He got into trouble all by himself.

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Press Bias Didn't Get Giuliani

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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We’ve had a terrific demonstration over the last week or so of why the belief in liberal media bias is so strong.

It isn't because of actual liberal media bias. Academic research finds plenty of ways the press gets things wrong, but an ideological slant isn’t one of them. 

Most bias has to do with the industry's norms (stories involving the president get more play than articles about governors, and so on). In some cases, the self-interest of the media plays a role, whether it’s promoting freedom of the press, for example, or building up anyone who might take on Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination as a way to build interest in that snooze fest.

What sustains the belief in liberal bias? It's the go-to explanation among conservatives for almost everything that happens, and has been for at least four decades. Repeat something long enough, without strong opposition, and people will accept it.

So the reaction to the Rudy Giuliani story, in which the former New York mayor claimed Barack Obama didn’t “love” America, invoked howls of media bias from conservatives. Some said it wasn't a story at all -- Giuliani hasn’t been in office for years, so who cares what he says? Isn’t there real news out there? Others were upset that Republican candidates were pressed to agree or disagree with Giuliani -- look, the liberal media is trying to make conservative politicians look stupid!

But we had an almost perfect parallel in the coverage of Howard Dean’s complaint that Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin shouldn’t be president because he didn't graduate from college.

Giuliani left office in 2001, ran for president in 2008, has since been out of active politics but shows up on TV all the time. Dean left office a year after Giuliani did, ran for president in 2004, was Democratic National Committee chairman through 2008, has since been out of active politics but shows up on TV all the time.

Republicans were forced to take a stand on whether Obama loves America; Democrats were pressed to say if they thought a college dropout was unqualified to be president.  

The Giuliani story was bigger only because attacking the president is a bigger deal than attacking one of many Republican presidential candidates, and New York (where much of the national media is based) trumps Vermont.

Both accusations were pretty much denounced by everyone; both sparked predictable partisan bashing and a few interesting reflections.  

But liberals didn’t go crying about conservative media bias in the Dean-Walker case because they don’t see every news story as an example of prejudice against them. Conservatives do.

For example, they screamed that the media ignored the scandal ending the career of Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon, but as Philip Bump explained, this too was caused by ordinary press norms, not ideological bias. Kitzhaber’s scandals were undercovered (at least in the national media) compared with those of Republican Chris Christie because Christie is running for president and he’s a governor in the New York area. Think about it. The press hardly ignored scandals costing Democratic Governors Rod Blagojevich or Eliot Spitzer their jobs. It's just that Democrats never interpreted those firestorms as examples of Republican media bias.

There’s nothing wrong with pointing out when news coverage is wrong or wrong-headed. But ideology isn't at the root of those mistakes and biases. 

  1. Links to a discussion of this and some abstracts can be found here. As Brendan Nyhan notes, it’s difficult to find a baseline for “bias.” Generally, the media treats mainstream opinion in most cases as correct. That can be good for liberals (as when environmentalism is portrayed as a positive), but can also be good for conservatives (as when capitalism is perceived as "working," compared with socialism). And of course I’m talking here about the “neutral” media, not ideological outlets such as Fox News or MSNBC.

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