Saturday, September 12, 2009

Legitimation as Bias

I cleaned the bar my brother works at this morning, and the television there provided me a small amount of exposure to the cable news. I gathered that the tea bagger march in Washington has been garnering a lot of media attention. This would not so much piss me off in and of itself – I’m pleased to see anyone’s political engagement having an effect on the public discourse, even if that engagement is based on irrational fear and unjustifiable anger – but I’m viewing it from the perspective of having previously engaged in leftist political protests. That being the case, I believe the first words out of my mouth when I saw the live footage on CNN were “Why are they covering this shit?” My annoyance was compounded by some of the dialogue I heard in the background as I went about my business.

“It doesn’t look like there’s THAT many people behind you just yet.”

“No, not YET.”

On the plus side, this has reminded me of, and given me a decent context for, exposition of a new theory about the myth of the liberal media, which had occurred to me earlier in the course of this health care fiasco.

The notion that the media is liberally biased is, to be frank, insane horseshit. Anybody with genuinely liberal ideologies and an impulse to express those publicly knows that it is horseshit. If I had had any doubts that it was horseshit, they were dispelled in March of 2006. On the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, I took a bus to Washington D.C. to participate in a widely and elaborately organized demonstration against the war. Now, I am not good at estimating numbers of people even when they’re in small groups of dozens or hundreds, let alone when they are clustered on and around the national mall, stretching seemingly endlessly in every direction, and appearing as one expanse of solid texture in photographs from the top of the Washington Monument. But in identifying the numbers of people at the anti-war protest that I attended (one of several, in fact) I believe it is sufficient to use the vague, but still impressive phrase “hundreds of thousands.” Hundreds of thousands of left-leaning, politically active individuals came together from around the country, organized on political advocacy websites, and without promotion on CNN, MSNBC, or any other major outlet so frequently accused of being champions of liberal propaganda.

Now, I don’t remember all the details of this protest, or its itinerary. But I recall that we marched past the White House. We marched past Congress. We marched past the Supreme Court. We marched for miles and for hours, filling the streets where most of federal power resides. We chanted, we demonstrated, we danced. We expressed our anger, and we expressed our hope, and we expressed our conviction. We clashed with a handful of opponents on a couple of occasions. Along the course of the march, there was part of a particular block where a group of respectably committed, though to my mind misguided, counter-protesters chose to set themselves up to express their opposition to us, and perhaps give us something to contend with. They shouted at us as we walked past, and we walked past, shouting at them, save for a few who felt some pull towards loudly discussing the issue point-by-point. Physically, the counter-protest was barely a blip on one’s radar during the course of the route and the day. I did, however, consider it to be of particular interest, because it was at the meeting point of the two groups, however numerically imbalanced that they were, that the polarizing nature of the issues came to light. I enjoyed encountering them as a part of the larger experience of our demonstration. They provided an outlet for our anger, but the innumerable masses of people demonstrating against war were a focal point for my sense of hope and purpose.

Feeling proud of myself and my generation, I kept an eye on the news the next day, understanding that it was the attention we had brought to our cause that would show the value in our actions. I didn’t see it on the front page of any of the newspapers that I encountered in New York that day. I don’t remember what the typical front-page story was – but it must have been important. So I figured the coverage would begin on page two, or page three. No. Page four? No. Okay, it wasn’t in there. Newspapers were already starting to die at that time, anyway. The internet – that’s the place to look for the real news! Well, it wasn’t on Yahoo, or AOL, or any of the other first-look sources of news people generally encounter when they log on. Well, that was kind of weird, but I know: how about the bastions of liberalism that are the news networks, like CNN, which I’ve heard doggedly referred to as the “Communist News Network”? Or MSNBC, home of the rabid ideologue, Keith Olbermann? Nothing. There was no coverage whatsoever in any source, or any medium, of any demonstrations in Washington D.C. the prior day.

Actually, that’s not true. I did manage to find one article that fit that description. The headline read: “Hundreds come out in D.C. to rally in support of the troops.” Beneath that, a closely framed photograph of the conservative counter-demonstrators, conveniently angled away from our protest route. Whoever the jackass reporter that stumbled through D.C. that afternoon was, he turned his back on a hundred thousand people to focus his camera on the bearers of a voice that was, by comparison, insignificant. And he took it to his liberally biased editors, and they printed it without a word of context indicating that they were there specifically counter to the movement of which I was a part.

