is determined primarily by a vote of members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, at least those scribes who have belonged to that organization for at least a decade. Evidently, Mr. Rice did not possess the sweetest of dispositions during his playing days and often treated members of the press with disdain. Consequently, some argue, one of the most feared power hitters of his generation may never receive his rightful recognition because some sportswriters simply didn't like him.

Journalists are, despite their affectations, human beings just like the rest of us. As such, they have their biases and their vanities, their quirks and their obsessions. Treat them badly enough times, and maybe some of them will find a reason to keep you out of the Hall of Fame. Kiss up to them, throw them clever quotes and provide them with penetrating analyses, and perhaps your borderline record of 220 wins and your so-so 3.20 earned run average may be enough to earn you the 75% share of the vote needed to achieve baseball immortality.

If sportswriters can be so moved, what about those who report on politics for a living? Surely, they cannot be unaffected by the kindnesses shown them and insults suffered. They would—and do—argue that their professionalism provides a buffer between the ego and the journalist, and I don't doubt that for a moment. Still, no buffer is impervious and not even the most diligent professionals can entirely ward off their emotions. In my business (college teaching), many professors have taken to asking students to provide identifying numbers, rather than names, on their examinations, so all worries about potential bias can be eliminated. (Teaching, like journalism, is a very personal business, and believe me when I tell you that every instructor has students she adores unreservedly and students she detests thoroughly.)

A number of bloggers devote significant attention to the alleged biases of the political media. Quotes are isolated, often badly out of context, that supposedly prove that some reporter or another has it in for one of the presidential candidates. As you might expect, some of these claims are more persuasive than others. The treatment of Al Gore in 2000, for example, is particularly difficult to understand without arriving at the conclusion that members of the press corps absolutely despised him. Nevertheless, claims of prejudice generally have a partisan edge to them—conservatives and liberals alike see the media as biased against their side—and where you stand in this case almost certain depends, as they say, on where you sit.

I'm a bit of a hard sell on this issue because I've known and talked to plenty of reporters in my time, and I've heard them make scathing remarks about various political officeholders. In their actual copy, however, it is impossible to locate even a trace of that hostility. If I am capable of failing students that I personally like—and I am—then why should I not believe that the working press is able to do the same thing in their realm of responsibility?

Further, the sorts of biases reporters do have almost guarantee that they will seem gratuitously adversarial to supporters of any given politician. First, good political journalists see their job, in large part, as probing for weaknesses, often mercilessly. They suffer liars very poorly and react badly when smoke is blown in their faces. Second, they generally possess a belief that frontrunners deserve particularly close scrutiny, and they will often push the favorite far harder than the underdog (and, to be sure, they also have a vested interest in creating highly competitive races that generate greater public attention). Finally, just like the rest of us, a few reporters are probably just lazy, finding a story line—Hillary Clinton has high negatives!—and beating it to within a centimeter of its life.

Still, lines are being crossed today that weren't even approached in the past. One factor, for example, that separates today's media coverage from that of the Murrow-Cronkite era is the rise of the opinion journalist. Thirty years ago, there was nobody like Bill O'Reilly or Keith Olbermann in any serious news department. Network telecasts may have permitted a certain bit of commentary (Eric Severeid on CBS, Howard K. Smith on ABC), but even then blatant partisanship was studiously avoided. I know that the asinine claims of liberal media bias are rooted in this era, but that was largely the product of people who couldn't handle the truth—racism and sexism were wrong, we were losing in Vietnam, and Dick Nixon was a crook—and thus projected their anger on the messenger.

Unfortunately, when real reporters interact with opinion journalists, the result can, in fact, be detrimental to the profession. The Lou Dobbs Hour of Hate (or whatever he calls it these days) has its own stable of correspondents, but occasionally one of CNN's actual journalists appears on the show and is suddenly made to answer loaded questions about illegal "aliens" and their propensity for stealing American jobs and tax dollars. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, attempting to play along with the satirical spirit of Olbermann's "Countdown" arrives for a segment on Dick Cheney's hunting accident wearing a bright orange protective jacket, clearly ridiculing the veep (who richly deserved it, but still...). This collision of journalists and commentators has done a great deal to blur the line, in the minds of the public, between reporting and advocacy.

And, of course, we now have an entire cable news network so dedicated to biased coverage of events that it ironically styles itself "fair and balanced". Started by a Republican political consultant, Fox News has done more than any other outfit to advance the notion that all truth is relative and that no reporting can truly be honest. In particular, their employment of Brit Hume, once a respected White House correspondent for ABC news, falsely reminds viewers that it's all just a game and that it always has been.

So what am I saying? First, as long as journalists are human beings, there will be some bias in news coverage, probably based more on personal relationships than ideological predilections (I may have more to say about John McCain's cozy relationship with the media in a future post). Nevertheless, the extent of that bias is greatly exaggerated on all sides of the political spectrum; the vast majority of reporters play it straight the vast majority of the time. (This is even true of sportswriters, by the way: over 70% did, in fact, support Jim Rice's candidacy for the Hall of Fame this year despite the man's supposed obnoxiousness, and most of the ones who didn't were swayed primarily by the statistical record.)

The advent of advocacy journalism, however, and especially the unfortunate rise of Fox News, has made it more difficult for most citizens to distinguish opinion from reporting. Moreover, the appearance of "real" journalists on many of these opinion programs emphatically worsens the problem. Dana Milbank and Howard Fineman and the rest probably enjoy their newfound fame, but they ought to consider the price being paid by their profession. Let Bill and Keith, and certainly Chris Matthews and Don Imus, find guests more appropriate to the format. Give us more Rachel Maddow and less Richard Wolffe.

Finally, if reporters are going to appear on opinion shows, they ought to be made to show their cards. They should stop hiding behind their journalistic shields and let us know what they, personally, really think of the candidates. At least then, we can know where we stand. To their credit, sports reporters who get mixed up in the opinion game rarely try to pretend they are above it all. They tell you straight away that they think Jim Rice and Barry Bonds are jerks.

And, really, the stakes in November are just a little bit higher than those involving whether Jim Rice gets a seat in the Catfish Hunter/Tony PĂ©rez wing of marginal Hall of Famers.

1 comment:

redbarb said...

When can journalists be analysts if your scenario? Olbermann clearly has a point of view, but when Tom Ricks appears I look to his expertise not his personal views to grade what he says. He is one of the best military analysts in print journalism. I want him exposed more not less. What I want to rid TV journalism is the false equivalence of CNN's election analysts. One panel of Republican consultants or unemployed bloviators vs. a panel of equivalent Democrats gives you no more than competing spin. Donna Brazile has moments but does anyone want to hear from Bill Bennett?
Clearly the solution is more time for underutilized political science professors. Take a rest Norm Ornstein, I want to be on Colbert.