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Catch of the Day: Real Media Bias

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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A Catch to Norm Ornstein, who explains a case of media bias that's helping Republican Senate candidates Joni Ernst in Iowa and Tom Cotton in Arkansas.

This isn't an instance of the "neutral" press preferring Republicans and slanting its reporting to match that partisan preference. Instead, it's about how the press settled on a theme about the 2014 elections early on, then interpreted what has happened since through that lens:

The most common press narrative for elections this year is to contrast them with the 2010 and 2012 campaigns. Back then, the GOP "establishment" lost control of its nominating process, ended up with a group of extreme Senate candidates who said wacky things -- Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Sharron Angle -- and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in races that should have been slam dunks. Now the opposite has happened: The establishment has fought back and won, vanquishing the Tea Party and picking top-flight candidates who are disciplined and mainstream, dramatically unlike Akin and Angle.

As Ornstein notes, any "evidence to the contrary" of this narrative "tends to be downplayed or ignored," while stories that show the "personal gaffes or bonehead moves" by the candidates' opponents are played up. Thus, for example, when Democratic speakers such as Michelle Obama mispronounced the name of Ernst's opponent, Bruce Braley, the story is played up, while Ernst's conspiracy theories on sinister United Nations plots get less traction.

This is yet another example of how the broadcast networks, CNN and the news pages of national newspapers can produce biased results even when they have no partisan or ideological motives in doing so. In this case, it's about telling a consistent story (one that, as Ed Kilgore notes, they adopted early in the 2014 cycle). Perhaps the best example was in the 2000 presidential campaign, when the media decided that Al Gore was a liar and George W. Bush was stupid, and interpreted everything they said through that lens. It isn't as if the press couldn't point to examples to back up their preconceptions. It is just that it yielded a distorted picture of the candidates and the campaign.

Yes, Republicans and conservatives are convinced that the media has a liberal bias. The "neutral" press does have biases - but they are more for sensational stories, for individual-level explanations over institutional ones, for bad news over good. So partisans on both sides have plenty of ammunition. For example: A Democrat convinced the news media was biased for Republicans might note how the media had hyped the Ebola threat and relatively minor government errors in handling it just weeks before the elections, then played down the government's success at keeping the disease from spreading (or, in some cases, still hyped the view that the policies were a disaster). Again, this impression is far better explained by reporters' tendency to sensationalize than by any supposed conservative bias.

The bottom line is that while media bias frequently produces liberal or conservative results in newspaper, online and broadcast stories, the biases themselves aren't liberal or conservative. They have to do with what sells, or with the incentives of individual reporters and editors, or simply with the way that news-gathering and publishing are organized. And in the case of the Senate races in Iowa and Arkansas this year, that means leaving voters misinformed about the candidates.

So: Nice catch!

  1. Yes, it's absolutely true that reporters tend to be liberals in their personal politics -- and that most media outlets are owned by large corporations that tend to be conservative. Neither, scholars find turns out to be important in influencing news coverage. For much more on media bias, see the links in this old Monkey Cage post.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net