Media

Coverage of 2012 Campaign Disappointingly Unbiased

Fox News shows its blatant pro-Obama bias.

Everybody thinks the media are biased against their side, and conservatives are particularly likely to believe it. They themselves would say "That's because it's true!", but the real reason is that the complaint of liberal bias is one that conservatives hear all the time from all of their media sources. That isn't to say there aren't some issues on which the conservative side doesn't get equally favorable coverage, because there may well be a few, just as there are issues on which liberals get the short end of the media stick. But on some you can make a case that there are legitimate reasons. For instance, I wouldn't be surprised if a systematic analysis revealed that coverage of the gay marriage issue was friendlier to the pro side. That might be because one side is arguing for equality and the other side is arguing for discrimination, and portraying the two as equally morally valid is itself problematic.

Anyhow, if there's ever a topic about which coverage should be emphatically even-handed, it's an electoral campaign. You've got two sides trying to achieve the same objective, both of whom represent large portions of the public. Aha, conservatives would say—but coverage of elections is totally biased against Republicans! And when you ask them to support this claim, their evidence usually comes in two forms. One is, "Here's an example of a story that was totally mean to our candidate!"—in other words, an anecdote. The other is, "If you can't see it, then you're hopeless." Which of course is no evidence at all.

But what happens when you actually try to analyze news coverage of campaigns in a systematic way? The results usually look like these, which come from John Sides and Lynn Vavreck's new book about the 2012 election, The Gamble:

Outrage-Based Media and the Specter of False Racism Charges

Sadly, life does not embody the harmony of the black and white cookie. (Flickr/veganbaking.net)

I've often wondered how conservatives can tolerate a steady diet of the likes of Limbaugh, O'Reilly, and Hannity. I don't mean why they find those kinds of programs appealing, because there are many reasons for that. I mean as a steady, long-term part of your daily routine. Doesn't the steady stream of outrage just become overwhelming after a while? Can you really shake your fist at the TV and sputter with rage every single night without making yourself crazy? That's not to say there aren't liberals with similar rhetoric, but there are fewer, and they aren't as successful. Keith Olbermann did it for a while, and Ed Schultz isn't that far off. But it does seem that liberals' taste in talk runs more to people like Rachel Maddow, who delivers her outrage with a smile and a joke, or the wonkishly thoughtful Chris Hayes. People on the left aren't averse to getting mad, but they don't want to be mad all the time.

Which brings us to this very interesting paper by Sarah Sobieraj and her colleagues, which sought to examine "outrage-based political opinion media" from a sociological point of view. That is, they talked to both liberals and conservatives who tune in to these programs about what they get out of them. Since the article is paywalled, all I have to go on is a description of it in Pacific Standard, so it's possible that some or all of my questions are discussed in the article itself. In any case, their main point is that these programs provide a kind of no-risk community, where people can feel a connection to others without the potential pitfalls that come from talking about politics in other contexts like work.

I'd add that there's a particular kind of emotional interaction going on when you watch one of these programs. The host—someone who is almost certainly more articulate than you (that's why he has a job talking for hours on the radio and TV, and you don't)—mirrors the emotions you feel about current events and controversies back at you in a way that's satisfying on multiple levels. He assures you that you're right, and he offers you clever arguments you can use to convince yourself (or others) that you're right. He usually tells you your side is going to prevail. And he validates your feelings by giving them back to you in a heightened way. Are you mad at Barack Obama? Well watch this: I'll give you the thunderous rant you wish you could deliver right to that jerk's face. You think he's a liar? Let me tell you all about his lies.

The Arbitrary Nature of Media Attention

Let's be realistic: neither of these guys is ever going to be president.

