AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2008

In the Tank?   

So let’s get this straight: “The media” are swooning over Barack, love McCain but can’t stand Hillary? Maybe it’s a little more complicated than that.

By Paul Farhi
Senior contributing writer Paul Farhi (farhip@washpost.com) is a reporter for the Washington Post.     

Allegations of media bias have been a sideshow, and sometimes the main event, of every presidential campaign of recent vintage. Critics shrieked that a line had been crossed in 1987 when the Miami Herald revealed Democratic frontrunner Gary Hart's relationship with Donna Rice. Five years later, George H.W. Bush complained that reporters exaggerated the extent of the recession during his term. Al Gore's aides thought the media gave him a hard time, and his opponent George W. Bush an easy ride, in 2000. And Howard Dean and John Kerry grumbled about cable TV's obsession with Dean's "scream" and Kerry's Swift Boat opponents in 2004.

Campaign '08 has offered more, often much more, of the same. Long before the last primary vote had been cast, charges of media favoritism were flying around like confetti. An incomplete list: the press savaged Hillary Clinton's campaign while going easy on her main rival, Barack Obama (a theme echoed in two memorable "Saturday Night Live" skits); worshipful reporters gave John McCain a pass during his campaign for the Republican nomination (a new book by the liberal group Media Matters for America is titled "Free Ride: John McCain and the Media"); Obama was unfairly maligned in the primaries' latter stages.

But each claim about "the media" isn't really clear-cut. Were they too tough on Hillary? Maybe at times. But didn't Clinton's campaign benefit enormously from its early press clippings, too? Her coverage during much of 2007 made her nomination sound inevitable, which helped her attract contributions, endorsements and key advisers. Didn't she also lose 11 straight primaries to Obama, a track record that would have made another candidate a media laughingstock?

In love with Obama? Maybe, but only if you don't count relatively early stories about his past drug use (New York Times), reports about false rumors of his "secret" Muslim upbringing (Washington Post) and unflattering stories about his association with a shadowy Chicago fundraiser named Tony Rezko (Chicago Tribune). All of these appeared before the cable-fed eruption over Obama's ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his "bitter" comments before the Pennsylvania primary and the flap about his brief association with '60s radicals William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn.

Too easy on McCain? Surely in some instances, but the claim ignores several major caveats, such as the widespread reporting on the disarray and near-bankruptcy of his campaign last summer, when his candidacy was virtually declared dead; the stories about his gaffes (confusing Sunni and Shiite factions in Iraq, for example); and the fact that McCain's long presence on the national scene has made him one of the best-known and most-covered figures in politics. It also fails to recognize the effect of timing on campaign coverage. McCain clinched his party's nomination in early March, which shifted the media spotlight from the GOP race to the Democratic battle. In other words, there's still time. As Newsweek's Evan Thomas wrote in early March, "Right now, Obama and John McCain are popular with reporters. But if the usual laws of press physics apply, the media will turn on both men before Election Day."

Nevertheless, cries of bias grow louder with each election cycle. Polls have shown rising public skepticism about the news media for decades. According to research cited by media scholar S. Robert Lichter, two-thirds of the public agreed that the press was "fair" in a survey in 1937. By 1984, only 38 percent said newspapers were "usually fair" and only 29 percent said this of television reporting. We're fast approaching zero credibility. In a national survey conducted by Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, in January, only 19.6 percent of respondents said they believed "all or most" reporting. An even larger portion, 23.9 percent, said they believed "little" or none of it.

What's going on here? Are we really so biased, so incapable of checking our prejudices that even the most straightforward reporting deservedly engenders suspicion? Is all of the work of the news media deserving of skepticism?

At the risk of sounding biased, no.

Leaving aside the obvious – that reporters are flawed humans who sometimes do launder their prejudices and passions in print or on the air – there are good reasons to be skeptical. The widespread perception of media unfairness doesn't necessarily confirm the existence of it. Consider the case against claims of bias:

• The media aren't a monolith.

Critics often blame "the media," as if the sins of some are the sins of all. It's not just a bland, inexact generalization; it's a slur.