That is how the liberal movement was treated in the media, to greater and lesser extent, throughout the Bush presidency. And yet even then I heard people describing the media as being dominated by liberalism. I honestly do not grasp what that was based on, if not that that media had the audacity to eventually and occasionally point out mistakes and errors of fact coming out of the Bush White House. You hear this refrain about bias even more loudly now that conservatives are the ones who have prominent policies to protest. And the rationalization of this claim, often transparently suggestive of a martyrdom complex, has come to be very much curved around a frustrated expectation of equivalence. About the health care town halls I have noticed several conservative commentators excusing irresponsibly hyperbolic, aggressive, and stupid behavior by saying that there were plenty of people acting similarly during the Bush administration. I saw Fox News air a photo montage of posters that applied imagery as provocative and Hitler mustaches and Nazi arm bands to President Bush when he was the object of the ire of liberals. This they set against similar depictions of President Obama in recent months, toward the end of pointing out that Conservatives seem to be taking flak for the overreaching imagery of their protest, whereas the news hardly showed such things coming from the other side of the aisle during the last administration.

I heartily agree with that superficial assessment. It is interesting, however, that I derive a conclusion from that observation that is diametrically opposed to the conclusion Fox expects its viewers to take for granted. They believe that any failure to criticize equivalent activities coming from distinct groups is automatically indicative of a strong bias in favor of the group not being criticized. But that ignores very pertinent information about why stupid participants weren’t highlights of coverage of liberal protests. There was no coverage of liberal protests. On the other hand, there was no delay in not only covering conservative protests against attempts to increase health care, but also making it the focal point of the discussion.

I think the media is biased in favor of conservativism. I fervently believe that I base this on an assessment of the available evidence, and not on a commitment to a martyrdom complex. I also think that when stretched beyond one sentence, my claim of conservative media bias is rather restrained, and non-dogmatic. I don’t think the media is conservative because I think that most members of it are conservative. That may well not be the case. Put simply, because it is not the topic of this entry, I think that corporate interests tend more often to be in line with conservative policy issues, and that the media serves corporate interests, and consequently favors conservativism as a matter of course. I would also put forth, though, as something that is more in line with the topic I am seeking to discuss, that it may simply be the case that the media, whether conceived as an amorphous entity or a collection of individuals, sees the United States on the whole as more conservative than liberal. That seems plausible, and it also seems like it could be an important claim because it doesn’t require dogmatic conviction that the media is slanted in one direction or another. It allows the media to be effectively neutral, while believing that coverage of political issues needs to be geared towards one side of the spectrum in order to gain the attention of the largest portion of the viewing audience.

That is essentially, if simplistically, what I think the last several years of news coverage has suggested. With a bit of analysis, it also demonstrates a potential reason why conservatives believe that the media is biased against them, when in actuality it is more likely biased in favor of them. The nature of that bias is not a statement of agreement or disagreement on matters of opinion. The news should not and, to its credit, rarely does make such uncompromising pronouncements. What it does do is legitimate one set of views over another. In their minds, liberals don’t deserve news coverage, because no matter how many people turn out to demonstrate against the war, they are in the minority. The conservatives who were cheerleading the war, even though not many of them came out to do so visibly – they are the ones who represent the more mainstream American viewpoints.

Now, under a Democratic president, and in the midst of the health care debate, there is a different modus operandi when it comes to addressing protests. That is, they are addressed. And not only that, every protesting view is considered legitimate, no matter how outlandish and vitriolic. Sarah Palin claimed that Obama would create death panels to judge whether people should live or die, and it remains a topic of discussion even to this day. Some conservative politicians are still trying to exploit it for their ends, and everybody else feels as though they have to keep bringing it up and then saying “But it’s not really true.” Then why do we have to keep talking about it? Why was attention being given so long to the “birther movement”? And for the sake of equivalence, why don’t the liberals who follow Alex Jones get the same kind of attention? I suppose that it’s because left-wing conspiracy theories are considered to be absurdly far outside of the mainstream, whereas right-wing conspiracy theories are just fringe movements that raise real concerns relevant to the mainstream political discourse.

But it’s quite easy to understand how this perception leads to the belief that the media hates conservatives. If you have wildly nutty ideas, people with access to the facts will seem to be making fun of you when they undercut your political prejudices with genuine information. But take it as a compliment that you’re not being ignored. There is, apparently, value in your nuttiness. On the other hand, if nobody’s talking about you, nobody’s making fun of you. But don’t lose sight of the fact that nobody’s talking about you – it probably means they don’t consider you important. That, I believe, is the important distinction to make when it comes to assessing the bias of the media. If a news outlet fails to cover the craziness on one side of the aisle, and that coincides with ignoring the moderate views standing beside it, that does not mean the outlet agrees with that camp, and indeed, it may mean the opposite.

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