Do you have an opinion about John Boozman? How about Joe Donnelly? Any strong feelings about John Hoeven? Or Jim Risch? I'm guessing that you haven't actually heard of them, or if you have, you certainly know almost nothing about them. To most Americans they might as well be infielders for a double-A baseball team or Cedar Rapids-area plumbers. In fact, they're United States senators. So why is it that these guys are ignored (perhaps rightfully), while nobody can stop talking about Ted Cruz and Rand Paul? After all, the job of a senator is to make laws, and Paul has no more influence on that process than Boozman. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if no matter how long Rand Paul stays in the U.S. Senate, he never authors a law with any kind of meaningful impact on American lives. He'd hardly be the first; John McCain has been in Congress for over 30 years, and he wrote exactly one important piece of legislation, which eventually got overturned by the Supreme Court.

But the news media (and I'm including myself here) has collectively decided that the things that Paul and Cruz do and say are worth considering. Do a Google News search on "Ted Cruz" and you come up with 67,700 results. "Rand Paul" gets you 28,700 (for comparison, "John Boozman" gets a lonely 506, and "John Hoeven" only 572). Every once in a while it's worth stepping back to note that the decisions that lead to one lawmaker getting that kind of attention are pretty capricious.

It's Not about the Video Games

No, these are not mass murderers in training. (Flickr/Abraxas3d)

The pattern has become familiar: There's a mass shooting, and while some liberals try to raise the issue of the fact that our society is drowning in guns, more "realistic" commentators quickly turn the discussion away to some of different questions. Did the mental health system fail? And what about those violent video games? Aren't they a big part of the problem? That's what people are asking now about Aaron Alexis.

The answer is simple: No, video games aren't part of the problem of gun violence in America. Or more specifically, even if they're part of the problem, they're such an infinitesimally small part of the problem that blaming them for the endless gun slaughter in America is like blaming one of the leaves on the tree that fell on your house for all the damage to the roof.

No One Has to Tweet

I really doubt Paul Krugman would do this.

I can recall, back in around 2008 or so, sitting in an airport listening to a radio story about this thing called Twitter, in which some tech booster was explaining how great it was to be able to send out little 140-character updates on what he was doing all the time, so the the people he cared about could have a sense of his daily life. I thought it sounded both inane and horrifying, but like most things governed by network effects, its value not just increased but changed in nature as more and more people got on it. I resisted going on Twitter for a long time (despite the pleading of my then-editor), in part because I was worried it would just be a distraction from my work. But it turned out, once I got on, that it became invaluable to my work. Most of the people I follow are writers or other people who point me to things I might need to know or want to write about; when I'm lost for something to say, Twitter will often send me on a path that will ultimately lead to a post or a column.

But I can see how, if you're still not on Twitter, all the people saying, "You totally need to be on Twitter!" would make you really, really not want to be on Twitter. So it seems with Paul Krugman, who I think it's safe to say is the most influential liberal voice in the American media. He explains why he stays away:

Just What Cable News Needs: More Bickering

The new Crossfire, just as interesting as you'd expect.

Back in 2004, Jon Stewart went on the CNN show Crossfire and begged the hosts to "stop hurting America." The clip became an early viral video (this was before YouTube), and it was like the young boy shouting that the emperor has no clothes. Evidently, people at the network looked around at each other and said, "He's right. This is just awful. We have to cancel this show so we can look ourselves in the mirror again." Within weeks it was off the air.

I'm not saying that in the entire two decades of its previous incarnation, Crossfire was uniformly pernicious. But by the end it had reached a truly ghastly low, with Tucker Carlson and James Carville shouting over each other while a studio audience whooped and hollered in the background. Why anyone voluntarily subjected themselves to watching it remains a mystery. And now, Crossfire is back on the air. The obvious question is one you might ask yourself after a hurricane flooded your house or a bear killed and ate your favorite great-aunt: Why, God, why?

Investigative Journalism Producing Change, Local Edition

Last Sunday's Post.

One of the main arguments for why it's a bad thing if the newspaper industry dies is that newspapers cover local affairs in a way that nobody else does, and that has demonstrable effects on people's lives. Most of the time we don't actually see those effects, but every once in a while, a story comes along that proves all over again why newspapers are so vital, not just because of what they can expose but because of the change that can come from it.