The media are, of course, made up of numerous parts, many of which bear little relation to each other. "Entertainment Tonight" is the media, as is the Christian Science Monitor and the BBC. Reporters, columnists, copy editors, editorial writers, photographers, assignment editors, bloggers, anchors, TV pundits are all part of the media. So are magazines, newspapers, TV networks, radio stations and Web sites. Do all, or even the majority, of "the media" act in concert? Can it all be biased simultaneously? Hardly. Critics need to define their terms. Holding "the media" responsible for some perceived slight is like blaming an entire ethnic or racial group for the actions of a few of its members.

A starting point: "I think, first of all, we need to distinguish between actual journalism [news reports in print and broadcast] and the things uttered by TV personalities," says Susan Milligan, a national political reporter for the Boston Globe. "The latter become obsessed – based on I don't know what – with provocative topics that may or may not be all that relevant to voters. The Geraldine Ferraro comments [criticizing Obama's candidacy] and the Obama pastor story come to mind. I mean, they're both legitimate stories, but it's a bit ridiculous how so many TV shows did nonstop coverage on them, like it was 9/11 or something."

It's true, certainly, that journalists themselves have contributed to this confusion. In an ever more complicated and economically challenged media environment, the lines between reporter and pundit have gradually disappeared. Print reporters now go on TV to opine, or write blogs containing "analysis" that is thinly disguised opinion. Lichter, president of George Mason University's Center for Media and Public Affairs, believes that some of the public's antipathy toward the press has been fueled over the past few decades by the rise of the "celebrity journalist," the reporter who covers the story, then gets on television to tell viewers what to think about it.

"I think there's a feeling that journalists have overstepped their boundaries," he says. "People don't look on [journalists] the way journalists like to view themselves – as the public's tribune, speaking truth to power, standing up for the little guy. They don't look like the little guy anymore. They're part of the celebrity culture." Increasingly, he says, "people like the news but hate the news media."

Even so:

• The media aren't necessarily more biased; it's just that the media-bias industry keeps saying they are.

It's not only Rush Limbaugh, with his weekly audience of millions, who inveighs against the news media's perceived unfairness. In the two decades since Limbaugh rose to prominence, an entire industry has sprung up, on the left and right, to reinforce and amplify his gospel that the dread mainstream media distort, twist and lie.

The lesser Limbaughs of talk radio have been joined by legions of bloggers whose raison d'๊tre is to catch mainstream journalists in mistakes or misfeasance. Organized media-monitoring groups (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, Accuracy in Media, Media Matters for America, etc.) troll the airwaves and scour the printed page, ready to scold. Bestseller lists are studded with attacks on the press (a copy of Bernard Goldberg's media-crit tome, "Bias," has even been enshrined in the new Newseum in Washington, D.C.).

TV shows and movies are in the same game, though typically with a comedic or satiric edge. "The Colbert Report" and "The Daily Show" have raised the skewering of the media's foibles – particularly those of TV pundits – to a fine art (a "Daily Show" sketch in late February featured "correspondent" Samantha Bee reporting from the press' "Anti-Hillary War Room," located at the "Paula Jones Conference Center"). Some pundits have even credited "Saturday Night Live's" parody of the pro-Obama press with toughening the real press' scrutiny of the candidate.

Some criticism is warranted and healthy. But there may be a darker side to all the yammering about, and hammering of, the press. "Among the greatest of the agendas [of the media-bias industry] is to destroy the credibility of the mainstream press," wrote Roy Peter Clark, the Poynter Institute vice president and senior scholar, on Poynter's Web site (poynter.org) in January. "A case can be made that sensitivity to such criticism – along with accusations that journalists are disloyal to American interests – softened the skeptical edge of the news media during the lead-up to the Iraqi war."

• The public doesn't really understand how the news is made.

That might sound elitist, except that much of the daily suspicion cast on reporters' work seems to stem from na๏vet้ and reflexive public cynicism. Ask journalists about a recent accusation of bias and watch their eyes begin to roll. Julie Mason, the Houston Chronicle's White House reporter, remembers one reader who took her to task for being "obsessed" with John Kerry during the 2004 campaign. Obsessed? She was covering his campaign. "It was my job to be with him every day," she laughs.

