Media Bias and Democratic Health

There's a reason why the only "news" shows I watch on television are The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and why the bulk of my news comes from progressive blogs and international sources like the BBC, the Guardian, Der Spiegel and the various foreign papers sampled and translated by Watching America (that last is a great site, by the way, especially if you want to know how much the rest of the world hates us; all these links are provided in the sidebar).

It's not simply that I'm a partisan and think that "objective" reporting is an impossibility--I am a partisan, to be sure, but not a dogmatic one, and I maintain that objectivity always comes in degrees, that some sources are more neutral than others. The fact of the matter is that the corporate or mainstream media (MSM) is systematically biased. From Media Matters:

The dominant political force of our time is the media.

Time after time, the news media have covered progressives and conservatives in wildly different ways -- and, time after time, they do so to the benefit of conservatives.

Consider the last two presidents. Bill Clinton faced near-constant media obsession with his "scandals," while George W. Bush has gotten off comparatively easy.

Even many members of the media have stopped contesting this painfully obvious point, instead offering dubious justifications. Bill Clinton's "scandals" made for better stories than George Bush's, we are told, because they were simpler and easier for readers and viewers to understand. "Sex sells," while George Bush's false claims about Iraq are much harder to explain.

This excuse is simply nonsense.

First, what's so hard to understand about this? George Bush and his administration systematically distorted available intelligence to lead the nation to war on false pretenses. His administration has been marked by corruption, incompetence, lies, secrecy, and flagrant disregard for bedrock constitutional principles. None of that can be too complicated: Polls suggest that the majority of Americans believe all of those things.

Second, even if it were true that Clinton's "scandals" were easier for consumers of news to understand, the ease of explaining an affair would, if we had a serious and functional news media, be more than offset by the far greater importance of Bush's misdeeds.

Finally, this is such a grotesque distortion of the media's treatment of Clinton that it is difficult to explain by anything other than outright dishonesty. Reporters who offer the excuse that they and their colleagues covered Clinton "scandals" so much because sex sells, and is easily explained and understood, are cherry-picking. They are ignoring the obsessive coverage they gave to Clinton "scandals" that had nothing to do with sex, and that were not widely understood.

They are ignoring, for example, years of coverage of Whitewater, an obscure land deal in which the Clintons lost money and that was investigated by multiple independent counsels, congressional committees, federal agencies, and every news organization in the country -- none of which found any wrongdoing by the Clintons. Whitewater had nothing to do with sex, and nobody understood it -- probably because there was nothing to understand. And that's not even going into Travelgate, Filegate, Vince Foster's suicide, or the myriad other "scandals" the media covered that did not involve sex.

You should read the whole thing for more evidence of this double-standard.

I've discussed this with others before but I'd like to hear more from conservatives to see how contestable this point is. I know my position is not a disinterested one, so there may be something I'm not seeing or not paying attention to.

(I just deleted several paragraphs ranting against Bush. I don't think there's a need to dwell on how terrible he is; his crimes, at least the ones we know of, have been well-documented.)

There are at least two issues here (and in the article). First is an issue about irresponsible coverage in general. CNN is not E!; The New York Times is not The National Inquirer; Nightline is not The Tonight Show. They should stop acting like they are.

The press has a duty to act as the fourth estate. Democracies requires transparency, accountability, and an informed public if they are to avoid becoming tyrannies. But serving as public watchdog is not the same thing as snooping into people's private affairs. The latter is a dangerous distraction and an abdication of responsibility.

Thus, the sensationalism of the news is to be decried and not to be tolerated--and I think conservatives will agree with this point. Even if they don't believe in a fundamental right to privacy, they'll grant that tabloid reporting is a pernicious influence on our society.

But MSM bias extends beyond this. Some media corporations are actually led by individuals who are actively trying to promote Republican power because it means less regulation, lower taxes, and higher profits for them. Rupert Murdoch is only the most obvious example; there are also people like former CEO of GE (and thus of NBC) Jack Welch, who forced his anchors to call Florida for Bush in 2000.

Look, this is not an issue of liberal versus conservative. Politicians of any ideology, time, or place are highly vulnerable to corruption. The beauty of the American system is in the precautions it takes to distribute power antagonistically, to ensure that no individual or small group faces the temptation of absolute authority.

But the founders did not live in an era of instantaneous reporting and 24-hour news. They did not live in an age of robber barons and amoral multinationals. We need new measures to protect American freedoms, values, and ways of life.

This is not simply an issue of an impoverished public morality; proper moral development and education will only do so much. If people can get away with it, some will inevitably try to hoard as much wealth and social influence as possible. These are natural incentives and it's only rational to strive for them. We simply cannot trust human beings in any position of power to regulate themselves.

We need to sever the ties between private profit and public office. This mean breaking up media monopolies and oligopolies, public broadcasting, completely public campaign financing, and the balancing of secrecy and security with transparency and accountability.

From Machievelli's Discorsi, Spinoza's Tractatus Politicus and Locke's Two Treatises, through The Federalist and our Constitution, to Glenn Greenwald's How Would A Patriot Act?, great thinkers have advocated separation of powers, checks and balances, and the severance of private advantage from political power. If we wish to preserve our safety, stability, and liberty, we would do well to heed their words.

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