'Post Truth Politics,' Continued
My new “Think Again” column is called “Think Again: The Color of Hollywood Is Green.” It is a critique of a lazy an misguided argument about Hollywood’s liberalism by New York’s Jonathan Chait and it’s here.
Since I did not post last week, I need to note that last week’s “Think Again,” is called “Political Dysfunction Summer Reading” and it’s here.
My most recent Nation column is “Paul Ryan: The Man Who Wasn't There,” here.
There’s been a bunch of talk about “post-truth politics” in discussions of how the media should handle the lies of Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney and their surrogates and apologists, (like for instance CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and David Gergen). Perhaps it’s petty of yours truly to point this out, that while I don't know if I coined it or not, but I did use The Post-Truth Presidency as the title of the conclusion/chapter on the Bush administration in my 2004 book, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences, (the first half of which was also my dissertation). John Dean gave the book a nice review in The Washington Monthly which used that term as the hed... Gary Hart’s crappy review in the New York Times Book Review used the same hed.
One of my obsessions in life is when journalists offer confidentiality to people who have no reason to need it. Howard Kurtz, who is increasingly a font of practices that should not be allowed in a first semester J-School class, writes “What America wants, a Hollywood insider familiar with the syndication market tells Kurtz, is a confidante, 'She’s got to come across as relevant to people who are sitting out there. They’re like girlfriends. Oprah was everybody’s girlfriend.'"
Just who was going to blow that guy away for his brave truth-telling had he given his name?
A few weeks ago a I mentioned a new series of Jazz “best-ofs” on Concord. They are not really “best ofs” which is a silly idea when it comes to jazz, but they do make convenient cds to keep around for dinner or drinks. I see the second round includes Monk, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Vin Guaraldi, Cannonball Adderly. More here, though you’ll have to search.
The newest old Dead release Dave’s Pick’s Vol. 3, is from the “Auditorium Theater”—a really stupid name for a beautiful place--in October 1971, which was right when Keith Godchaux jointed the band as Pigpen was almost done drinking himself to death. It’s a great setlist and the first two cds constitute the whole show, while the third disc culled from the previous night's show has yet another terrific Dark Star/St. Stephen going on with lots of songs in-between. It was recorded around the same time as the splendid Skull and Roses album and my guess is that it’s impossible not to like. Jerry is particularly good here, because he is just beginning to take over the band and working as hard as he ever did and my guess is, the absence of Pigpen, while sad, was a relief for all concerned.
Being the old man I am, I’ve also been spending some time with “Steve Martin: The Television Stuff,” a 3-DVD with lots of fond memories along with people you’d expect like Dan Aykroyd, Laraine Newman, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Paul Simon, Carl Reiner and Johnny Cash. Bonus features include a new interview with Martin and a 24-page booklet with an essay by my friend Adam Gopnik. A little goes a long way so it will last you a long time, I’m guessing.
Now here’s Reed, who is great, yet again, (disproving the adage that you get what you pay for…)
The Innocence Project: Media Bias Edition
by Reed Richardson
Up until quite recently, it was a well-established principle among jurisprudence experts that a getting a suspect’s confession was among the strongest types of proof one could obtain of an alleged criminal’s guilt. After all, how many people would knowingly admit to something that they didn’t actually do when the consequences might threaten their very survival? Well, it turns out the disturbingly real answer to that supposedly rhetorical question is quite a few. In fact, through 20 years of litigating cases, Yeshiva University’s Innocence Project has found that almost one out of four of its successful exonerations have involved people who falsely confessed to a crime that DNA evidence later conclusively proved they did not commit.
This troubling disconnect between what’s being professed and what’s actually provable doesn’t just plague our criminal justice system, however. It’s also symptomatic of a Washington press corps that willingly confesses to a professional transgression—liberal bias—when a closer examination of the facts says otherwise.
Why this is relevant became clear last week, when ABC News’ Jake Tapper echoed a favorite right-wing trope to conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, that the “media helped tip the scale” for Obama in the 2008 election. This conversation and Tapper’s subsequent admission was no coincidence, however. It was a well-calculated ploy by Ingraham, prompted by a rather damning comment made by Time political reporter Mark Halperin a day earlier. On the NBC’s Today show, Halperin had doubted the public’s interest in the saga of Mitt Romney’s unreleased tax returns and suggested the story was only kept alive due to favoritism toward the president, saying the “media is very susceptible to doing what the Obama campaign wants.”
