A Rare Re-Post: The Real Media Bias

I usually link to my old posts instead of reblogging them… but this one’s important enough that I want to have it saved here if LiveJournal ever goes down.  Plus, with all the debates I’m currently entangled with in my conservative friends, I wanted to have this in prominently.

The news posts this refers to are old, but the theories are valid.  The conservatives will cry that the media is clearly biased towards Obama, and the liberals cry that it’s biased towards Republican ideals.  Neither are true.  Let me explain why…. again, with the understanding that there was a time in the media when Bush got away with all sorts of things, and then later a time when Bush could do no right.  And that wasn’t just what the people wanted – it was Bush and Cheney and Rove playing the media expertly until it backfired.  But Republicans often win because they have a better narrative going, and the smart ones know this.

Unfortunately, Romney doesn’t know how to play that game well.  He’s got the rich guy’s handicap in place, where he seems overly stunned by every mean thing that gets said about him.  G’wan, ask Kerry about that.

Anyway, original post:


“We noticed that people couldn’t play [The Sims] without attaching a story to what they were seeing.
This seems to be a natural way in which humans understand, remember, and communicate experiences.”
– Will Wright, on The Sims

Most of us will agree that the media is clearly biased. The problem is, we can’t agree which way it’s biased. Ask a conservative, and she’ll tell you how the media never puts the UN Blood-for-Oil scandals on the front page, thus proving that the media is hopelessly lefty; ask a liberal, and you’ll hear the tales of how the WMD evidence was shoved under the carpet until after the invasion and Fox News Fox News Fox News.

The problem is, I think both sides are wrong. The media is not slanted towards the left or the right; it’s slanted towards stories.

The media focuses heavily on news items that they can create a compelling narrative out of. The most basic screenwriting book will tell you the classic ways to create a plot, and they’re pretty simple: You need a good guy. You need a bad guy, or at the very least an obstacle that will serve as a bad guy. And you need to put the good guy in a place where things will be changing shortly, so you can root for the good guy (or maybe, in some circumstances, the bad guy).

Those are the kinds of stories that get major media attention. Thus, the sketchy WMD was pretty much ignored while the war was ramping up, because we had a good guy – George Bush, who positioned himself as the avenger of 9/11 – a clear-cut bad guy (Saddam), and an exciting new outcome shortly down the road.

Everything else, including the factual basis of the evidence, was simply not important to the media because it detracted from the story they wanted to tell. They related it on the back pages, because the media usually report the facts… But the facts they highlighted as “important” were always the ones that fit the ongoing story, and the front-page news is the only thing that most Americans are aware of anyway.

But just about at the time we were invading, we had the Blood-for-Oil scandal that made the UN seem horrifically greedy and amoral… But there was no clear bad guy. Like most scandals, there was no single person to point a finger at and say, “He did it!” Furthermore, the Blood-for-Oil scandal wasn’t a slam-dunk homer that would shake up the UN and get people fired, so it wasn’t like there was going to be any change in the near future. Why headline it if nothing new and exciting is going to happen in the new week?

Thus, the scandal wasn’t really a story so much as it was, well… News.

Right now, both sides are unhappy by the media’s coverage of Iraq, and that’s because Iraq isn’t really a story. It’s a problem.

The liberals are upset because the daily casualties and carnage aren’t making front-page news any more, but that’s because a story has to have a clear resolution somewhere in sight. The violence in Iraq has been going on for a long time and doesn’t look likely to change – so unless there’s some dramatic violence that promises to cause an immediate change in either US or Iraqi positions, it’s not front-page news.

The conservatives are upset because the good things that are happening in Iraq aren’t being reported… But again, we have the issue of dramatic change. Nothing good has happened enough to shake things up – which is further compounded by the fact that there’s no Good Guy in Iraq any more. Bush has freed Iraq, but now he has a vested interest in making Iraq look good… So he can no longer be the untarnished Good Guy when it comes to Iraq. Right now, the media is looking for someone in Iraq to serve as Iraq’s Good Guy – someone we can cheer on as they win or lose. Until that happens (and Iraq’s designated Good Guy starts to win), nothing good will make front-page news in Iraq.

And both sides get hosed because all the major outlets are looking for some story to hang off of Iraq – some of which will piss off the lefties and some that will piss off the righties. If we’re losing in Iraq, that’s a clear story with a Good Guy (America) who’s losing… But we’re not really losing so much as not winning, so we can’t say that. Likewise, much of Iraq’s still a violent mess and it’s not clear that they will have elections, so the conservative story – we’re winning! – gets no foothold, either.

The problem with story-based news is that it leaves out a lot of stuff that’s important but has no clear place in a narrative. The ongoing Social Security costs (and whether we can sustain it) is one of the more critical issues in American politics… But it’s not important because there’s no Good Guy to attach to it, and any change that happens to it will be slow and incremental. Likewise, the various Halliburton scandals can’t be clearly tied to Cheney, thus robbing us of a Bad Guy to hang the story off of.

(But believe you me, if Cheney is tied to any of the scandals, the lead prosecutor/investigator will become a Good Guy if he shows the slightest friendliness to the press corps.)

Thus, the media does not provide facts, but rather attempts at providing some bastardized movie-of-the-week complete with likable characters and a foregone conclusion. Yet their plots tend to be short-sighted and rapidly-changing because they’re constantly making wrong assumptions about how this plot should go, missing it, then reframing the story in a new narrative.

Don’t believe me? Well, what’s the media seem to think is the most important thing about the Presidential race? Is it what policies the two men have? Is it about how likely it is that either of them will carry out their campaign promises? Is it about the issues that face the nation?

No. It’s all about who’s winning the race, and why. “Who’s ahead” is what makes the headlines. And “who’s ahead” is, from a factual and social perspective, the least important thing about the Presidential race… But the other bits don’t make for a good story.

Instead, we have two men fighting. One will win. Who triumphs?

Film at eleven. Actual facts much later.

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