Politics & Policy

Defining Bias Downward?

Dan Rather and the Columbia Journalism Review.

When the election was over and George W. Bush had prevailed despite the tsunami of media-bias debris that washed over him, liberal media critics responded in a predictable way. Quoting my NRO post-election rehash (which insisted that “every anti-Bush angle…was explored with great ferocity”), Columbia Journalism Review executive editor Mike Hoyt could only muster this response in an editorial:

What’s disturbing is not the way that Graham is whining into his champagne but his little two-step away from reality. He and others are defining bias downward, as anything that challenges a GOP point of view.

Mark that down as Hoyt’s First Rule of Media Criticism: If your side wins, then obviously the media weren’t biased and you have no right to complain. The “reality” of the daily media product is somehow dramatically reshaped by the election returns? Wrong. The reality is simple: The media tried very hard to lecture, urge, cajole, beg, plead, and mislead Americans into dumping President Bush, and a majority said, “No thanks, we’ll keep him.”

It’s a common tactic for liberals to insist that conservative media criticism is hypersensitive to anyone’s questioning GOP authority, that the mere voicing of a liberal thought by anyone in a news story is a great offense. The tactic is cute, considering how many news stories overwhelm us with liberal thoughts and sometimes insert a tentative, diplomatic Scott McClellan clip as the only hint of a rebuttal; or how many “balanced” interviews on morning TV pit Democratic Sen. Joe Biden trashing Bush on Iraq against…Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel trashing Bush on Iraq. (That was at one point so common that talk-radio host Laura Ingraham started calling it a “Bagel.”) Or try to think of an Abu Ghraib story you saw where someone said the press was stretching it all out of proportion, or that naked pyramids didn’t compare to Saddam’s mass graves or rape rooms or the Iraqi prisoners who came to Washington without their arms (and received artificial arms from Americans, and were ignored by the press).

Conservatives aren’t “defining bias downward.” There’s way too much media distortion to pretend we’re running out of liberal bias, as the Sierra Club likes to think we’re running out of oil. This would be defining bias downward: complaining that reporters call him “Bush” instead of “President Bush.” Hoyt thinks more conservative victories mean there must be less liberal bias. He doesn’t consider that more conservative victories cause liberal media types to panic and push the accelerator.

The problem in 2004 is that the media kept building the media-bias issue upward: Instead of a lowered level of media partisanship, we had a heightened level. For example, we have just witnessed the final act of a major journalistic scandal: CBS’s “myopic zeal” to defeat Bush caused the network to destroy its own credibility with a story based on “1970s” documents that can be reproduced on Microsoft Word.

“Defining bias downward” is a much better description for what the Columbia Journalism Review tried to do with the Dan Rather bang-bang “TexANG” fiasco. Its current issue features an article titled “Blog-gate” by Corey Pein that, as the headline implies, tries to shift the spotlight of scrutiny to the scrutinizers.

Pein’s very belated attempt to blur the Killian-document claims into an equal-opportunity scandal–oh sure, Dan Rather made a few mistakes, exactly like those Rather-baiting bloggers–avoids the central point. This scandal begins and ends with CBS. Dan Rather is stepping down from his throne and CBS has apologized for airing a segment based on documents it now says it “cannot vouch for journalistically.” CBS should not have aired a story based on documents it could not verify as authentic. The burden of proof does not begin with the bloggers (or CBS’s other debunkers at major newspapers and TV networks).

Pein’s insistence that it was factually sloppy for pundits to declare that the CBS documents were fabricated is akin to insisting it was factually sloppy to assert that George Bush won the election. (Pein even tries to suggest that Bill Burkett isn’t “loony left” for comparing Bush to Hitler, since many liberals use that language.) How something called the “Columbia Journalism Review” can publish such an exercise in excuse-manufacturing on a major journalistic scandal like this only suggests they’re publishing just another liberal spin magazine, not a media-watchdog publication that actually cares about notions like accuracy and fairness and checking things out.

Only one side in the media-bias debate wants to pretend America doesn’t recognize Dan Rather’s arrogance. Only one side wants to believe that America can be persuaded by CBS’s ridiculous claims that “99 percent” of its stories are “straight down the middle.” Bush fans who watch CBS know that CBS had no Mary Mapes clone spending her days in 2004 preparing to attack John Kerry like a rabid Old Yeller. They know that Mary Mapes was not the exception at CBS News: Mary Mapes is the rule at CBS News. She became a backstage star in the liberal media not through scoops that challenged the powerful, no matter who they are. She became a star through trashing the Republican powerful. That’s why everyone at CBS invested too much trust in the project. Once again, Mapes and Rather were going to lead the entire American press corps through a solid week or even month of Bush-bashing, and at a time when John Kerry boosters felt the urgent need to stop the Bush convention bounce.

As any conservative media critic should acknowledge, an argument can be made that on some days, some stories or events may provoke a bias favorable to conservatives. It’s possible, if not probable. But the media-bias debate should not be fought on vague notions of who’s winning and who’s losing elections, but on the content of the daily media product. It should be incredibly hard to charge that in 2004, the “reality” was that the mainstream media threw everything but the kitchen sink at John Kerry. It’s incredibly easy to charge that the face in the middle of the media bulls-eye belonged to George W. Bush.

Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center and an NRO contributor.

Tim GrahamTim Graham is Director of Media Analysis at the Media Research Center, where he began in 1989, and has served there with the exception of 2001 and 2002, when served ...

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