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Ramesh Ponnuru

One sometimes gets the impression that not a week goes by without some worthy media institution having a panel on the problems of the media. The prevalence of such forums is not surprising once you realize that for the media, self-flagellation is just another form of self-congratulation. We can wring our hands endlessly over whether we are meeting our high standards. We can take a good long look at ourselves, just like Narcissus.

Anyway, I found myself on a panel of the South Asian Journalists Association the other day. (In an admirable display of colorblindness, I was the only person of South Asian descent on the panel. (In a further display of colorblindness, I was not the crowd favorite. They really need not have gone that far.)) Herewith some notes for, and from, the panel.

Anyone who talks about media bias should be aware that the accusation of its existence can often say more about the accuser than the accused. One thinks here of so-called media watchdogs who insist that there has been a cover-up about the truth of Vince Foster’s murder, or of the CIA’s role in the crack trade in American cities. But that said, I don’t see how the proposition that America’s media have a liberal media can be denied. It’s like denying that the academy tilts left.

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Let me make a few qualifications to that claim, and then give a few examples. The three qualifications: 1) The press is more reliably anti-conservative than it is pro-liberal. 2) Bias is manifested less in the coverage of candidates and campaigns than in the selection of stories and the framing of issues; it affects elections less than it affects what happens between elections. 3) The media’s liberalism is not, of course, the only source of distortion. There are also pack dynamics and the tendency to further predetermined storylines. In some cases, these tendencies counteract liberal bias and in others reinforce it.

Now a few examples.

1) Abortion is an issue on which it is notoriously difficult to find a neutral point from which to evaluate competing claims: Should a particular piece of legislation be described as “restrictive” or “protective,” for example? Nevertheless, a clear pattern of bias is detectable. Take the media’s use of shorthand. Organizations that favor abortion rights described the policy of withholding federal funds from clinics that counsel abortion as a “gag rule,” and the media picked up the phrase — sometimes without using quotation marks. Anti-abortionists have had much less success in getting the phrase “partial-birth abortion” into the mainstream press, which frequently refers vaguely (and inaccurately) to “a certain rare type of late-term abortion procedure.”

2) When conservative politicians go on TV, they are asked questions from the left. Reasonable enough. When liberal politicians go on TV, they also get questions from the left. Consider Judy Woodruff’s recent interview with Ted Kennedy — as the Media Research Center noted, she was demanding to know why he was letting Republicans off easy on prescription drugs.

3) Terms such as “far,” “extreme,” “ultra,” and “strident” are applied more often to conservatives than to liberals.

4) The media continues to show vast ignorance about the Right, most recently in the almost wholly idiotic analysis of the influence of “neoconservatives” and Straussians on the Bush administration’s foreign policy.

5) On environmentalism, Time has actually gotten better recently. But let’s not forget that its response to critics of its eco-activism — which began with the 1989 designation of the earth as “planet of the year” — was to say, proudly and flippantly, that its bias was to favor the earth’s continued survival. As though its critics do not!

6) During the Clinton administration, Jeff Gerth’s tough coverage made him a controversial figure in the mainstream press, admired in some quarters and criticized in others. In the Bush administration, Dana Milbank is admired in the mainstream press, and criticized only in the conservative press, for his tough coverage.

Now it is certainly possible for conservatives to spend an unhealthy amount of time on the subject of media bias. That bias can become an excuse for political failure. The fact that Republican politicians have a dysfunctional relationship with the media is in part the fault of the former group. It is also the case that media bias can backfire on liberals: Press coverage has repeatedly led Democrats to underestimate the political risks of gun control, for example, and lost them congressional seats as a result. Also, the effect of liberal bias is diminishing with the rise of Fox News and the blogworld. . . .

At this point I was cut off by a fellow panelist, who seemed to be upset that I had not said a word about the chilling fact that many media outlets are owned by corporations. After he had alerted us to this development, I figured I had said most of what I wanted to say and would wait for the Q&A to talk more.

During the Q&A, one of the audience members asked how it was that conservatives’ propaganda about the liberal media had been so successful. I replied that our success was immeasurably aided by the fact that what we were saying is true. And the perception of liberal bias presents a dilemma for those who would deny it. In a February Gallup poll, 45 percent of respondents said that the media was too liberal, 36 percent that it was just right, and 15 percent that it was too conservative. So liberal bias was the plurality response, and three times as many people saw it as saw conservative bias. Those who would deny liberal bias have to say that the 45 percent of the public who believe in it have been manipulated, are paranoid, or have a view of the world so at odds with reality that they do not recognize reality when the media reports it. In other words: “We’re not biased against you; you’re just crazy.”



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