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July 12, 2002

More on Bush and Media Bias

The whole issue of media bias is the meta-story of the Enron-WorldCom affair for many on the left. Will the media hold Bush to the same ethical witchhunt style reporting as they did Clinton during the Lewinsky affair? I've made similar comments myself such as here. But I just don't really buy the whole media bias theory-- I mean the media is biased in all sorts of ways, its anti-union stance reflecting its corporate bosses who have been some of the worst union busters of recent decades. But that's an issue bias that may matter for what issues get prominence in the media, not a bias against particular individuals. Between culturally liberal reporters and corporate conservative bosses, any clear partisan bias is a bit of a wash.

Charges of media bias are often a politically lazy excuse not to understand the more systemic tactical problems around an issue. The two strongest biases of the media are the laziness of reporters and the drive for ratings. I've done a lot of media work around progressive campaigns and a lot of left whining about the media just reflects poor media tactics by the left. ACT-UP in its heyday understood media completely and with the right tactics could get coverage for anything they wanted.

So laziness and ratings are why sex stories are popular-- they're easy to write and guaranteed to please. As opposed to reporters having to themselves dig through SEC documents and, worse, explain them to their readers and viewers. Whitewater was a pretty simple land deal and the Right couldn't really get the media to do much without the faint hint of murder, whether Vince Foster's or the litany of the Clinton Chronicles, wafting in the background. I cited John Stewart's brilliant humor around the scandals and Tim Francis-Wright of BearLeft noted:

Jon Stewart also had the best summation of WorldCom and other corporate wrongdoers: after a monotone synopsis of WorldCom's accounting fraud, he intoned, "Yes, it's boring. That's how they get away with it."
But there is a deeper ratings reason for why the media may investigate the personal failings of Democrats more than Republicans. And the bias is in the audience and reflects some general differences between the grassroots of the two parties. Dems either don't care about such personal failings or want to hear about the failings in both party's leaders, while many grassroots Republicans see character as a much more partisan issue-- and care about "character stories" more than Democrats and obviously would rather hear about a Democrat's failings than one of their own. So the audience is systematically biased in favor of hearing about Democratic leader's character failings. Democrats will tune in (or tune out) for scandal stories covering either party's leaders, while GOP audiences are much more likely to tune in for a Democratc scandal story. Thus the ratings reason for the bias.

Let me restate the political reason for this bias to make it more obvious. Ask the average progressive voter whether they think Democratic leaders with a business past were more or less ethical than their Republican counterparts. I think most progressives would say there isn't much difference, but vote Democrat (if they aren't off voting for Nader because of disgust with both parties) because of the candidate's publc policy positions, not their personal ethics. But ask a Republican and many will say that they think their candidates are systematically more honest and ethical than their Democratic counterparts. Many mainstream Republicans, who don't necessarily believe in ripping off the poor to give tax cuts to the rich, sign up with the GOP despite some distrust of the corporate agenda because of their perceived fears of corrupt and unethical Democrats. GOP operatives feed these fears as a campaign tactic, but the reverse strategy doesn't necessarily work as well for the Dems, since their voters aren't held to the party by fear of the perceived personal failings of GOP leaders.

But that last point is why I don't worry that much if Bush's character is not dragged through the mud as much as Clinton's was during Whitewater et al. The Enron-WorldCom nexus of stories is not about personal failings; it's about systematic failures of our economic system and why deregulation was a bad thing. If Bush did the things he did because he was a bad person, that would, ironically, support his own policy prescriptions that we just need more ethical exhortations and to hunt down the "bad apples." But the fact that Bush may be as ethical as the next guy, maybe even more so, yet was involved in a business doing dirty dealings similar to Enron and WorldCom just shows that good character is not the issue. It's the public policy, stupid! Which is the Democratic spin on the issue in the first place.

There is an urge on the left to "get Bush" in the same way the right "got Clinton." Aside from the fact that they really didn't get Clinton, (and lost a couple of Speakers of the House in the process), a tactic that worked for the GOP won't necessarily work for progressives in a mirror image way. Saying that politicians are corrupt doesn't serve an agenda of promoting public policy regulation, since if polticians are corrupt, then who can trust government to clean up the mess? We could lose by winning if we just pound on the idea that "their guys" are corrupt too. And at a deep level, I think progressive voters (outside the super-partisan circles) know that and are therefore less interested in hearing about Bush's personal failings and far more interested in hearing about his policy failings.

That is my populist instinct in analyzing things like "media bias"-- don't look for the conspiracy; look for the signal of the mind of grassroots audiences that may be more savvy than the politicos trying to spin the issue based on yesterday's playbook.

Posted by Nathan at July 12, 2002 02:19 AM

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This is perhaps one of the most mind-boggling statements I've ever read: "There is an urge on the left to "get Bush" in the same way the right "got Clinton." Aside from the fact that they really didn't get Clinton, (and lost a couple of Speakers of the House in the process), a tactic that worked for the GOP won't necessarily work for progressives in a mirror image way. "

Didn't 'get' Clinton? Without the myriad of BS manufactured scandals, BC leaves office with PERSONAL AND job approval ratings at 80+, thereby crushing the myth of st ronnie as savior and gop symbol of how the country should be run. Gore is elected handily. BC campaigns for Gore and becomes the greatest Democratic fundraising draw for the party in history. His image is used for party propoganda like the pictures of st ronnie were used in GOP electioneering. Airports are named for him. St ronnie is dead forever in the minds of voters, and the Clinton years are viewed in hazy nostalgia as the years of record prosperity, progress and peace.

