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How "media bias" saved America

The doors to Election Day polling places won't begin to swing open for another six hours, and while I wouldn't be shocked if the GOP has one more trick up its collective sleeve, the polls are pointing strongly toward a victory by Barack Obama tonight, and that can only mean one thing.  

The blame game has already begun in Red America.

And the spinning arrow is pointing directly at "the media."

It's become a staple of Sarah Palin's pep rallies, that the all-powerful (except when it comes to actually selling the product) media is out to get John McCain and elect Barack Obama. Her new spin on media bias is a tad ridiculous, but here goes: 

Throughout the day yesterday, Palin hit Obama and the press equally hard, highlighting an audio tape of Obama criticizing the coal industry that surfaced on conservative blogs over the weekend and suggesting it had been intentionally suppressed by a biased media. "You hear Barack Obama talking about bankrupting the coal industry," Palin said at the Columbus rally, referring to the tape. "John McCain and I, we will not let that happen to the coal industry." Palin also asked indignantly why the tape has been "withheld from the electorate." In fact, though the Drudge Report first highlighted the tape yesterday, audio of the interview has been available on the web site of the San Francisco Chronicle since mid-January, when Obama made the comments in an interview with the newspaper's editorial board.

It's not hard to understand why a Sarah Palin lashes out, largely in frustration, but this rallying cry has been echoing around the op-ed pages and some of the blogs for the last few days, that the 2008 election will long be remembered for its shameful media bias, that the altars of the Church of Objective Journalism are crashing down and that our democracy is at risk. The truth is that the writers of these doom-and-gloom pieces tend to fall into two categories, A) Republicans, for want of a better term and B) bitter contrarians, writers seeking to show their cleverness by seeing what the rest of the world does not.  

Here's a fairly typical example -- it's an online op-ed that ran on the website of the New York Times...excuse me, the liberally biased New York Times, today. The allegation of press bias comes from, ahem, the former press secretary for Bob Dole:

After the presidential election is over and the dust, animosity, glee and shock settle into something manageable, the nation will need to tackle the subject of “media bias” in a sincere and honest manner.

As an “independent conservative,” I’m expected to see liberal media bias lurking everywhere, but it’s not just me — and it’s not just conservatives. I know liberals, including newspaper editors, who think the “news” pendulum had swung dangerously far to the left.

The author of the piece, Douglas MacKinnon, runs through what's becoming a familiar litany of complaints, citing two recent studies that tried to objectify negative and positive stories to determine that the coverage of Obama has been more positive than that of McCain, and he also points out studies showing that an overwhelming number of journalists vote Democratic. What's more, in keeping with the sorry tenor of the 2008 campaign, there's a bit of a backhanded swipe at affirmative action; since newsrooms are younger and more racially diverse than a generation ago, of course these reporters swoon for Obama.

 Concludes MacKinnon:

 My point is, regardless of whether the news media are right or wrong about an Obama win, shouldn’t they still be concerned about that “shred of credibility they have left?” Shouldn’t they be concerned with numerous studies and the observations of various journalists that the business has tilted too far to the left?

Actually, no.

First of all, the arguments upon MacKinnon and some of these other op-ed writers have based their arguments are full of holes. As for the tepid political leanings of journalists (most of whom greatly prefer a good scoop over electing a good president), the tilt toward voting Democratic has been out there as a fact since the early 1970s, even as a candidate who some 80 percent of votes from journalists, George McGovern, got horrific press coverage. It existed during that Reagan years, when most press coverage was so fawning that it was captured in a book by Mark Hertsgaard called "On Bended Knee." The reasons are complicated -- at a simplistic level you could say that questioning authority (a journalistic tenet too often honored in the breach) is more of a liberal trait than a conservative one. To conservatives unhappy about that, I've always argued a) recruit more young conservatives to be journalists or b) start your own conservative media outlets, which has worked for them on cable news and AM radio if no so much in print, where no kind of startup makes much economic sense right now.

As for the issue that newsrooms are too diverse, well, a newsroom where everyone looked like John McCain isn't such a great idea (and trust me because I'm nearly there, except with less hair than the 72-year-old standard bearer.) But what about the social scientific research proving that there've been more negative articles about McCain -- doesn't that prove that the media is biased?

Not really. My own unscientific perception, from reading a ton of coverage, is that McCain's lead in negative articles is because a) he's run a much more negative campaign, with harsher attacks, especially after Sarah Palin, with her know-nothing rallies, joined the varsity team and b) he's losing, which is the ultimate negative, including the flood of disgruntled GOP aides leaking bad stuff to the media. The result is something that should be obvious yet seems counter-intuitive to a lot of people: Given the state of this race and the way that McCain and Palin conducted their campaign, what really would have been bias for the media to would have been to write the same number of negative and positive stories about both McCain and Obama.

That, also, would have been business as usual – creating false equivalencies, “on-one-hand, on-the-other-hand” journalism that bends over backwards to gather evidence that both campaigns were equally bad, even if the truth is that one hand is carrying a lot more mud and filth than the other. That’s the way it’s been done in the sacred temples of what we call “objective journalism,” even in the run-up to the war in Iraq when so many bogus pronouncements went unchallenged.

Look, it would be nice to declare that the 2008 campaign was a shining moment for campaign journalism in every way, but that clearly was not the case. There was way  too much “horse race” journalism, too many polls and too many stories about polls and too many stories about stories about polls, and some pretty lame articles (like this clumsy one from the New York Times about McCain). But at the end of the day, I would say that some in the traditional media – backed by bloggers and New Media types – did get it right when it mattered the most, when the election could have slipped away just as the Iraq invasion did.’

In the weeks immediately following the Republican National Convention, the McCain campaign made a conscious decision to declare war on the media and to use that “media war” as an excuse to run several ads that were misleading or egregiously false. It was a do-or-die moment, and there were enough reporters in 2008 who were willing to shed the cloak of contrived objectivity – to acknowledge the once unprintable fact that one side was lying more than other.

And it may well have been a turning point in the election. In the days that followed, the McCain team toned down some of its commercials, and many rank-and-file voters seemed to see through the sleaziest tactics. The Lee Atwater/Karl Rove strategies that decided our elections in 1988 and were adapted to 2000 and 2004, with disastrous consequences all the way from Sadr City to the Lower 9th Ward to Wall Street, were finally pushed back – maybe too late for America, but maybe just in time.

It was living proof of my personal belief that the greatest role for journalists is not to make sure that every story has 50 percent of one side and 50 percent of the other side – but that the vital function for reporters is to preserve democracy and the freedom of the press, because without those freedoms a valid media would cease to exist. Yes, they’re voicing outrage today inside the sacred sanctuary of the Temple of Objective Journalism , where the celebrants nervously fingered their rosaries rather than confront the Constitutional bonfire that was building outside.

But for eight years now, there’s been an out-of-control fire raging outside of that temple – a fire that was built upon the USA Patriot Act and Guantanamo and rendition and torture and signing statements and 16 words in a State of the Union Address. Ultimately, saving the last fabric of democracy is more important than worrying about what contrived commandments of journalism were stepped on while the blaze was finally extinguished.

I myself would call it truth-telling, and honest journalism, but now we have some who want to call it “media bias.” That’s fine with me, but understand this.

“Media bias” may have just saved America .