The Washington Post is in the midst of a series of articles about an unbelievable scam victimizing some extremely vulnerable citizens of the District of Columbia. It's one of those combinations of government incompetence, private greed, and sheer immorality that just makes your blood boil. Here's what happened.

Amid the Unwashed Masses

Flesh pressed, opinions heard. (Flickr/Rep. George Miller)

Over the next couple of weeks, we'll probably be seeing a lot of stories in which a member of Congress goes back to the home district and is confronted by worried/angry/surly constituents demanding we stay out of Syria. Here's a piece in today's New York Times about Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) hearing from skeptical citizens. Here's a piece in today's Washington Post about Rep. Gerry Connolly hearing from skeptical citizens. Here's a piece in Politico about John McCain hearing from skeptical citizens. This is almost invariably described as the politician "getting an earful." For some reason, we never refer to someone getting an earful of praise or support; the ears of our representatives can only be filled with displeasure or contempt.

In the old days before polling, grizzled political reporters would literally go door to door and do their own informal polls to see what people thought about an election or a policy debate; they'd get a sense of the public will, along with some quotes, and they'd have a story. As some point they discovered it's more efficient to just go to a diner, but either way, for all their Northeastern elitism, the reporters still want to keep their finger on the public pulse. But reading some of these stories has me wondering. What do you do when you go out with a member of Congress to get in touch with the people, and the people turn out to be idiots?

Syria Turns into a Political Story

President Obama announcing his intention to seek congressional approval for strikes on Syria. (White House video)

So last night I was watching the NBC News, and a report on Syria came on, in which Andrea Mitchell spent five minutes talking about whether going to Congress for affirmation of his decision to attack the Syrian government makes Barack Obama "look weak." Mitchell is the network's "Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent," which is what you call someone who stays in nice hotels and gets talking points from top officials when she travels with the Secretary of State to foreign countries. The news is full of this kind of discussion, about whether Obama is weak, whether he "bungled" the decision-making process, how this might affect the 2014 elections, and pretty much anything except whether a strike on Syria is genuinely a good idea or not. Here's the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza talking up the "massive gamble" Obama is taking—not a gamble on what will happen in Syria, mind you, but a political gamble. Here's Chuck Todd and the rest of the NBC politics crew gushing that this is "a great political story." Don't even ask what's going on over at Politico.

Look, I get it. These folks are political reporters, so they report on politics. You don't go into a restaurant and ask the sommelier to make your entree and the pastry chef to pick you a wine. I'm not sure you'd even want Chris Cillizza trying to explain the actual substance of a potential military action in Syria. Heck, I too spend most of my time writing about politics, and there are legitimate political issues to discuss. But it does seem that Obama's request for a congressional authorization has almost been greeted in the Washington media with a sigh of relief: At last, we get to frame this issue in terms of the political stuff we feel comfortable with, and can stop worrying about the serious and deadly substance of it all. We can treat it just like we treat everything else, as a game with winners and losers and a point spread to be debated.

Why GOP Debates Should Be Moderated by Limbaugh and Hannity

The Republican Men's Chorus, circa 2012.

Today, the Republican National Committee is expected to pass a resolution declaring that CNN and NBC are big liberal meanies and they don't want to go play over at their house ever ever ever again. Or more particularly, since the two networks had been planning to produce shows about Hillary Clinton, the RNC is going to protest by refusing to allow either of them to sponsor primary debates during the presidential campaign of 2016. This bit of foot-stomping has prompted some on the right to argue that the party should just forego non-Fox network-sponsored debates altogether and have their confabs moderated by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. I'm with Kevin Drum on this: It's a great idea.

Post-er Boy Bezos

AP Photo/Richard Drew

AP Photo/stf/bd

Most liberals I’ve spoken with are appalled that Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is buying The Washington Post. I’m no great fan of Bezos or of Amazon’s user-friendly though predatory retailing tactics, but here is a contrarian view of the Post purchase.

