Eight years ago, when the country was evaluating a different group of presidential hopefuls, Americans witnessed perhaps the most glaring and consequential example of ideological media bias of our lifetime: the coronation of Barack Obama.
The junior senator from Illinois just wasn’t covered by the press the way that presidential candidates typically are, even when they’re Democrats. There was almost no appetite outside of the conservative media for exploring his past: Very rarely was he asked about various controversial passages in his memoirs, and journalists unearthed little about his college life. As far as scrutinizing his record of achievement, most in the media seemed satisfied that he had won election victories in campaigns for lower offices.
Obama wasn’t properly vetted, and it wasn’t hard to figure out why. In the eyes of the mainstream media, he was simply too big to fail.
Obama was a progressive’s dream: a charismatic true believer in liberal ideology, with an unparalleled gift for selling historically failed ideas to an impressionable electorate through soaring platitudes, baritone eloquence, and the unspoken promise of exoneration from our nation’s grim racial history. The significance of his candidacy superseded journalistic professionalism and ethics to a degree that we had never before seen.
Journalists were not satisfied merely being partisan witnesses to history. This time they wanted to be real players and help determine the outcome. This time they were on a mission — a noble, historical mission as far as they were concerned.
When asked in 2008 about the media’s pro-Obama bias, Republican nominee John McCain could muster only a half-hearted, defeatist response: “It is what it is.”
Republican politicians had long taken the high road when confronting the media deck stacked against them. They saw nothing to be gained in challenging journalists and news organizations. The public would interpret such a protest as whining, they feared. It was a job best left to media-watchdog groups and conservative pundits.
Four years later, Mitt Romney abided by the same philosophy. One of his primary opponents, Newt Gingrich, took a different approach.
Throughout the 2012 primary season, Gingrich often drew attention to the double standards, false premises, and improper editorializing used against him and the other Republican candidates by members of the media. He was remarkably effective in his critiques.
In the CNN South Carolina debate, just days before that state’s primary, Gingrich sharply scolded moderator John King for asking a question — the first question of the debate — about harmful allegations from Gingrich’s ex-wife. The crowd erupted in cheers at Gingrich’s smackdown of King and gave Gingrich a standing ovation. The passionate response seemed to highlight the mainstream media’s vindictiveness toward conservatives, and conservatives’ fed-up response. The exchange was so powerful, and it resonated so deeply with Republican voters, Gingrich ended up winning the South Carolina primary, where he had previously lagged in the polls.
Romney didn’t seem to learn from Gingrich’s example. Famously, he even declined in a general-election debate to criticize moderator Candy Crowley for inappropriately assisting President Obama (and for disseminating a falsehood in the process). But it’s clear that eventual 2016 Republican candidates had taken notes.
Bias continues to be a very serious problem within the profession responsible for providing information to the citizens of a free society.
In our current election cycle, we’ve heard presidential contenders decrying media bias on an almost daily basis. Donald Trump has led the charge, declaring that essentially any criticism of him is “unprofessional” and motivated by prejudice. Others haven’t been quite as indiscriminate in their reprimands, but they have clearly recognized that censuring the media is a convenient way to deflect scrutiny.
Some of the Republicans’ criticisms are justified. Bias continues to be a very serious problem within the profession responsible for providing information to the citizens of a free society. When journalists are obviously unfair and unethical, Republicans should rebuke them, as Gingrich did.
A good amount of the media-scolding coming from today’s candidates, however, is warrantless. Journalists are supposed to hold presidential candidates accountable for what they say and do. They’re supposed to vet someone running for the highest office in the land, even if they failed to do so eight years ago. Factually accurate reporting is not ideological nonsense. An uncomfortable inquiry isn’t necessarily “an attack.”
When the same people who were outraged over Barack Obama’s free media pass in 2008 are now upset and screaming “bias” over Megyn Kelly’s asking tough questions of Trump, you know something has gone terribly wrong.
The bias gripe will lose its legitimacy once it comes across as a disingenuous campaign tactic.
When presidential hopefuls reflexively invoke bias whenever they are unhappy with their coverage, they are masking the significance of our country’s very real problem with media bias. The bias gripe will lose its legitimacy once it comes across as a disingenuous campaign tactic employed solely for short-term political gain. It’s possible that we’ve already crossed that threshold.
Right now, media bias is in danger of becoming the Republican party’s version of Hillary Clinton’s “vast right-wing conspiracy” — a victim card played by individuals who refuse to take responsibility for their own weaknesses and mistakes. Playing that card recklessly will make the accusation of bias completely meaningless — even in legitimate cases (of which there are plenty). It will draw the same skepticism as an Al Sharpton speech about race.
As a longtime media critic, I don’t want that. The media needs to be disinfected of its bias, not immunized against it.
— John Daly is an author of thriller novels and a political/media columnist for BernardGoldberg.com.