So, within the span of 24 hours, two prominent—and ostensibly objective—political reporters had publicly delegitimized Obama’s first presidential victory and planted the seeds for doing so again if he were to win reelection in 2012. (Halperin’s also wrong on the issue at hand, by the way, as several polls have shown the public does want them to be released.) Coupling these mea culpas with a recent Rasmussen poll that found 59 percent of public thinks the president’s been getting more favorable treatment from the press, the usual conservative suspects proclaimed the case against media’s liberal bias to be closed.
But there’s a whole lot more going on here besides the inherently partisan ammunition Tapper and Halperin handily provided to right-wing conspiracy theorists. First of all, it’s not entirely accurate of me to say the pair offered mea culpas because, notably, Tapper and Halperin never admit to bias themselves. This, you will find, is a common phenomenon among these instances of self-criticism and garment-rending by members of the Beltway media. (And Halperin, it should be noted, stands out as its most unctuous and egregious practitioner.) What they are actually doing is throwing the whole rest of Washington press corps under the bus, to preserve their own reputations. Just once I’d like to hear one of these “courageous” reporters or editors offer up concrete evidence of this bias from their own body of work. But strangely, it seems that this widespread liberal favoritism on the part of the media, which is allegedly infecting everyone else, never infiltrates those journalists who have the courage to point it out.
In effect, statements like those made by Tapper and Halperin amount to conflating confession and accusation. It’s akin to cutting a quick deal with the public—or, more accurately, the right-wing noise machine—to be a cooperating witness in an indictment of the press in general. But whether one is irrationally condemning oneself or conveniently calling out one’s professional peers, the true merit of these charges shouldn’t be judged by who makes them but by their veracity. Yet time after time, the same journalists who proclaim to follow strict codes of objectivity and adhere only to the facts in their daily workload willingly abandon both when it comes to claims about the own profession’s liberal bias.
Instead, what they offer up is a lot of anecdotes, generalizations, and gut feelings. For example, Halperin loudly complained of an “extreme pro-Obama” media bias during a post-election symposium at USC in 2008. His damning proof? Two competing profiles of the presidential candidate’s wives by New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor late in the campaign cycle (here and here). The one on Cindy McCain, Halperin claims, was too harsh, while the one on Michelle Obama, was too soft. Taken in a vacuum, he might have a point about a single reporter’s views, but as a sweeping accusation against the profession, it’s ridiculously inadequate. What’s more, to trade in outrageous anecdotes would be a losing effort on his part, since I strain to remember a cable news anchor speculating about Cindy McCain’s “terrorist fist jab,” or a mainstream news organization posing questions to McCain about a rumored, but non-existent videotape purporting to show his wife repeatedly using a racial slur. What Halperin is relying upon here is the journalistic equivalent of circumstantial proof, the kind that often gets innocent men and women unfairly convicted in a courtroom.
In fact, the hindsight judgment of Halperin and Tapper and other liberal bias accusers is most definitely not 20/20 when you dig into real aggregated data of the 2008 campaign coverage. For instance, the early general election coverage of Obama on evening TV network news shows was noticeably more negative than that of McCain—72% vs. 57%, respectively—according to a contemporaneous study from the Center for Media and Public Affairs. Of course, when these findings didn’t jibe with the instincts of Fox News conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly, he labeled them as “misleading.” This despite his having championed a previous 2006 CMPA media study that found favorable press coverage for Democrats in the run-up to that year’s mid-term elections. When the evidence disputes the theory, dispute the evidence, I guess.
Likewise, a comprehensive Project for Excellence in Journalism study during the final two months of the 2008 campaign found that the overall tone of media coverage for Obama was the picture of supposed objectivity, as positive, neutral, and negative stories were published in roughly equal amounts. Even more striking, the press’s even-handed coverage of Obama roughly mirrored that of none other than Sarah Palin. Surely, Obama couldn’t be simultaneously enjoying press favoritism when the tone of his coverage matched that of someone who prominent conservatives love to claim was unfairly persecuted by the elite media?
