Monday, July 28, 2008

What Liberal Media?

That's the title of an excellent book by media critic Eric Alterman, who systematically debunked the myth that mainstream media has a liberal bias. Full of witty observations such as, in the case of the title of chapter 2, "You're Only As Liberal As the Man Who Owns You," Alterman noted that if the mainstream media has any agenda, it is a capitalist one. Simply put, mainstream media outlets are about one thing, and one thing only: making money. As with any other corporation, everything else is secondary.

Yet the myth of the liberal media persists in many circles. This is no doubt in part due to very successful conservative efforts to "work the refs." Constantly complaining of mistreatment at the hands of the "liberal" media is a great way to lower expectations in the public, to create a false mainstream, and even to get media outlets to break out their kid-gloves for you. Thus someone like John McCain can - despite once arguing that the media is his "base" - with a straight face complain that the media is biased against him.

Well, as an article by James Rainey in yesterday's LA Times notes, there has most certainly been biased coverage in this year's election. It just isn't the bias that casual observers and those still clinging to the myth of a liberal media might have expected:

The Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, where researchers have tracked network news content for two decades, found that ABC, NBC and CBS were tougher on Obama than on Republican John McCain during the first six weeks of the general-election campaign.

This is not news to those of us who do not depend on the mainstream media for, well, our news. Critiques of the mainstream media's coverage of this election are rampant in the blogosphere, and most of the one's I've read note that Sen. John McCain (and, to a lesser extent, Sen. Hillary Clinton) has been the primary beneficiary of false media narratives.

Political Base's Mark Nickolas has perhaps been best at exposing false media narratives, especially the narrative that this election is really quite close, perhaps a toss up. He's even noted the distance between Karl Rove's and CNN's respective electoral maps. (For the record, as of July 25, the date of Mr. Nickolas' post, Rove's map had Obama leading McCain by 89 electoral votes, 272 to 183 while CNN's map had Obama leading by only 32, 221 to 189; spend some time at Political Base and you'll see a recurring theme, mainstream media outlets reporting the race as much closer than either objective analysts, pollsters, or political operatives.)

Other blogs have similarly noticed that the media seems to have different standards for Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain. These differences are almost always more charitable for Sen. McCain. Whatever the reason for this, it is very clear that far from wanting Obama to win, they either want to keep this race artificially close, or, God forbid, are actually openly rooting for McCain.

That brings us back to the study in question, again as reported by James Rainey of the LA Times. It focused not on cable news, which is often overtly and intentionally biased (pitting, for example, Keith Olbermann against Bill O'Reily) but on the major networks, ABC, NBC, and CBS. I've already noted on this blog that CBS edited an interview with John McCain, removing a factually inaccurate answer and replacing it with an answer he gave to a different question. While that was an egregious violation of journalistic standards and ethics, it is by no means the only example of media bias that benefits the McCain campaign: just the worst.

Rainey writes:

During the evening news, the majority of statements from reporters and anchors on all three networks are neutral, the center found. And when network news people ventured opinions in recent weeks, 28% of the statements were positive for Obama and 72% negative.

Network reporting also tilted against McCain, but far less dramatically, with 43% of the statements positive and 57% negative, according to the Washington-based media center.

Adding this observation to the anecdotal pieces of evidence spread throughout the blogosphere, and a picture emerges: Whatever else may be said of the mainstream media, let no one say that it is liberal. Let us please finally put that myth to rest.

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