The Broken Media
The media has a massive anti-Democratic bias.
CNN ran an interesting 9 November 2022 piece that—ironically enough—identifies a media disease that CNN itself exemplifies. The piece quotes Norman Ornstein on why the media’s predictions—regarding the 2022 US elections—were so wrong:
Norman Ornstein, emeritus scholar at the center-right American Enterprise Institute, suggested that a few factors were at play. Chief among them, a reliance on bad polls (i.e. InsiderAdvantage and Rasmussen), a herd mentality that swept the press, and the tendency to treat this election like midterms of the past when other significant issues (like democracy and abortion) were at play.
But Ornstein also warned of a “more troubling” factor that he believed impacted coverage. “There are so many in the mainstream press that are just fearful to a remarkable degree of being branded as having a liberal bias. And what we see is that the reaction to that is to bend over quadruply backwards to show there is no bias.”
In other words, Ornstein argued, mainstream journalists went along with a red wave narrative because it showed that they were being tough on Democrats. “This business of both-sidesism to show that there is no bias gives us another kind of bias,” he said.
“You put all of that together and it is a s–t show,” Ornstein said.
Ornstein is absolutely correct that the “‘business of both-sidesism to show that there is no bias gives us another kind of bias’”.
Noam Chomsky discusses the media’s bias in a 7 November 2022 Truthout piece. He cites two pieces to support the notion that profits are a major part of the inflation story—a 22 September 2022 piece from Josh Bivens and a 2 November 2022 piece from Tobias Burns. The two pieces share facts—about profits—that “suggest some measures that could be taken to tame the inflationary beast”.
But the Fed “has a different proposal”, which is to increase interest rates—in other words, increase unemployment. And “general reporting indicates” that this “choice has ample media support”. Chomsky cites—to illustrate the media’s approach—a 3 November 2022 Common Dreams piece about the 2 November press conference with Fed chair Jerome Powell. The piece says that “‘not a single reporter asked about the extent to which record-high corporate profits are fueling inflation even as companies openly boast about their pricing power’”—there’s a media bias toward letting “working people bear the burden”.
Chomsky cites two pieces—a 23 October 2022 piece from Dean Baker and a 4 November 2022 piece from David Badash—that point out various positive aspects of the Biden economy. Baker has been reporting “regularly on the way the liberal media have been constructing a version of the economy that reinforces the ‘blame Biden’ message”—Chomsky says the following about the media and the Biden economy:
Refracted through the “information system,” facts do not change perceptions. Nor does the longer record, which reveals that Democrats overall have a far better record on the economy than the GOP.
True to form, the New York Times lead story on the jobs report portrayed it as more trouble. The report opened by lamenting that “Job growth remained stubbornly robust in October despite higher interest rates, defying policymakers’ efforts to dampen the labor market and curb the fastest inflation in generations.” The problems are still deeper: “American workers are still seeing rapid wage gains, a sign that a strong labor market is giving them the ability to push for better pay—potentially worrying news for the Federal Reserve.”
The distortions are systematic, Baker has shown. It’s understandable that people should be more aware of the prices flashed before their eyes than of statistics on real wage growth. It’s not the proper task of the media to reinforce these misperceptions.
It’s definitely disturbing when the media refracts the facts so that “facts do not change perceptions”. And when the “distortions are systematic”.
The Media’s Diseases
Horse-race coverage isn’t about “informing voters so they can make decisions in their best interests at the ballot box”. And is—instead—a form of coverage that “takes space and resources away from the kinds of substantive coverage that would be actually useful”, “obscures the most important issues with its endless guessing games”, “works to shield politicians from accountability”, and substitutes “fortunetelling for substantive reporting”.
Horse-race coverage “generates clicks from anxious election watchers without risking charges of bias”. In contrast, “seriously talking about the issues would almost inevitably expose how far candidates are from truly representing most people’s interests—and some more so than others”.
And Ari Paul makes—in another 10 November 2022 piece—the following three observations: fearmongering “about crime in Democratic states and cities” was “central to the Republican Party’s midterm elections strategy”; “the Republican obsession with crime received major attention in the media”; and “the subject was not always handled with the proper context, often tipping the balance to the conservative partisan narrative”.
Regarding crime, shocking “images and details of incidents often overshadow facts, data and history”. And partisans “can quickly capitalize on that emotional simplicity, crafting narratives that fit their aims—a phenomenon that responsible journalists should try to counteract rather than facilitate”.
Baker says—in a 10 November 2022 tweet—that if the people who do election coverage at CNN “were as accountable for the quality of their work, as dishwashers and custodians, they would be looking for jobs right now”.
It would be interesting to find out how many positive stories the NYT ran about the Democrats—or their electoral chances—in the week before the election. You can see potential anti-Democratic bias in the 5 November 2022 NYT headline “Biden and Obama Reunite in a Last-Ditch Effort to Save Their Party”—you can also see potential anti-Democratic bias if you look at the stories on the NYT’s 7 November 2022 front page, which says “Party’s Outlook Bleak” and “Democrats Brace for Losses”.
I wonder what substantive coverage would look like—what would coverage look like if we implemented a solution to the journalism crisis? Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols have a solution—the Local Journalism Initiative—that they argue for in an interesting 25 January 2022 paper. Baker also has a solution—you can read about it in his free 2016 book Rigged.
We live in dark times—there are many threats. There are ways to create a good media system—I hope that we change things soon.