"In contrast to the vitriolic rants you'll find on some political blogging sites, Palmer gives in-depth analysis and commentary." --Dan Cook, The Free Times


On Media Bias: Part I (The Candidates)

(Note: This post is divided into two parts. To read the second half of this post, click here.)

As the Iowa caucuses draw closer and politicians become increasingly concerned with making momentum-stalling gaffes on the campaign trail that could derail their nominations, the media they have relied on for much of the year to help shape and advance their campaigns has now become a double-edged sword.

Politicians love the element of control--control over their message, control over their legislation, and control over their opposition. However, the one variable that is often out of politicians' control is the media. The media are notorious for building people up one day and then savagely tearing them down the next. The media are also infamous for catching politicians red-handed and providing a means by which moments of infamy can be replayed over and over again, as former Virginia Senator George Allen could attest to.

However, one of the most enduring criticisms I hear from politicians, pundits, politicos, and partisans is the allegation of media bias, especially against conservatives and Republicans. These criticisms have led to fault lines, especially in cable news, as people view CNN and MSNBC as friendlier environs for Democrats and Fox News as more benevolent to Republicans.

The focus of this particular post is not to provide a content analysis of the cable newscasts or their hiring trends. While at first glance, one may buy into this notion of bias, there are so many other examples to the contrary to suggest that even if the media are not always nonpartisan, they are decidedly not biased in that they collectively constitute an equal opportunity risk.

First of all, it is important to stress that negative coverage is not always the same as biased coverage. Every campaign gets caught in stumbles, contradictions, improprieties, and awkward moments. And it is the media's duty to report on those. The media have a responsibility to their audience to address legitimate, substantive issues, such as what role Bill Clinton would play in a Hillary Clinton presidency, why Barack Obama voted "present" (rather than "yea" or "nay") on several controversial issues when he was in the Illinois state legislature, whether Mitt Romney is a credible conservative given his moderate rhetoric in the past, and whether Mike Huckabee has ethical problems. This should be fair game. For politicians to bemoan this type of coverage simply because it's unflattering displays a certain level of silliness that is beneath them. It would behoove these politicians to simply own up to their mistakes or address these negative stories head on, rather than just whining about "media hit jobs."

However, the media have also gone to great lengths to cover frivolous nonissues that have poisoned our political dialogue. The greatest tragedy of this coverage is that it has often come at the expense of discussion about more important topics.

Earlier this year, Barack Obama had to deal with insulting questions like "Is he Black enough?" These questions frustrated Obama so much that his wife Michelle even got involved. And when Oprah Winfrey endorsed him, he had to deal with stories about her only doing so because he was Black. Why did this endorsement and the debate that followed receive more airtime than his views on why illegal immigrants should be allowed to have driver's licenses?

We also have the media to thank for associating the word "cackle" with Hillary Clinton. When was the last time a politician's laugh received so much attention? And why should we care? I remember there being a story a few weeks ago about Clinton's shoelaces becoming untied. Are these people serious? It seems that the media do not allow politicians to be human anymore. Imagine the fallout if a politician couldn't suppress a burp at a diner at a campaign stop while the cameras were rolling! What madness!

John Edwards hasn't escaped the knives of the media either, as the stories about his mansion and expensive haircuts are well known to everyone. On the money front, Mitt Romney is actually the wealthiest candidate running for president this year, but the "rich" label has stuck to Edwards, thanks to the media. But in defense of both Edwards and Romney, why should one's wealth even be an issue at all? Shouldn't we want to elect a candidate who knows how to manage and grow his money? Would we really be comfortable electing someone who makes $45,000 a year and pays $750 a month for a 3-bedroom apartment? And why is it okay to talk about a $400 haircut while we ignore politicians who spend their money on exotic houses, imported wines, and designer suits?

If Mike Huckabee thinks he's being unfairly targeted with questions about religion now, he should look at Mitt Romney. Media coverage about Romney's faith rivals coverage about Obama's "Blackness" in terms of sheer absurdity. However, perhaps to evangelical Christians (regarding Romney) and skeptical Blacks and Whites (regarding Obama), maybe these really are important issues. But the media are complicit in fueling this dissonance by devoting so much time to issues that have absolutely no relevance whatsoever to one's ability to govern effectively. If the media could use their influence to make John Edwards' haircut a national story, couldn't they also have used their influence to minimize the significance of Romney's religion or Obama's race?

This is not to say that all of Mike Huckabee's gripes are unjustified, as he is now having the content of his ads scrutinized. First, he received criticism for not being serious when he used Chuck Norris in one of his earliest campaign ads. Then he was criticized again for using the term "Christian leader" to describe himself in another ad. The latest controversy is about the perceived image of a cross in his latest "Merry Christmas" ad even though the "cross" was really just a part of a bookshelf. Why not just take these ads at face value and focus on his platform?