Another reader spotted bias in the placement of quotes in one of Mason's stories. "I'm biased," she says, "because I put the quote in after the jump, which to them means I'm trying to bury it. They don't believe you when you say you don't control where a story jumped."

A recent letter writer to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's public editor, Angela Tuck, asked: "If the AJC is against bias, why does it seem that it disproportionately endorses Democrats running for office? What is the percentage of Republican to Democrat presidential candidate endorsements? Why make endorsements anyway, as it seems to indicate which political party the staff leans toward?" Tuck patiently explained the separation between the paper's editorial board and its news staff, how the latter is obligated to deliver balanced coverage while the former renders opinions and conclusions. Still, wrote Tuck, "many readers don't believe us when we say that editorial writers don't influence the news."

B>• The more they know, the less they like.

Some of the public's hostility is informed by, well, more information. With a few clicks of a computer mouse, viewers and readers can cross-check and double-check what reporters say – something almost impossible just a dozen or so years ago. They can also see it for themselves, live and unfiltered, thanks to live cable news coverage and Internet streaming.

"We used to be people's eyes and ears at events. Now people can watch for themselves and take away their own conclusions," says Dan Balz, a veteran Washington Post political reporter. "Reporters may emphasize different things. That's not necessarily bias, it's just a different perspective."

But seeing is believing, says Jerry C. Lindsley, director of the Sacred Heart poll. "It's not like the old days when there were three sources of [TV] news," he says. "When people see a discrepancy, that leads to frustration. When a reporter leaves something out of a story and others don't, [readers] wonder why. When they use one source but not another, people may think they're not getting the whole picture."

Adds Lindsley, "People know bias when they see it."

• Except that they sometimes see it even when they haven't.

As the Sacred Heart survey makes clear, people implicitly overstate how much news they really consume. The poll found, for example, that Americans described the New York Times and National Public Radio as "mostly or somewhat liberal" roughly four times more often than they described those two outlets as "mostly or somewhat conservative." Leave aside the blunt generality inherent in this. (Is all of NPR – from "Morning Edition" to "Car Talk" – "mostly or somewhat liberal?") The more important (and unasked) question about this finding is its shaky foundation. Given that only small fractions of the populace read the Times or listen to NPR on a regular basis, how is it that so many Americans seem to know so much about the political leanings of the Times and NPR?

Similarly, people ranked "PBS News" among the lowest national TV news organizations, with just 3 percent citing it as "most trusted." This might reflect the notion that trust is a function of ratings, rather than actual reporting expertise, since all of the networks that ranked above PBS in the survey had bigger audiences. But it may also say something about the sophistication of the survey's respondents. There is, after all, no such thing as "PBS News."

• The view looks different from inside your own media bubble.

Unlike 75 years ago, when the public deemed the press more "fair," unlike even 20 years ago, readers and viewers can now live in a media world of their own choosing. A typical news consumer can now surround himself with news that fits his preconceived political sentiments. First talk radio, then cable TV and now the Internet make it possible to tailor a self-fulfilling news menu.

Is it any wonder that the world outside this bubble often looks strange and biased to those inside it?

"We now live in a period when there is no one media anymore," says Balz. "Consumers now tend to seek out the news that conforms with their view of the world. When they see something that doesn't conform, that's bias to them."

Julie Mason says "partisans" tend to have the strongest perceptions of bias, and they aren't shy about expressing them. "They're exactly like sports fans to me," she says. "As the season progresses, they get more and more myopic about their 'team.' "

• Shocking but true: We're not nearly as bad as they think.

Content analysis is a tricky thing – a lot depends on how one selects and evaluates the content – but some of the analysis of journalists' work actually tells a positive story. In a study of the A sections and section fronts of three agenda-setting newspapers – the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times – researchers at Bowling Green State University in Ohio found a remarkable degree of balance.