The manufactured crap that was swallowed whole by the populace was designed to form a negative psychological association in the voters mind with anything 'Clinton'. Not to mention derailing the mostly moderate Clinton agenda by focusing on damage control instead of positive works. And it worked. Even among true-believers...who amongst us didn't overhear a news program and wonder, "Oh God, what did he do now?"

The gop may have lost two speakers, but that's like an anthill losing two ants to protect the nest...insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

They 'got' Clinton all right, and the Dems never understand or appreciate why they did so. Suppose that they used all of their zeal and resources to go after Reagan/Bush in a similar fashion. St sluggo leaves office discredited, Bush loses or is so slurred by Iran/Contra he certainly can't go waltzing across the country represeting 'honor and dignity' on behalf of his son or his party. He hides in Texas like Nixon in CA.

You might be right insofar as it may not matter to progressives. They don't understand the need for party symbolism and myth making. They are all too willing to criticise their own. They are above 'petty' things and as a result are seen as elitist, or worse, candy-asses with no balls to fight. Their superiority is soooo obvious, it's self-evident...right?


Posted by: jdw at July 11, 2002 11:04 PM

1) If "Whitewater was a pretty simple land deal," then how complex was Bush's failure to fulfill his National Guard duty? http://www.awolbush.com/

2) One possible area of agreement: I agree that Dems don't seem to care about these scandals, if Dems are defined as our leaders, people who are responsive to the criticisms of academics and the NYT Editorial Page. And as a consequence, the Dems do not build institutions designed to promulgate stories of sin; see these 2 articles responding to John Harris' famous piece of last May (that I cannot find an active link to): http://slate.msn.com/default.aspx?id=1007647 (JOsh Marshall) and http://slate.msn.com/default.aspx?id=1007647 (Dan Kennedy).

But that Dems -- or more importantly, swing voters -- don't care? I hate to go all Mo Dowd here, but -- reality TV? Tabloid tv and mags? People, EW. . . .

And how salcious does one's interests have to be to react under the following scenario: you are not from the plutocracy, you know people who went to Vietnam, know that Bush and his father supported the war, and then you find out that Bush went AWOL from **the NATIONAL GUARD** and that his behavior went unpunished and did not elicit an apology?

Posted by: Jeff at July 12, 2002 08:18 AM

As I'll note in a full entry, they didn't get Clinton-- he left office with the highest approval of any President of modern history. But the reasons Clinton never would have had the worship of a Reagan is that his own party partisans were pissed at him for many reasons - welfare reform and NAFTA as big ones -- so he didn't have the Grover Norquist style worship base.

And Jeff misses my point somewhat-- it's not that progressive voters at the grassroots are uninterested in scandal, in the Jerry Springer entertainment way, but they don't care about it as a public policy issue or in a partisan manner. The GOP grassroots do pay attention in a more partisan manner, so a Dem scandal has a more bipartisan audience- thus better for ratings.

Neither Whitewater nor Harken will ever make "America's Most Wanted"-- the editorial pages and the 24-hour news shows involved in political attack journalism appeal to a specific policy-oriented subset of the grassroots. And it is that group that drives coverage.

And I frankly think that speaks well of the Dem grassroots that they are more passionate about policy scandals than personal issues. That's what progressive politics is about-- the idea that public policy is more than the personal failings of individuals. We are better than the sum or our parts.

Posted by: Nathan at July 12, 2002 09:01 AM

"As I'll note in a full entry, they didn't get Clinton-- he left office with the highest approval of any President of modern history."

This is always noted by Clinton supporters. What isn't noted is that his personal approval level was just above Nixon's, and that personal approval counts. Do you think that they'll be an airport named for BC, or a school? My guess is that you think this is unimportant..

This is the SOLE reason why it was necessary to continue sliming BC even as he left office(pardons, AF1, White House vandalism). It wasn't his high job approval that kept him from stumping for Gore, or why he is unable to campaign today for most Congressional seats in 2002.

To make matters worse, Dem politicians saw no need to defend him when this came down. The thought was, 'he's gone, why stick my next out?'..or, 'people will see through this BS'....which again points out that they are clueless in realizing that there are long term reasons why it was important to do so.

"But the reasons Clinton never would have had the worship of a Reagan is that his own party partisans were pissed at him for many reasons - welfare reform and NAFTA as big ones -- so he didn't have the Grover Norquist style worship base."

Bunk! There are many Dems that aren't afraid to associate w/BC and it is to their benefit. Did ya see the support in Harlem when he opened his office there? Where were all the anti-BC folks from the base bitching about Welfare Reform and NAFTA?

The people most bothered by the above votes are elites. They are the ones that will go rooting for any evidence that nafta is a failure because they were convinced beforehand that it would be. Ditto w/welfare reform.

Elites don't take into account the necessity of pride in party. That's why they are willing to pick at scabs without seeing the big picture or provide balance. That's why they don't connect with the common man, they are 'above' us. That's why they use derisive terms like 'worship base'.

Posted by: jdw at July 12, 2002 09:39 AM

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