Rudy Giuliani has had to deal with questions about his relationship with his ex-wives and children. Some people might say these are important stories because it's important that the President be "a family man." But why? Ronald Reagan was on his second wife and Bill Clinton had tinges of infidelity swirling about him, but both were elected. After all, when the bombs are falling and your finger is on the nuclear button, does anybody really care if you played board games with your children every Friday night?

There was a time when Fred Thompson's wife was receiving more media coverage than Fred Thompson himself. That talk has been replaced by talk about how little energy he has on the campaign trail and how disappointing his candidacy has been. Talk about his actual record, on the other hand, is a bit harder to find. Of course, prior to jumping in the race, the media (and conservatives alike) had annointed him as the great conservative hope for disaffected Republicans based on the fact that he "looked" presidential and was an actor. Is that all it takes to get people to pay attention to you? Where was the "liberal media bias" when everyone was fawning over Fred?

Joe Biden was lambasted by the media for using the phrase "clean and articulate" to describe Barack Obama. I doubt that his campaign has ever fully recovered from the damage this nonstory caused. More people remember the word "articulate" than know about his well thought out Iraq plan, which is a travesty given that Iraq is probably the single most important foreign policy challenge facing this nation.

Dennis Kucinich unfairly received a question about UFOs during a debate this fall. Media outlets had a field day covering the aftermath of that. The fact that his views on labor, health care, Iraq, and impeachment are shared by a large segment of the Democratic base doesn't seem to matter because everyone just remembers "Dennis and the UFOs."

It seems that the only candidates who have not been brutalized by the media's focus on pabulum have been John McCain, Bill Richardson, and Chris Dodd. McCain had to deal with stories about disarray in his campaign and running out of money, but those were legitimate issues because they struck at his own viability. That's simply negative coverage, not stupid coverage.

Bill Richardson has generally flown under the radar. He received favorable media coverage for his "Job Interview" ads and has also been criticized for running a lackluster campaign and performing poorly at the debates. However, the media have not really piled onto him.

Dodd hasn't generated much coverage in general, be it good or bad (aside from joking about the fly in his hair at one debate). It could be because he is mired in the 1-2% range of most polls. Or it could be because he hasn't had any breakout moments that generated news. Or it could be that he hasn't made any mistakes. Or it could be that he doesn't fit into the "Clinton vs. Obama" storyline in the Democratic race. Whatever it is, it's too bad because he is a competent, disciplined politician that sits in the Democratic mainstream.

Ron Paul is in a totally different category. After being treated as something of a gadfly for most of the year, the media have been forced to take him a bit more seriously as of late because of his unbelievable fundraising. I get the impression that nobody really knows how to cover his campaign because nobody expects him to win even though he has such strong support online and is raising so much money.

One final thought. Regarding the presidential race, the media commonly talk about six Republican candidates (Huckabee, Romney, Thompson, McCain, Giuliani, and Paul). However, they usually only talk about three Democrats (Edwards, Obama, and Clinton). Yes, Richardson, Dodd, and Biden are polling far worse than Obama, Clinton, and Edwards are, but they are all credible candidates because they are raising money and have campaign staff in several states. If anything, the media are biased in favor of the Republicans regarding the presidential contest because while they are covering almost all of the Republican candidates (excluding the single-issue and vanity candidates), they are only covering half of the Democrats. This is not to say that this coverage is always meaningful, however.

6 comment(s):

Nikki said...

I want to say that all viewers, readers of the news are biased. I know a lot of people who just do not care about the news AT ALL especially politics. Most people who are interested are hearing through a biased ear. I don't necessarily think all things need to be equal. I don't think we need congress to pass a fairness in information act. I think the mainstream media stinks and dumbs down the news anyway. I like CNN online because I think it is more user friendly than fox, and I don't feel threatened as a conservative. I watch Brit Hume at night for the news on Fox and after that its internet and food network for me!!! I read the local paper which would be considered extremely conservative. I like CSPAN and am a junkie. to me it is informative with no bias.
As far as the media reporting on change therefore appearing liberal is an interesting theory. I am not sure I agree. My opinion is in academia. Most reporters and journalists are highly educated and I believe there is more of a left leaning bias in universities. I went to the University of Utah studying Poly Sci. and had 1 conservative prof. I think that most reporters are liberal because of indoctination in college........but I don't rant about it because I just don't watch it or read it.

Anthony Palmer said...

You said that "most reporters are liberal because of indoctrination in college."

Okay, fair enough. So let me ask you this then:

By that same logic, would you say that most people who have college degrees in general are also liberal because they were "indoctrinated" in college? Are most lawyers liberal? Most engineers? Most business owners? Most economists?

Or do you think there's something unique to journalism professionals? I don't think citing indoctrination in college really addresses the conservative political views of other college graduates.