Despite frequent complaints that the media have been unfair (particularly from the Clinton camp), Clinton and Obama received roughly equal number of "positive" and "negative" headlines from the three papers during the period studied (from Labor Day through the Super Tuesday primaries in early February). About 35 percent of the headlines for Obama were positive and 27 percent were negative. Clinton received 31 percent positive and 31 percent negative. The balance of stories was judged to be either mixed (with positive and negative elements) or neutral.

Just as important, perhaps, is that Clinton's coverage wasn't "gendered" in the traditional way. That is, it didn't emphasize her clothing and appearance, something that candidates such as Patricia Schroeder and Elizabeth Dole faced in earlier campaigns. This may reflect the fact that Clinton is one of the best-known women in the world, with a long history in the spotlight. Nevertheless, the coverage tended to focus on her campaign and policy questions, the study found.

TV coverage may be a different story, acknowledges Melissa K. Miller, one of the study's two principal investigators, but that was beyond her scope. "I think when you systematically study press coverage in this manner, in which you're looking at hundreds if not thousands of headlines, it may give a different impression than a person sitting down in front of the TV for the evening news."

A similar analysis of the Chicago Tribune in March by the paper's public editor, Timothy J. McNulty, found that Obama was cited first in 93 front-page stories in the past year, compared with 80 for Clinton and 39 for McCain. Obama also led in front-page photographs (40), compared with Clinton (34) and McCain (21). A clear bias for Obama? Not exactly. "Those who see a disparity in coverage of Republicans versus Democrats are, of course, absolutely correct," McNulty wrote. "Much more space has been devoted to the ongoing struggle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama than to McCain because the decision regarding the Republican presidential nominee seems settled."

Which leads to:

• Not all candidates, nor all of the news, are created equal.

It's unrealistic, even undesirable, to expect the candidates to receive roughly the same number of stories or minutes of airtime. As McNulty pointed out, there were perfectly valid reasons why the Tribune would write more about Obama than Clinton or McCain. For one thing, Obama is a former community organizer and state senator from Chicago, making him the Trib's hometown candidate. What's more, he was the Democratic frontrunner in a tight, hard-fought race. For another, not all of the coverage he received was favorable: The Tribune broke a number of stories about Obama's ties to Tony Rezko and covered his relationship with Rev. Wright, another Chicagoan. No doubt the Obama campaign would have preferred fewer stories about "Bittergate" or his bowling skills.

The mistake, says the Globe's Milligan, is "confusing fairness with balance," when balance means equal criticism of all the candidates. "If we have fewer so-called criticisms of Obama's record, I think much of it has to do with the fact that his record is simply much shorter, and we didn't start looking at it until he ran for president," she observes. "We don't have Obama's daily schedules for eight years.... And we don't have seven and a half years of Obama Senate votes to scour," because he's been in the Senate just over three years.

So what's a poor, misunderstood news media monolith supposed to do to win back its public esteem and fading credibility? Perhaps the future lies in the past, in going back to the basics taught in beginning journalism class.

"The best we can do is to try and play it straight and get the facts out as best we can," says Dan Balz.

Says Jerry Lindsley: "I hate to simplify this too much, but people are looking for a balanced presentation of ideas. They want two sides, if there are two sides. People think it's not that difficult to present both sides. Keep your personal biases at home."

To which Lichter has a three-word reply: Not gonna happen. Despite efforts to hold on to textbook notions of "objective" reporting, he says, journalistic norms have been in flux for several decades, driven by technological, economic and historic forces. The future promises only more of this. Instead of straightforward descriptive reporting, he says, the news will become more like what it has been becoming for years: More interpretive, more personal, more subjective and more opinionated. "You can't put this genie back in its bottle – there never was a bottle," he says. "There's going to be a diffusion of viewpoints. People are going to find it easier than ever to find one viewpoint they like and will stick with that."

If so, it augurs one terrifying possibility. All those complaints about bias you've been hearing lately? You haven't heard anything yet.

Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi (farhip@washpost.com) writes frequently about the news media for the Post and AJR. He wrote in AJR's April/May issue about the media's penchant for coming to premature and generally incorrect predictions about the current presidential campaign.