A Cynic’s Take on Media Bias

It's time for a spin war!

We just love to read dashed-off pieces of pop psychology that seek to diagnose why the press writ large is either:

— Too Liberal
— Too Conservative
— In the pocket of corporate interests
— Lazy
— Stupid

More often than not, whether these pieces come from the left or the right, they deal in the broadest of generalities, treating the “mainstream media” as a monolithic entity that shares one giant newsroom and makes collective decisions about what to publish, how to present it, and how best to smear those on the other side of the ideological divide.

Bruce Bartlett delivers just such a piece in the National Review today, though his piece is probably more charitable than most in this genre. In it, he looks at the increasing criticism of the media coming from the left, noting that until recently media criticism was mostly an obsession of conservatives.

Bartlett argues that the media have moved to the political center from their “strong left-wing tilt” of earlier years, which has opened them up to charges from the left that they cover issues unfairly, or with a conservative bent. He offers a couple of interesting points that seem largely on target to us, such as, “Conservatives have become better at using the media, taking advantage of its institutional biases to spin stories in conservative directions. Contrary to what the left thinks, this is not something nefarious, but simply the application of good public-relations skills.”

True, and it echoes what Rich Bond, then chairman of the Republican Party said during the 1992 presidential race — that there is strategy involved in bashing the “liberal” media: “If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one.”

Again, this isn’t unfair, or somehow out of bounds. Instead, it’s good policy, and despite what some will claim, it’s been pretty effective. (We’re not suggesting the media have a conservative bias — though sometimes we do wonder — just that conservative activists have done an effective job of getting their spin out there.)

Bartlett goes on to offer an analysis of the left’s media problems that we’re not so sure about. “The problem for those on the left these days is that during the long period when there was a pronounced liberal bias in the media, they got lazy,” he writes. “They just assumed that the major media would automatically take their side, do hit jobs on conservatives and basically do their job for them.”

Assertions without evidence—something ideologues of all stripes are particularly adept at—just don’t rise to the level of convincing analysis.

That said, Bartlett is pretty charitable to his “liberal friends,” telling them to “stop whining about media bias. You had a free ride for a long time, and now it’s over. Get used to it, and learn how to use the media.”

Well, sure, and there’s little doubt that MediaMatters and Kos and the rest are busily doing this as we speak. But the upshot of all this is nonetheless kind of depressing. What Bartlett is essentially calling for is a massive spin war between ideological enemies, with the remnants of the intellectually honest press caught in the middle, taking heat — and spin — from both sides. This doesn’t sound like something that will further the interests of good journalism.

Because no matter which side of the ideological divide you stand on, the MSM still doesn’t get it!

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.