Nikki said...

I don't mean to make a mass generalization, however I do think most places of higher learning are far more liberal than conservative. My cousin studied engineering at BYU. Brigham Young University may be THE most conservative college in America. She went in conservative and came out liberal. This could be because of various reasons. BYU is very good at balanced information. I studied in Israel for 6 months at BYU who has a facility right next to the Hebrew University and they share a few facilities and exchange ideas and teaching. While I was there we studied the Arab/Isreali conflict. This was in 1987 when the conflict was fairly calm but of course boiling. A BYU Professor Dr. Nazal an Arab who taught us that the holocaust was a hoax, a hollywood illusion and a complete lie. He had been teaching this Philosophy for over 2 years in this study-abroad program. The information was then countered by a different Professor and we were left to make up our own minds. If ALL the information is on the table then people can accurately make decisions. I believe academia portrays conservatives in a certain way and leaves out all aspects of an argument.
It is the same in the media. The news is too fast and overshadowed by the Britney Spears of the world for poeple to get informed. So the side of an issue that is reported on is mostly one sided and usually through the eyes of a biased journalist.
You column in my opinion is not biased. Though I have learned some of where you stand on certain issues, I find your writing to be unbiased and informative. I am not butt-kissing. It just is.
PS. Dr. Nazal was a guest professor from Stanford and taught there until the center was closed in the early 00's due to unrest.

Schenck said...


You wrote, "Shouldn't we want to elect a candidate who knows how to manage and grow his money? Would we really be comfortable electing someone who makes $45,000 a year and pays $750 a month for a 3-bedroom apartment?"

First off, where can I get a 3-bedroom apt for $750/month?? Maybe it's because I live in the D.C. suburbs, but a 1-bedroom will be upwards of $1000.

Secondly, I could care less about a candidate's personal finances. I would be more concerned with wasteful, excessive spending (mansions, haircuts, imported wine) than if one's income was $45,000. This is actually one thing that perturbs me about modern U.S. politics. Personally, I am much more attracted to ideals, intelligence, and reasoning power than whether or not a candidate has been able to conform to our system for monetary success. Have you read Bernard Shaw's play "Heartbreak House"? He was an active socialist (I might be a bit of one, too), and he has some good points about what it takes to be wealthy and powerful in modern Western capitalism: greed and exploitation (all too often). I'm definitely an advocate of public financing of campaigns to decrease the HUGE role money takes in elections in the US, and I'm much more likely to vote for a common middle-class candidate than a millionaire who claims to be in-touch with the plight of regular Americans (which is basically none of the candidates except the virtually bankrupt Gravel, who I have abandoned in my anti-HRC sentiments). And honestly, if a millionaire like GWB can handle his own finances yet manages to plummet the nation trillions further into debt, what's the point?

Also, I'm almost excited to have disagreed with you on something.


Anthony Palmer said...

Hi Schenck.

Yes, you are right in that knowing how to manage your finances wisely is more important than how much money you have. But the thing is, when you are as rich as Edwards is, then you can afford to spend $400 on a haircut. Does he need to? Certainly not. I'd imagine that most people in the upper income brackets don't go to places like McDonald's and Applebees even though food is food, right? Why spend all that money on a trip to China when you can visit Disney World instead? Why buy a Cadillac when you can buy a Chevy Cavalier? Both get you from Point A to Point B, right? Should we criticize wealthy people for these things? I think that if someone has the money and can actually afford it, then I don't think they should be ridiculed for it. And a millionaire getting a $400 haircut seems more reasonable to me than a person making $30,000 and living paycheck to paycheck buying a $500 PlayStation 3 or $1000 rims for a car. Extravagance and waste are not quite the same, IMO.

The point I'm trying to make is that we shouldn't criticize wealthy people for the way they use their money, so long as they can afford it. I know I have no need for a $400 haircut, but maybe someone else will look down on me for owning a Nintendo Wii, two trumpets, two bowling balls, a dog, and a treadmill and say I wasted my money. (And I'm most certainly NOT wealthy.)

Oh, and I live in Columbia, SC. The cost of living is much cheaper here. You folks in DC and NY are probably scratching your head at that $750 figure. :)

Schenck said...

Palmer, I'm more suspicious of how the wealthy people get their money than how they choose to spend it. In fact, I'd rather have them blow it all and put it back into the economy (although it will really just go to other wealthy people). I'm more at odds with the means with which massive amounts of wealth are commonly accrued in our democracy. I'm not talking a few hundred thousand (although I'd like to know how they get that, too) but rather the tens of millions stacking up in their backyards while they sip mojitos in the Caribbean (an exaggeration). I'm just saying, all too often, "good business practices" which build that kind of wealth in this day and age usually include exploitation and narcissism. But immorality is not really illegal, is it?

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