Biased about Bias
The hunt for ideology becomes an ideology.
Andrew Breitbart is a paid assistant to the excitable editor of The Drudge Report; he cheerfully describes himself as "Matt Drudge's bitch." "Twelve years into this adult nightmare," he tells me and two dozen other reporters, "I woke up, after having grown up in Brentwood as this liberal Jewish kid, and sensed that something was wrong–I started to realize that I was a conservative."
We're at the Los Angeles Press Club, and Breitbart, co-author of the breezy Hollywood Interrupted: Insanity Chic in Babylon–The Case Against Celebrity, is on a panel discussing campaign coverage and media bias, in that narrow window of time between the Swift Boat controversy and Rathergate.
"Every day I wake up in the battle about media bias," he says. "The best analogy I can give to you is this: Have you ever gone to like the Santa Monica Pier, and seen one of those holograms on the wall, and you're supposed to stare at it for a while, and there's supposed to be, like, a magical castle in it? Well you look and you look and you can't see that castle and you can't see that castle, but eventually your eyes focus in such a way that the castle comes up. And then you can't not see the castle. That's how media bias comes to you from the conservative angle."
As the Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach argued, if you stare at anything long enough, it will look more like what you're obsessed with than what it actually is. Or, if you're a scoop-hungry reporter like Dan Rather, it can immediately resemble something you were desperately seeking.
Rather already had a serviceable 60 Minutes II segment, another contribution to the already stuffed journalistic dossier showing that George W. Bush received preferential treatment while leaving a strangely incomplete paper trail in the Texas Air National Guard. But CBS's Seven Million Dollar Man wanted to boost the story several notches by documenting a sensational, thus-far-unproven allegation: that Bush disobeyed a direct order.
When a package of memos meeting these requirements was produced, Rather and his team notoriously brushed off skepticism from their own hired forensic consultants, failed to adequately press the memos' source–a known Bush-hating Democrat–as to where he got them, and rushed the documents to broadcast. As Barbara Mikkelson, proprietor of the urban legend?debunking site Snopes.com, once told me, "Mom always said if something appears too good to be true, it generally is."
And so it was for Rather, who compounded his high-profile screwup by hiding imperiously behind the exalted myth of CBS's unassailability,? waiting 12 days to apologize and fully disavow the memo, by which time the anchor's reputation had plummeted to new lows and a thousand gleeful bias hunters had long since filled the media echo chamber with shouts of "I told you so!"
And why shouldn't they? After having provided crucial, convincing skepticism of the memos' veracity within hours of the original broadcast, using distributed expertise in topics ranging from old typewriters to military jargon, webloggers had good reason to pat themselves on the back. Rather's scalp went onto the heap, along with those of segregationist sympathizer Trent Lott, gun control scholar John Lott, and former New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines.
InstaPundit's Glenn Reynolds, who was among the bloggers banging the Rathergate drum loudest, wrote in the pages of The Australian that the episode was "just a harbinger of things to come, not just for Rather and CBS but for traditional left-leaning news operations across the world."
But the reckoning? will not be limited to one side of the political spectrum. Right-leaning news operations, and even bloggers themselves, may soon taste the same deeply skeptical scrutiny and scorn they've long heaped on the mainstream media. And when they are judged by the same criteria with which they judge others, they will certainly come up short.
The decades-old media bias debates usually boil down to two main complaints:
1) Journalists and their institutions are in denial about their unconscious political slants (the old fish-don't-feel-the-water argument).
2. Stories that confirm those biases will receive inadequate vetting, leading to factual errors.
Honest-to-God errors are still rare as a percentage of facts in the output of top news organizations. (As of September 26, The New York Times has printed 2,300 corrections in 2004. That sounds like a lot, until you remember that these were spread out over approximately 65,000 articles and include misspellings of names.) That means day-to-day bias complaints are less about actual falsehoods and more about how the media play or fail to play a story.
To cite one random example, radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt wrapped an entire September 30 Weekly Standard Online column around his outrage that every respectable newspaper (except for the indefatigable New York Post) "refused to acknowledge a genuine…story that is actually having an impact on the race." What was this malfeasance being swept under the rug? "Oompa-Loompagate," which apparently referred to a minor hubbub over a late September photograph in which John Kerry's face looked alarmingly orange.
"Old media's refusal to note what ordinary Americans are talking about is the latest in a series of stubborn refusals that began with elitist indifference and ideological bent and which are ending in irrelevance," Hewitt thundered.
Of course, calling Hewitt biased is like saying the sky is blue.? The subtitle of his most recent book is Crushing the Democrats in Every Election and Why Your Life Depends on It. Every day, in his nationally syndicated show, weblog, and online columns, Hewitt fights for his political party and makes predictions that don't come true–while accusing the media of incorrigible bias.
This is a common tack, and completely understandable. Once you've discovered a useful decoding device for consuming media–and there is little doubt that employees of the mainstream media generally swing left–it's tempting to chalk up every nominally anti-Republican story as the result or even direct intention of media bias.
Tempting, and wrong. Developing hypersensitivity to hidden ideology can easily become a distorting ideology of its own, especially when inconvenient facts, such as journalism's culture of rejecting overt political agendas, are brushed aside. "It is the tragic story of a 'mental short circuit,'" Vaclav Havel wrote in a marvelous 1985 essay on a different topic. "Why bother with the never ending, genuinely hopeless search for truth when a truth can be had so readily, all at once, in the form of an ideology or doctrine? Suddenly it is all so simple. Think of all the difficult questions which are answered in advance!"
When you already "know" that the media are objectively anti-Bush, it's not such a stretch to assert, as U.S. News & World Report columnist Michael Barone did in May, that "today's press works to put the worst possible face on the war." Or to join Andrew Sullivan in nicknaming the BBC the "Baghdad Broadcasting Company."
The main problem with these characterizations is that they are wrong. The ideology of bias detection begets the shortcut of hyperbole, which then demands escalation when the conditions being described worsen. Many of the same people who roasted Dan Rather lapped up Judith Miller's discredited New York Times reporting about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. People believe what they want to hear. What are bloggers and other media watchdogs willing to believe about the target of their wrath?
"Because you ignored us," Breitbart says, "because you ignored Rush and Drudge and God knows who else, we decided to go out and create our media. And I think that what we're doing is building up something that may be bigger and better."
Bigger, probably. Better, arguably. More factual…we'll see.