Personally, I don’t believe that press coverage should strive to rigidly enforced ratios of positive, negative, and neutral—that’s an editorial prescription for the same kind of false equivalence that turns individual articles into worthless, misinforming mush. So, I’m less disturbed by the fact that the PEJ study found the tenor of John McCain’s coverage eroded sharply over the final weeks of the ’08 campaign. The reason? Upon closer inspection, one finds a close correlation between the rise in negative McCain stories and his self-inflicted wounds, like the ungainly reaction to the financial meltdown, the awkward and brief suspension of his campaign, and his disastrous performance in the first debate with Obama. And lest you think this tilt was all just a plot among supposedly left-wing news outlets, consider that even Fox News was running nearly twice as many negative McCain stories as positive ones in the run-up to Election Day. To put it bluntly, that a candidate doesn’t get as much positive press coverage when they’re screwing up a lot isn’t bias, that’s reality.
Unfortunately, these same, damaging and unsubstantiated caricatures of widespread liberal bias have not relented during Obama’s first term. This notion that, in 2008, the press somehow didn’t properly report on the president has become so ingrained into conservative thinking over the past few years that even the Romney campaign has dabbled in language about how Obama “really hasn’t been vetted.” And it carries on as a bubbling undercurrent today.
That the Romney folks would exploit this meme isn’t surprising—it plays into the aggrieved resentment held by many die-hard members of their Republican base toward both the president and the press. It is nonetheless ironic, though, since a PEJ study of press coverage during the 2012 GOP primaries finds that Romney enjoyed the most favorable coverage of any presidential contender. Obama, meanwhile, spent this past winter and spring getting beat up in the press, never once experiencing a point in time where his positive coverage outweighed the negative. This pillorying is to be expected, though, as incumbent presidents running for reelection always cede many months of the political news hole to opposing party challengers, all of whom can be expected to say unflattering things about him. And Obama is no different. But if that’s evidence of liberal media bias, then the old adage that begins “with friends like these…” must apply.
The tale hasn’t changed much once the campaigns kicked into general election mode. Yes, the bloom certainly fell off the rose of Romney’s press coverage once his primary victory faded, but at the same time Obama’s hasn’t recovered. Indeed, to look at the PEJ’s master tracking of the campaign from May up through last week is to see both candidates locked into similarly ugly narratives. And the media’s role in shaping these narratives has shrunk noticeably as campaign ads have deluged the discourse.
Still, if you dig down into the media sector details the bias just isn’t there. Newspaper coverage of both candidates breaks down almost precisely the same way—two-thirds negative, one-third positive. Obama does enjoy an edge in network TV news coverage, but loses out on the 24-hour cable TV nets, as Fox News and CNN air more negative stories on the president—86% and 71%, respectively—than MSNBC and CNN run on Romney—89% and 62%, respectively. Try to build an intellectually honest argument for media bias out of these neck-and-neck numbers and it just won’t hold water.
That doesn’t stop some from trying, of course. A popular tactic right now is to assert that a kind of gaffe gap exists, and is dispositive evidence of the media’s bias toward the president. As a result, you get a contorted column that bemoans the press’s shallow obsession with this kind of campaign ephemera while it simultaneously labors to prove the “underreported” nature of these very same harmless misstatements by Obama. This kind of whinging shouldn’t be given the time of day, but the implicit stamp of approval it gets when Tapper and Halperin throw out their fact-free, faux outrage means that the media bias myths live another day.
But there’s a long-term price for this reckless self-sabotage of journalism. If the media itself accepts the fact that bias no longer needs to beproven but merely asserted, if our democracy comes to believe (as polls increasingly show is happening) that this mythical bias is simply a given, then the public’s trust in the profession will be irreparably harmed. Once defanged, the press will discover what it’s like when it can no longer effectively function as a champion of the truth—politicians will be free to brazenly campaign and govern based purely on dogma and ideology, without regard for facts at all.
Right here, right now, and especially after what we've seen the past few nights down in Tampa, the press is facing this frightening prospect. So, it must make a choice and make it quickly. Should the media continue to give in to a mistaken sense of professional guilt by avoiding controversy and seeking penance for partisan transgressions that it hasn’t really committed? Or should it be willing to stand firmly with the facts, whatever they are and whomever they afflict, and let the evidence ultimately prove it right?
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
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