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Basics of Media Bias

UPDATE:  The Columbia Report about Rolling Stone’s coverage of rape allegations at UVA just landed, and it seems to underline everything I’m saying here.  READ IT HERE.


I don’t remember much about my first appearance on television.  I was down somewhere near the Medical Center about ten years ago, pretty much the only counter-protester to a couple of dozen protesters, and I can’t even remember what the issue was that they were protesting.  A news crew covering the protest approached me and asked me why I was there across the street.  Of the five minutes or so that I spent talking to them, maybe ten seconds aired that night.

Doing that interview made me watch the news more closely.  When a reporter at the scene talked to bystanders and witnesses, I started to pay attention.  If you’re like me, you’ve cringed when you’ve seen awful interviews with folks who seemed inarticulate or downright stupid on television.  And you’ve rolled your eyes while watching people mug for the camera behind a reporter attempting to file a serious report.  I understand why now, because here’s the thing: the presence of news cameras and reporters change the dynamics of almost any situation.

Now, I’m not your average man-on-the-street interview.  I was a speech and communications major in college for a bit, and a theater major as well, so there’s a tiny bit of advantage that comes with that.  And over the past six years I’ve had a bit of media training, both formally from organizations like Freedom Works, and on the job as a tea party leader.  Of course, you might say to me, in your position you NEED to know how the media works, but why does the average conservative?

In the internet age, opinion is being shaped every day by the culture, but also by mainstream and new media.  And that opinion eventually translates to results at the ballot box.  Some offhand comment made by a thoughtless politician can turn into a narrative that can swing a national election.  People’s livelihoods can be destroyed by misreporting.  Reporters with an agenda can manipulate a story to fit a narrative, or create a story based on how they report events.  The media is not to be taken lightly.  They aren’t stupid.  They aren’t clueless.  They’re professionals, some of whom have a name to make for themselves or a cause they will do anything to champion.

I’ve been around (and even befriended some) media types for years, and I know some fantastic and honorable people in the news business.  All that said, the Mainstream Media’s bad reputation among conservatives is well-earned.  And if rank and file conservatives are going to be effective, it’s essential to understand how the MSM works.


The Media Leans Left

Conservatives have long held that the media is biased, and news analysts have long responded that political affiliation isn’t much of a factor in how a reporter does his job.   Bias is difficult to spot and harder to prove, making it difficult to engage in the argument at all.  What we do know is that for over 40 years, studies have shown that reporters identify as Democrats far more often than they identify as Republicans, even as more are claiming the label of Independent than that of either party.  There are a gazillion reasons why that might be; but just as in Hollywood and academia, we tend to find a left slant among the media population, taking into account the cover that claiming to be ‘Independent’ might provide.

It would be wise for conservatives to start from the basic assumption that all media is biased, that all reporters and commentators and anchors have an agenda, that their goal is to make conservatives look bad and liberals look good until proven otherwise.  While that isn’t always true, approaching news with that outlook in mind helps develop a healthy skepticism, and a need to look beyond headlines and initial reports when a story breaks.  That can keep us from falling for a false or incomplete story, and help us prevent bad reporting from embedding in the minds of the public before the truth surfaces and a retraction is printed (on page B-8, mind you, in tiny type).


Media is Increasingly about Advocacy

Bias isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly when it’s clearly stated.  There are an increasing number of websites and blogs and news sources from the perspective of the right, and they make it obvious that they come from that worldview.  Nobody would imagine Red State or The Right Scoop to be devoid of a conservative slant, nor would they attempt to be seen that way.  They are rightly labeled part of the Conservative New Media, and proud to be a counter to the many left-slanted sites in the blogosphere.  They wouldn’t think of trying to pass themselves off as ‘unbiased’ or ‘independent’.

But that is exactly what the left does in media.  The idea is that by not admitting bias, by hiding it in fact, they are able to push their worldview out to people who are apolitical.  The left narrative gets pushed as a mainstream viewpoint, whereas the opposing viewpoint is sequestered in conservative online ‘ghettos’.  Bernie Goldberg provides a very simple (and compelling) example of how this is done on television.

