Check Your Sources If the MSM didn’t say it, don’t reflexively blame them for spraying it. For example, conservatives complained bitterly about the unfair treatment Sarah Palin received in the press, but they usually weren’t referring to pesky questions about the Bridge to Nowhere or “troopergate,” but rather to Internet speculation about her family or wicked depictions of Palin by Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live. No doubt these things helped shape the public’s impression of Palin, but you can’t lay them at the feet of the working press. If anything, as post-election reports by Fox News’s Carl Cameron revealed, the press actually refrained from reporting damaging stories about Palin coming from inside McCain’s own campaign.

Look Who’s Talking An interesting note buried inside the PEJ study was that researchers excluded talk radio in their assessment of the tone of coverage. One can only hazard a guess at how many hours of Obama-bashing were beamed out to the millions of listeners of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and the other conservative yakkers who dominate the dial. Ditto with their cable-TV counterparts, such as Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck. Surely, MSNBC can’t balance them all out.

The New News Game Many of the bias complaints were actually thinly disguised laments about the lack of “standards” in modern journalism. This was often expressed as a nostalgic desire for some golden era when the front page was comprised exclusively of inverted pyramids and just-the-facts news writing. But as the Internet has taken over information-dispersal, newspapers and newsweeklies have necessarily become more like feature-driven magazines. That’s not due to the personal predilections of a cabal of lefty editors; it’s the marketplace that’s driving them to redefine their role in an effort to remain relevant and survive.

Absence of Evidence Can Be Evidence of Absence Another frequent conservative complaint was that the press was not letting the public in on the “real” Obama. Where was the blockbuster photo of Obama and Bill Ayers in a Hyde Park hot tub? How about a smoking-gun canceled check from Tony Rezko buried in the Cook County conveyance records? Surely, the conservative critics seemed to be suggesting, this type of damning evidence must be out there. In fact, Ayers, Rezko, and other potential Obama campaign detonators (Reverend Wright?) got plenty of page-one coverage—it just didn’t change the public’s perception of Obama or the trajectory of the campaign, much as the revelation of George W. Bush’s DUI arrest didn’t change the 2000 campaign. As a friend of mine in politics used to say, sometimes where there is smoke, there is fire, and sometimes there’s just a smoke machine.

Open Your Ears, Your Mind Will Follow This is equal-opportunity advice for liberals and conservatives. One of the less-savory aspects of media proliferation is that, if we choose, we can get our news exclusively from outlets that reflect our own views back at us. This should be resisted. As a center-lefty, I nonetheless spent a lot of time during the campaign watching Fox News, browsing The National Review Online, and grazing daily at The Drudge Report. Sure, it was tedious at times to sit through Sean Hannity’s nightly “a noun, a verb, and Bill Ayers” routine, but more often than not, plugging into the conservative media reminded me that facts, in addition to being stubborn things, are unpredictable in their associations and sometimes even wind up housed in the pie hole of a beefy Irish blowhard.

The urge to dismiss news simply because it originates in a hostile precinct may be human but it’s also shortsighted—and it leads to a kind of informational provincialism in which anyone not from your ideological tribe is viewed as irredeemably untrustworthy. In a country founded on shared ideas, not a shared identity, I can’t think of a bias more un-American than that. 

 

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Douglas McCollam is a contributing editor to CJR.