Monday, November 3, 2008

Dear Douglas MacKinnon: Don't Blame The Messenger

I have an answer for your NYT "Campaign Stops" article which calls for country to do a big 'ol political auditing of the media coverage of the 2008 election once the whole thing is finished. (God willing, this will be Wednesday.) You ask, in conclusion:
My point is, regardless of whether the news media are right or wrong about an Obama win, shouldn’t they still be concerned about that “shred of credibility they have left?” Shouldn’t they be concerned with numerous studies and the observations of various journalists that the business has tilted too far to the left?
Here is my answer: NO.

The ENTIRE media bias argument is a red herring, employed by embittered conservatives to push a false narrative on the American public. Now, I'm not the type of person to make blanket partisan statements, because I believe no party has a monopoly on, well, anything (That's why in another blog I recently wrote that John McCain would have made a good President in 2000). But the "media bias" argument lacks any sort of credibility whatsoever, even from "independent" sources like, which found that 80 percent of its coverage has tilted toward Barack Obama during this campaign. Politico should not be ashamed of this. Consumers drive the media narrative, and if consumers want to read about Barack Obama, the news organizations that write about Barack Obama are going to stay in business, while the ones that don't will go under. It turns out, actually, that conservatives love the free-market argument right up until the point that they don't. It's similar to something I just read about baseball, where MLB lobbied Minnesota back in the 1980s to build the Metrodome for the Twins because of the intangible assets baseball would bring to the community; when MLB wanted to move the Twins in 2003, and argued that normal businesses would be allowed to leave if they compensated those aggrieved by their departure, a judge threw the "intangible assets" argument back in their face. It's the same thing here: the mechanism for any "media bias" that actually exists is a fundamental part of the Republican platform.

But even disregarding the free market argument, the "media bias" argument is complete poppycock. I'm not sure I've ever used that word before, but there it is. MacKinnon talks about the media's "fascination" with Obama, but it's not the "media" that is fascinated with Obama; it is the American people. (Mr. MacKinnon will find this out tomorrow.) He writes that 80% of journalists are likely to vote for Obama and says that journalists, their editors, their management and the American people should care about this fact. Here's my question: why? Why should they care? The myth of the non-partisan journalist is along the same lines as the myth of the Vegas Sportsbook: that they want to be even on both sides, and collect the fruits that result from hanging out in the middle. The Sportsbook example is demonstrably false; they're not aiming to be "fair" in some nonsensical way; they're aiming to be right. If 90 percent of the bets come in on one side of an initial line and they think they're going to lose money if the bets keep coming in thusly, they move the line. If, however, they think they are going to win money on that proposition, they do not move the line. They are gamblers just like the gamblers, the same way journalists are human just like the voters. Journalists don't endeavor to systematically break down one candidate without either finding themselves out of a job or moving to a nakedly ideological outlet. (Think, like, Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone.) But to imagine that journalists should be devoid of political opinions themselves is not only an anachronism, it never happened in the first place. Here's a story.

About four years ago, I applied for a job at a newspaper in Prescott, Arizona, which is about two hours north of Phoenix and is an old west town gone boom with California transplants. It's growing at a phenomenal rate. I had a one-hour-long writing and editing test followed by two hours of interviews, during which I was interviewed by the Editor in Chief of the paper. We got to talking politics, and I think I avoided disclosing my political affiliation, but I was a Massachusetts boy living in New York City — I don't think there was much of a secret. The question was, what is the role of partisanship in coverage, and my answer was to call them as I see them. The editor was fine with that, and said that he had never registered with any political party nor any group that was directly associated with them, which is to say, the NRA. Which, he said, he admired enough to join the completely non-partisan "Friends of the NRA." Which meant he actually had political opinions — he just didn't want to be tied to them, should, I guess, the shit go down.

From what I can gather, MacKinnon sees Obama's likely victory as the shit going down. It is not, in any way, shape or form. The freedom of the press ensures that, unless regulated, the media has the right to publish pretty much any slate of news it seems fit. Should that news be "slanted" in one direction, it will always be the media doing what's best for the media — the same way the New York Times, the GOP's bugaboo, published MacKinnon's essay itself, and features a weekly column from William Kristol, who's about as ideologically far from Barack Obama as you can get. The myth of the down-the-middle media can be divined from my would-be editor (I didn't take the job); "the media" does not exist per se; it's a bunch of people writing stories, and people have opinions, even if they try to keep them at arm's length. What's more,tThey always have had opinions. To ask the 80% of journalists to be ashamed of their votes is not only disingenuous, it's dangerous for the freedom of the press. Does MacKinnon think we should capital-R Regulate our news outlets? And if not, what's the solution? Policing from the inside? Policing what? Do you want newspapers to have an "affirmative action" program to hire Republican-leaning journalists? Do you want them to end virtual "affirmative action" programs to hire minorities, which would almost certainly lead to a cessation of coverage of certain communities? Is that okay, because you feel that John McCain has not been covered properly? I would suggest that you would say yes, and then the argument would be that newspapers should do what's in your self-interest, and not theirs, and now we're just arguing apples and oranges, but you really want oranges. Well, that's great and all, but we're still choosing between them, thanks. You can blame "the media" for Obama's win, for coverage of disparate communities, or whatever you want, but the fact is that more people have more access to different news sources now than ever before, and if you can't control the narrative, it's your fault, not that of the collected journalists. Writers act in their own self-interest, like anyone else: editors, publishers, anyone. So if you're not making a compelling enough argument to anyone, what does it matter who they're voting for, when as my old would-be editor shows, they can divorce it from their jobs should they choose to? Why not look inward, instead of looking outward? The "media bias" argument is a junk food argument: you'll never go hungry, but that doesn't mean it's good for you. Alas, you can eat junk food forever until your body can't take it any more and your heart explodes. The fact that the media has been so "pro-Obama" isn't a referendum on the media — it means your party has suffered a collective heart attack. It's a referendum on you. From a political or journalistic standpoint, you've earned it. Don't blame the messenger.

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