‘Liberals, as far as liberal journalists like Chuck Todd are concerned, aren’t controversial. They’re middle of the road. Moderate. Mainstream. Not so with conservatives. They need a warning label.’

‘They put warning labels on packs of cigarettes and pesticides because they can be dangerous to your health. And, as far as many liberals – both in and out of the media — are concerned, conservatives need warning labels because their ideas can be dangerous to your health.’

We’ve also seen that Fox News (the closest thing to conservative-leaning news source on cable television) has been under a deliberate attack by the left in an effort to discredit them with mainstream and apolitical people.  Left leaning cable news organizations are being crushed by Fox in the ratings, so the left believes it’s crucial to attack Fox, labeling it Faux News and trying to dig up dirt on people affiliated with Fox.

And just this week, a reporter for a Richmond station tweeted that she pre-emptively (and proudly) reported the fundraising account for Memories Pizza for fraud ‘just in case.’  The station is now busily engaged in blocking folks who tweet criticism at them, and the reporter has released a statement explaining (badly) how she was merely trying to help the owners of the restaurant.  To be sure, though, nobody is buying it.  Still, take that in: a reporter in Virginia inserted herself into a story in Indiana just because she thought she could get away with it.


Media Show You What They Want You to See

Have you ever cringed watching a man-on-the-street interview or been amused by a segment of Jay Leno’s ‘Jaywalking’ on The Tonight Show?  Have you thought to yourself ‘Where do they GET these people?’  That’s no accident.  In segments like that, the purpose is to make a particular point – often ‘Look at this dumb person!’  – not to take a real look at what ‘average people’ think.  This is the magic of editing.

When we talk about media bias, we often talk about how stories are presented and what is said.  What we forget is all of the material left on the cutting room floor.  What they leave out of a story is often as important as what goes into it, and there’s no way to know what they cut.  Professional communicators are made to look like fools – how much easier to believe that regular people could?  And as we learned from the Memories Pizza case in Indiana this week, the reporter went shopping for the story.  Who knows how many places she visited before she got an answer that fit the story she wanted to tell?  You might remember that, too, the next time someone, especially a politician, is criticized for saying something stupid.  Perhaps he’s really the victim of creative editing.  Still, it’s never good to get into a fight with a guy who controls the editing.  You will lose.  Every time.

Remember, too, the case of Kermit Gosnell.  During the trial, the press area was nearly always empty.  When pressed about it by conservatives on Twitter, one dismissed the entire proceedings (in which were detailed the miserable neglect, malpractice, unsanitary conditions, and outright racist treatment of patients) as a ‘local crime story’.  If they don’t talk about it, they can pretend it never happened.


Media Doesn’t Merely Cover Stories, They Create Them

We understand this when the media report on polling data.  In election years, nearly every day there’s some news about the relative polling of several candidates.  Similarly, when a controversial issue is a hot topic, you can bet the media will be publishing poll results on it.  And of course, if the media outlet does its own polling, you can bet the questions will be crafted with care in a way that helps tell the story they want to sell.

To return to the pizza joint story, remember how it began – a reporter was looking for reaction to a story on a decision being made in the state legislature.  Naturally she headed out of the big city to a little town where it would be easy to find all the ‘ignorant religious hicks’, asked around until she got what she came for, then sped back to the big city to get it on the air.  The goal of the story wasn’t to inform people about the provisions of the legislation or the reaction to it, but to find someone to set up as the bad guy.  The story didn’t result in a few prank calls or a protest.  The story resulted in death threats and an arson threat and the closure of the business.


Mainstream media still controls a lot of the narrative in this country.  While conservatives are making headway in changing the playing field, the MSM is still a powerhouse we can’t ignore.  Learn what they do.  Watch for their tactics and expose them.  Become an active skeptic, and teach others to do the same.  When a story seems off, no matter the source, dig deeper.  Ask questions.  Follow up.

We can’t afford to let them get away with these things anymore.


EDITED TO ADD:  This book ‘Trust Me, I’m Lying’ comes highly recommended from Kristina Ribali on media manipulation – reading it now.