September 25, 2013

Republicans were quick to complain that the press didn’t sufficiently cover Ted Cruz’s speech — specifically claiming that the Wendy Davis filibuster in Texas received more and more favorable coverage.

The only problem? As far as more coverage is concerned, it simply wasn’t true, as both Philip Bump and Jason Linkins document in detail. Turns out it wasn’t close; whether it was live coverage on the cable news networks or newspaper coverage, Cruz was treated as a major story while Davis, well, wasn’t.

It gets worse. Politico media critic Dylan Byers focused more on the tone of the coverage, and took the side of conservatives, concluding that “part of the disparity in coverage is due to the fact that the mainstream media, generally speaking, don’t admire Cruz the way they admired Davis.”

Two problems with this. One is that most of the items Byers cites are from editorials or other places where we would expect opinions, including partisan opinions; it’s hardly interesting that liberal bloggers like Davis more than they like Cruz, or some sort of sign or improper “bias.” Most of us, when we’re concerned about media bias, care about whether the “neutral” press favors one party in their reporting, not what opinion-meisters say.

But what’s worse is that Byers brings up the criticisms of Cruz’s speech — including accusations that his tactics are aimless, counter-productive, and will hurt fellow Republicans – and then concludes:

These portrayals may be accurate or inaccurate — Cruz certainly has an elitist strain and he certainly has political ambitions. But that’s not the point: The point is that the coverage of Cruz has been critical, and in some cases unforgiving, from the outset.

Huh? If the portrayals were accurate, and resulted in a negative picture of Cruz, what’s wrong with reporting them? No, straight news reporting shouldn’t base coverage of a speech on whether the reporter supports abortion rights or the Affordable Care Act. But the criticisms weren’t about that. Critics complained that Cruz’s speech was irrelevant to the parliamentary situation (unlike, say, filibusters by Davis and Rand Paul); that Cruz’s larger strategy was a doomed effort that had no chance to achieve his supposed policy objective but could produce a destructive government shutdown; and that by yesterday afternoon, even that shutdown strategy was largely in ruins, leaving only personal advancement as a real reason for Cruz’s speech. Whether those criticisms were accurate or inaccurate is front and central, it seems to me, in how reporters should have covered Cruz’s speech.

Nor does the comparison to Davis make much sense substantively. As Steve Benen notes: “Davis succeeded in blocking progress on a measure she opposed; Cruz isn’t actually having any kind of legislative impact whatsoever.”

In fact, the real reason why Cruz is getting lousy press is because of two other press biases, neither having anything to do with Obamacare or reporter partisanship. One is that there are policy biases allowed to “neutral” reporters, and one of those is a bias against government shutdowns, which are invariably covered as bad things. The other is how the press evaluates party politicians: if there’s significant opposition within their own party (along with total opposition from the other party), as in the case of Cruz, the press feels free to treat that politician relatively badly. Indeed, we just saw that with Larry Summers, who got terrible press for similar reasons.

But it doesn’t help him that the accusations about his faux-libuster were largely correct. If the press was trying to correctly convey what he was up to, that meant that, yes, Cruz would look bad. That’s not media bias; that’s reporting.