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Think Again: How Conservatives Treat Media Bias (Hint: Confusingly)

Rep. Paul Ryan and Chris Matthews

SOURCE: AP/FOX News, Freddie Lee

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) speaks on "Fox News Sunday" in Washington, Sunday, January 29, 2012. Rep. Ryan received a surprise 40th birthday cake as host Chris Wallace looks on.

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Last Sunday, on the very same morning when he complained on “Meet the Press” that the mainstream media were, in his view, treating Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney more harshly than President Barack Obama (of course without presenting any evidence), Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) admitted on ABC’s “This Week,” “I’m not going to sit here and complain about coverage of the campaign because, as a candidate, if you do that, you’re losing.”

Ditto Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the former Massachusetts governor’s vice presidential running mate. Appearing (apparently without irony) on “Fox News Sunday,” the show that brought Rep. Ryan a birthday cake and whose moderator, Chris Wallace, bragged that “we kind of discovered” him, Rep. Ryan insisted that “it kind of goes without saying that there’s a media bias,” adding, “We’ve—look, I’m a conservative person, I’m used to media bias. We expected media bias going into this.”  But like Gov. Christie, Rep. Ryan did not have any specifics in mind when asked to present an example. And later, he sort of took it back—or at least his spokesman did. In an email to Politico, the spokesman insisted that Rep. Ryan “did not blame the media. He was asked a question about media bias and answered it. And his answer made clear it’s not something he worries about.”

One thing that many conservatives profess to worry about of late is polling. In a letter addressed to what they called the “Biased News Media,” conservative leaders Brent Bozell, Gary Bauer, Ed Meese, Tony Perkins, Rush Limbaugh, and Richard Viguerie signed a letter authored by Bozell’s right-wing Media Research Center, “holding the liberal media accountable for shamelessly advancing a left-wing agenda.” The signatories argued: “This election year, so much of the broadcast networks, their cable counterparts and the major establishment print media are out of control with a deliberate and unmistakable leftist agenda.” Again, not much in the way of evidence was presented. (See for yourselves if you doubt this.)

The issue of alleged bias that most excites conservatives this year is polling. The purpose of this year’s polls, according to Rush Limbaugh, is not to take the pulse of any given election contents. Rather, “they are designed to do exactly what [Rush has] warned you to be vigilant about, and that is to depress you and suppress your vote. These two polls today are designed to convince everybody this election is over.” Again, zero evidence from Rushbo. And according to FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, that would be awfully surprising. As he explains, “The polls have no such history of partisan bias, at least not on a consistent basis.”

Polling is a decidedly inexact science and is never perfectly accurate, even allowing for changes in peoples’ minds over time. Silver explains:

There have been years, like 1980 and 1994, when the polls did underestimate the standing of Republicans. But there have been others, like 2000 and 2006, when they underestimated the standing of Democrats. … but as in the case of the presidential polls, the years in which the Senate polls missed in either direction have tended to cancel one another out. On average across 240 Senate races since 1990, the polls have had a Republican bias of just 0.4 percentage points, a trivial number that is of little meaning statistically.

Add up all of the above and you have a great many accusations—some withdrawn, some not—but not a whole heck of a lot of data to support a single one of them. It may be because they are absolutely correct but that liberal bias in the media is so sneaky it disappears before you can catch it, quantify it, or even identify a compelling example of its persistence. Then again, it may be because the entire notion is a lot of nonsense, cooked up by conservatives to be used as a kind of stick with which to beat journalists in the hope of getting better coverage.

Think I’m making this up? Just ask Rich Bond, who, as the then-chair of the Republican Party, complained during the 1992 election, “I think we know who the media want to win this election—and I don’t think it’s George Bush.” That was Bond on a bad day. On one of his truth-telling days, however, the very same Mr. Bond observed of the very same election, however, “There is some strategy to it [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.”

This latter sentiment is not really so rare among conservatives, at least the ones who understand that they are playing a game. Far-right pundit and sometime presidential candidate Pat Buchanan admitted, “I’ve gotten balanced coverage, and broad coverage—all we could have asked. For heaven sakes, we kid about the ‘liberal media,’ but every Republican on earth does that.”

And conservative standard-bearer William Kristol told The New Yorker, upon launching The Weekly Standard back in 1995, that “the liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures.” Even so, in a 2001 subscriber pitch for the magazine, Kristol complained, “The trouble with politics and political coverage today is that there’s too much liberal bias. … there’s too much tilt toward the left-wing agenda. Too much apology for liberal policy failures. Too much pandering to liberal candidates and causes.”

This constant confusion—you might even call it “flip-flopping”—was finally explained in 2003 by The Weekly Standard “senior writer” and Kristol protégé Matt Labash, who told the website JournalismJobs.com:

While all these hand-wringing Freedom Forum types talk about objectivity, the conservative media likes to rap the liberal media on the knuckles for not being objective. We’ve created this cottage industry in which it pays to be un-objective. It pays to be subjective as much as possible. It’s a great way to have your cake and eat it too. Criticize other people for not being objective. Be as subjective as you want. It’s a great little racket. I’m glad we found it actually.

It sure is. And after all this time, it still works. Take, for instance, last Sunday’s Washington Post ombudsman’s column “Will The Post be about news or opinion?” by Patrick Pexton. In it, Pexton rehearses the usual complaints from Republicans about alleged liberal bias in the Post’s coverage both in polls of conservatives and his own email box. He finds this upswing in conservative complaints significant because, when combined with recent polling data that reflect a similar degree of discontent, these feelings must, Pexton opines, reflect a reality of unfair coverage. Again, Mr. Pexton does not deal in such mundane details as evidence, but observes that “with the exception of Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza, who cover politics in a nonpartisan way, the news columnists almost to a person write from left of center.”

Actually, this is not true. They may or may not hold left-of-center views, but most of them are data driven. The biggest problem conservatives have today is not with media but reality.

Is it “liberal” to refuse to deny the scientific consensus on global warming embraced by 97 percent of climate scientists? Is it liberal to note, along with almost all economists, including those who have served in Republican administrations, that tax cuts for the wealthy fail to improve tax revenues and succeed only in increasing inequality? Is it liberal to report the truth about the timing of factory closings in Wisconsin when a conservative candidate muffs it on purpose?

What’s more, Pexton has a strange idea of left of center, since it includes Dana Milbank, who thought it appropriate, on the Post website, to joke that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a “mad bitch.”

Ironically, nowhere is the conservative flight from reality better illustrated than in the Post’s hapless attempts to hire a right-wing blogger. In doing so, they have easily found plagiarists, nonconservatives, and abusive, violence-inciting, race-baiting attack dogs. What they have yet to find is a qualified journalist.

Pexton concludes with a homily: “The Post should first be about news without slant. If The Post wants to wrap its news in commentary, fine, but shouldn’t some of those voices then be conservative?”

Congratulations Mr. Bond. That ref-working strategy of yours is still going strong—after only 20 years.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

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