Working the Refs Continues to Work

For the last 40 years or so, conservatives have undertaken a carefully planned and sustained campaign to "work the refs," complaining constantly about "liberal media bias" in an attempt to bully reporters and obtain more favorable coverage for their side. That isn't to say they don't sincerely believe that the establishment media is biased against them—they do—but they also understand that the complaints, no matter how silly they are in a particular instance, keep pressure on reporters and have them constantly bending over backwards to show that they're not biased. And when it works really well, you get stories like this one from POLITICO honchos Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen. "To GOP, blatant bias in vetting," reads the headline. Apparently, Republicans are angry that Mitt Romney's life is being investigated by reporters, while Barack Obama, who has been president for almost four years and went through all this in 2008, isn't getting precisely the same scrutiny in precisely the same ways. Stop the presses!

VandeHei and Allen's article is a masterpiece of unsupported claims, false equivalences, speculations about what news stories "imply," and Republican complaints taken not as complaints but as truths. It starts by scolding The New York Times for running an article about Ann Romney's involvement in dressage on the front page of its Sunday edition (where this kind of non-breaking personality story often runs), but not giving front-page treatment to the details of Barack Obama's high-school pot smoking unearthed by David Maraniss in an upcoming biography. Then they say this:

Republicans cry "bias" so often it feels like a campaign theme. It is, largely because it fires up conservatives and diminishes the punch of legitimate investigative or narrative journalism. But it also is because it often rings true, even to people who don't listen to Rush Limbaugh – or Haley Barbour.

And the imbalance can do slow, low-grade but unmistakable damage to Romney: Swing voters are just getting to know him. And coverage suggesting he is mean or extravagant can soak in, even though voters who took the time to weigh the details might dismiss the storyline.

It's certainly hard to argue that the Romneys' horse-riding habits today are worse than the Maraniss revelations, which have gotten little mainstream coverage.

Let's examine this, shall we? The bias charge, they say, "often rings true." But is it true? Well, that's a complex question, so why bother trying to answer it at all? It feels true, so that's good enough. The "imbalance" in coverage, which has been alleged by Republicans but we don't know is actually true, is nevertheless doing "unmistakable damage to Romney." Really? Any evidence for that? Nah, but it sure feels true. And one thing I find really interesting is the idea that unless Ann Romney's dressage hobby is "worse" than Obama's youthful pot smoking—which I guess means the kind of thing that would make you think less of Ann Romney than you do of Barack Obama—then the story's placement on the front page can't be justified. As though the only purpose of a story delving into details about the life of a candidate or his family is to make you dislike them. And has the pot-smoking story really "gotten little mainstream coverage"? Well, I did a search on Google News for "Choom Gang" in the past month and got 14,300 results. My search for "Ann Romney" and "dressage" got 199. Those searches will bring in many non-mainstream sources, but you couldn't exactly say that the media has been saturated with dressage stories.

In fact, I'd say the coverage of Ann Romney's hobby has been just about right. It's obviously something that's very important to the potential next First Lady, and she talks often about it. The story in the Times explained how she took it up as treatment for her multiple sclerosis, and has found it very therapeutic. It also detailed what a rarefied world dressage is, and how, for instance, the Romneys own multiple horses for which they've paid six figures each. The story wasn't unfair or sensationalistic, and it's the kind of thing a paper does once and then moves on. It isn't as though the Times now has a team of reporters out searching for new dressage scandals involving the Romneys. Yet VandeHei and Allen say, "The story in the Sunday Times, 'In Rarefied Sport, a View of the Romneys' World,' looks at a sport Ann Romney took up as part of her multiple-sclerosis therapy, and stretches it into another telltale sign that the Romneys are out of touch." And what does this "stretching" consist of? Some unfair description of the dressage world? Here's their case: "The reporter, Trip Gabriel, who is among the Times's regulars on the Romney bus, describes 'the wealthy women drawn to the sport of dressage, in which horses costing up to seven figures execute pirouettes and other dancelike moves for riders wearing tails and top hats.'" How grossly unfair, and an obvious attempt to smear the Romneys as out of touch! I suppose Gabriel should have described "the stevedores and plumbers drawn to the sport of dressage, in which formerly feral cats costing up to five dollars hiss at each other for attendants wearing t-shirts and sweat pants." Except that wouldn't actually be a description of dressage, while Gabriel's actually was.

I could go on—VandeHei and Allen complain that the story of Mitt Romney bullying a high-school classmate got too much coverage, too, their reasoning essentially being, Who cares?—but the point is that this article is really a triumph for conservatives and their strategy of working the refs. But it also shows how thin the evidence is when someone tries to make the case.

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