August 5, 2013

It’s August, Congress is gone, and it’s time for the silly season — which gets off to a fun start with a new Republican National Committee threat against NBC and CNN. It seems that unless NBC drops plans for a miniseries on Hillary Clinton, and CNN drops plans to air a documentary about the former Secretary of State, the RNC is threatening to boycott those networks in 2016 primary debates.

Now, never mind that, whatever the merits or lack thereof of a miniseries about a prospective presidential candidate, it’s pretty amazing that Republicans would object to news coverage of Clinton on CNN. Which is exactly what they’re doing here. Also, never mind that in reality it’s almost certainly a bluff. Parties don’t partner with TV networks for primary debates as a favor to the networks; they do it because they want exposure for their candidates.

What’s really going on?

One thing is that this is simply about working the refs. Start complaining long and hard about bias in the unaffiliated press, and maybe you can get better coverage for your team and worse for the opposition.

But mostly, I think this is just the old, old, old, standby: when in doubt, always bash the neutral media. That’s been a Republican play ever since (at least) the days of Spiro Agnew, and it’s one of the most successful examples of opinion leadership around. Virtually every Republican is absolutely certain that CNN, CBS the New York Times, and the Washington Post are massively biased against them.

Now, as it turns out, the evidence here is that media bias is very real — but it’s not partisan bias. Instead, there’s a mixture of incentives (mostly for what sells) and the effects of “neutral” journalism standards, which create all sorts of biased results. For example: Brendan Nyhan found that the initial reports of the IRS scandal were covered much more heavily than later coverage which found that there was less of a scandal then originally thought. But that’s not because the press was trying to help Republicans, even though it presumably had that effect; it’s because new things are considered more newsworthy than older things; revelations are more newsworthy than clarifications.

At any rate: people love accusations that the press is biased against them; it’s a proven fund raiser and morale booster. No wonder Republicans have been at it for over 40 years!

But the specifics of whether the press is biased against Republicans aside, it’s not a good idea for the GOP to threaten not to deal with the unaffiliated press. After all, that risks sending them deeper into their closed information feedback loop, in which Republicans only hear the partisan version of the news supplied by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. That’s a problem because politicians who only listen to rhetoric from their side can easily lose track of reality — including such basics as which ideas are popular among swing voters, how Obamacare really works, or whether the deficit is getting larger or smaller.

This is a problem for campaigning — or, as David Plouffe says: “Better RNC debate plan. Held in hermetically sealed Fox studio.” But it’s also a problem for governing.

Again, this is mostly just a silly season story designed to generate a quick headline during what will probably be a dead news week. But it’s a good reminder that Republicans should be doing all they can to break up that information loop — not using the RNC to seal it tighter.