Nobody To Blame But Himself

Politico’s John F. Harris and Jim Vandehei tackle what can be a tricky subject for reporters to discuss, especially political reporters; bias.  It’s an interesting piece, and one that focused primarily on which biases do affect reporting outside of ideological biases, but what it all comes down to is that for McCain and his supporters, the only person to blame for the unbalanced negative coverage is McCain himself.

First, though, the issue of bias.  I suppose I should mention that it was Al Franken’s book Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them that influenced my take on the subject of media bias, and one that has been generally confirmed time and again since I’ve started writing about politics.

Essentially, there is a bias in political reporting, but that bias is not ideologically based.  Instead there are all kinds of other biases that political reporters tend to follow.  Biases such as the trying not to appear biased bias, or making the race look closer than it really is bias.

Indeed, as a devout ideologue, it occurs to me that claims of ideological bias in the mainstream media is less a hard truth and more a construct of other ideologues across the political spectrum.  Hardened conservatives have turned liberal media bias into a familiar refrain, but if this were true, wouldn’t one expect the left to embrace the fourth estate in its political crusade?

As it happens, the exact opposite is the truth.  While not as famous as the conservative war against all things media, liberals are just as quick to claim that mainstream media organizations are biased against them as conservatives are.  During this election season I got to watch this same mechanic work in a new and mind boggling way.

During the Democratic primaries I watched as Obama partisans and Clinton partisans both accuse the media of being in the tank for the opposing candidate in the same way that liberals and conservatives do.  The difference here, though, is that there just wasn’t that much daylight between the two Democratic candidates ideologically.

What is really happening, or at least what I suspect is happening, is that we are talking about deeply opinionated people who have constructed an intense worldview.  When that worldview is challenged by reports in the media, the person in question does not even consider that their worldview is wrong or flawed in some way, but instead that the report must be wrong.  The stronger and more ideologically crystallized the worldview, the more likely it will be challenged by media reports because… well… the real world is rarely as rigid as the ideological models created of it.

Which brings us back to the issue of apparent bias against John McCain in political reporting this election season.  McCain supporters can and will make a claim that this is all the fault of the criminal liberal media, but this isn’t likely to be true–if we liberals had a media this in the tank, George W. Bush would have never been president.

Indeed, it is important to look at the political reporting of the past two presidential elections to understand what is going on in this election.  In both 2000 and 2004, political reporting tended to favor the Republican candidate with the two most glaring examples being the serial liar meme that plagued Gore, and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth water carrying by the mainstream media.

In this election cycle there are two predominant reasons why McCain isn’t getting nearly the positive coverage that Obama is getting.  The first is that he’s just running a piss poor campaign, and has since locking up the nomination earlier this year.

The second reason why he’s getting the poor media coverage is because he decided to turn the press into the enemy.  Now there’s wiggle room here; one could claim the press is being petulant for being suddenly shut out from the kind of access they used to enjoy to McCain.  The counter argument to this, though, is that McCain making the conscious decision not to pal around with the press may have resulted in the press finally getting over their crush on him.

In either case, the difference in the tone of media coverage can be blamed on nobody but McCain himself.  They are, after all, reporting on what is happening.  Think about it for a moment; McCain is running a terrible campaign, and is down in most polls by a substantial margin.  He’s launched an unprecedented negative campaign with even more unprecedented connections to the top of the ticket and has committed some truly bewildering blunders (like, for instance, suspending his campaign, or Sarah Palin).  If the media tone towards both candidates was in fact equal, that wouldn’t be unbiased, but instead false equivalency which is itself a sign of bias.

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