Could Jeff Bezos Save the Newspaper Business?

The artifact of pulped wood and ink that was dropped at my house this morning.

There was a time in America when industrial tycoons would buy newspapers to be their playthings, using the editorial pages to reward friends and punish enemies, all while watching healthy profits from subscriptions and advertising roll in. Then a couple of decades ago, the newspaper industry began an era of consolidation, with firms like Gannett and the Tribune company scooping up one small and mid-size paper after another. The results were usually awful for journalism; if your local paper got bought by one of those behemoths, there's a good chance the newsroom would be gutted and you'd end up with a paper with little enterprising reporting and lots of wire stories.

But now the billionaires are back. Last week the New York Times company sold the Boston Globe to Red Sox owner John Henry. Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway has quietly bought a couple dozen small papers, making him one of the largest newspaper owners in the country. And yesterday the Washington Post announced that the Graham family, which had owned the paper for the last 80 years, is selling it to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos for $250 million. So is this a good thing?

I think it is, for a couple of reasons.

The Rise and Fall of a "Scandal"

He never quite got what he wanted. (Flickr/stanfordcis)

Remember the IRS scandal? Haven't heard much about it lately, have you? Yet for a while, it was big, big news, and so often happens, the initial blockbuster allegations were everywhere, penetrating down to even the least attentive citizen, while the full story, which turned out to be rather less dramatic, got kind of buried. News organizations aren't in the habit of shouting, "BREAKING: That Thing We Said Was Huge Last Week? Eh, Not So Much."

Brendan Nyhan has looked at how this "scandal attention cycle" played out with the IRS and turned it into some charts:

Christian Identity Politics on Fox

Reza Aslan is surprised to find himself stranded in Stupidtown.

I try, with only partial success, to avoid spending too much time on the "A conservative said something offensive!" patrol. First, there are plenty of other people doing it, so it isn't as though if I don't draw people's attention to the latest outrage then no one will find out about it. But second and more important, most of the time there isn't much interesting to say about Rush Limbaugh's latest bit of race-baiting or Bill O'Reilly's latest spittle-flecked rant or Louie Gohmert's latest expectoration of numbskullery.

But let's make an exception for this interview Reza Aslan did on Friday with Fox News to promote his new book called Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. You've no doubt seen Aslan on television multiple times in the last decade, and maybe even read something he's written. In the post-9/11 period, he became a go-to guest on shows from Meet the Press to The Daily Show as someone who could explain Islam to American audiences. Young, good-looking, smart and articulate, Aslan could be counted on to put events like the sectarian civil war in Iraq into historical and religious context in ways viewers could understand.

This interview is really something to behold, because the Fox anchor, one Lauren Green, obviously not only didn't read Aslan's book (not a great sin, given that she probably has to interview a few people a day), but instead of asking him about it, decided to spend nearly ten minutes challenging whether Aslan has any right to write a book about Jesus, since he's a Muslim. Seriously:

Nate Silver and Journalism's Non-Overlapping Magisteria

Flickr/JD Lasica

It was recently announced that Nate Silver would be leaving The World's Most Important News Outlet, the New York Times, to head to ESPN, where he'll work for that network and its parent ABC on sports, politics, Academy Award projections, and whatever else he's inclined to think about. I'm only marginally interested in most of the internal politics that led to Silver's move, but from all the reporting and Silver's own comments, it seems that he felt he'd be better able to turn his 538 into a more comprehensive, wide-ranging hub there than at the Times, which sounds pretty reasonable. And since he didn't rise up through the journalistic ranks where the Times is the be-all and end-all, he probably doesn't place the same importance on the Times' prestige as many people do. But there is one interesting tidbit in the column that Margaret Sullivan, the Times' public editor, wrote yesterday about Silver that tells us something interesting about the state of political journalism:

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