Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The nonexistent affair

"There is a lot more to Obama’s election than just a starry-eyed media but most don’t recognize how that massive — unplanned and unspoken — movement truly pushed the country. This book is not simply post-election complaining, though. It is just as relevant today as we move forward in covering the Administration. In fact, that embarrassing Washington Post line was printed after the election and Goldberg doesn’t foresee an end to the tilted coverage. It’s not about liberal or conservative — it’s about a responsible media that has embraced a new culture of biased journalism. If journalism is going to be biased, then let those reporters proclaim their leaning — but don’t do it under a non partisan facade." -- Ericka Andersen
For some time now, the right has dismissed Barack Obama's success as the result of a biased news media. This is not unexpected. After all, a lot of Democrats blame the media (with some truth) for the failure of the Gore campaign, and even for some of Clinton's failings. When you lose some close fights badly, it's always tempting to try to shape events in such a way that you wind up with the least amount of responsibility. While Clinton had a famously hostile relationship with elite media I don't think it's really fair to lay the blame for Clinton's failings on pundits, as much of it was Clinton's own fault. With Gore it is far more justified, as media outlets were just publishing Bush campaign rhetoric verbatim. This is how the "Al Gore invented the internet" meme spread. The media didn't much care for Gore because he was colorless and not too much fun to cover. Bush, on the other hand, was lots of fun to cover. I wish I could say that it was more complicated than that--and I suspect another aspect is that many of the "liberal" media are actually self-loathing liberals who climb all over themselves to show their independence (think Mickey Kaus)--but I do think that a lot of that campaign's trajectory just had to do with Gore's personality.

And, actually, the media's campaign didn't work as Gore won by the only reasonable standard: he got more votes than Bush. I'll save the electoral college lecture for another time, but while the media's campaign against Gore was partly responsible for the 2000 result it wasn't the only factor. You can only be painted as a boring, stiff treehugger if you let yourself get painted that way. Gore's problem was the same as so many recent Democrats': listening to too many "consultants" whose chief job seems to be only to say, "Don't alienate anyone." Post-2000 Gore has been an entirely different animal: nerdily amusing, wryly ironic, more passionate and human. Had Gore just been himself in 2000 it wouldn't have been close. At the end of the day, Gore ran a bad campaign and didn't have the best public image. The media exploited these things, but it wasn't the media that created them.

Let's fast-forward eight years. In 2008, Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries and John McCain in the general election. Obama got generally good coverage during both races, while his opponents both got generally negative coverage. Conservatives then make the leap that Obama is therefore the recipient of media favoritism. This does not exactly ring true, as Obama was raked over the coals several times for some pretty silly shit: Wright, Ayres, and Blago were all analyzed at great length despite no wrongdoing to be found, and nothing unusual that couldn't be easily and innocently explained. In the meanwhile, Clinton came under fire for making up stories about being shot at in Bosnia, for her "kitchen sink" strategy leading up to the Texas and Ohio primaries, for her 3 a.m. ads insinuating that Obama wouldn't be able to handle a crisis, and for her refusal to disavow Geraldine Ferraro. Now, politics is politics, and the 3 a.m. spot wasn't entirely unreasonable, but the rest of it was pretty appalling, especially after it became mathematically clear that Obama would be the nominee. Obama, on the other hand, viciously attacked Clinton with...what, exactly? I can't think of anything Obama did that compares with some of Clinton's antics. That's not media bias--that's taking the high ground.

With respect to John McCain, the difference is even more ridiculous. McCain accused Obama of being an outright socialist, of wanting to teach sex ed in kintergarten, of calling his running mate a pig (a sheep would be a better comparison), of being unpatriotic and wanting, yes, wanting to lose the War in Iraq. Obama responded with...nothing. Sure, he attacked McCain for being out of touch, for saying that the fundamentals of the economy were strong, and so forth. But there was no concerted effort to bring up the Keating Five, no effort to bring up some of the nastiness of his first marriage, no effort to bring up the paucity of McCain's "honor". Obama ran as a statesman.

So, really, what emerges is not a portrait of media bias but rather a generally clean and ethical politician who ran a generally honest campaign. Obama certainly had a good PR apparatus, but the notion that the media was "in the tank" for Obama ignores the fact that the media was desperate to report stories to hurt Obama, such as Wright and Ayres, in order to counteract the bias meme on the right. Now, if you're Sean Hannity, this kind of knuckleheaded stuff is disqualifying in and of itself. Fine. But that's an entirely different sort of media bias.

Basically, my argument is that good media coverage is not indicative of media bias. GW Bush got some fairly good media coverage in 2000--yes, there were the word flubs, but there was very little reporting on his failed management of everything he touched before 1994, and very little detailed policy analysis (heh!) of his agenda, which was pretty darn conservative but was invariably described as centrist. But Bush had an awfully good PR machine and ran a good campaign, and his opponent didn't. This is not to say that there is no media bias, but rather that the bias is different from what the Andersens of the world might think.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.