Organizations such as Bozell's Media Research Center, David Brock's Media Matters, and scores of partisan outlets on both sides that back them up, are devoted almost entirely to attacking the press. Those on the right are so practiced at citing liberal media bias that they've assigned it an abbreviation: LMB. Left-wingers, meanwhile, complain about a timid, corporate media that helped Bush get reelected and led the nation to war in Iraq. The attacks help to explain why 45 percent of Americans now say they can believe little or nothing of what they read in the papers, compared to just 16 percent two decades ago.
But declines in news viewership and readership have more to do with changing habits and technology than with accusations of bias. "That's dictated by lifestyle," says Andrew Kohut, the Pew Research Center's director. "It's not a product of declining credibility of the media. Having observed it for a long time, I just don't see any correlation." Indeed, in a recent Pew poll, those most likely to complain about newspaper bias (and presumably the ones who would turn away from the mainstream press) were the most faithful readers.
Dana Milbank will be online Monday, March 21, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss this article.
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This is not to say claims of bias are groundless. Reporters aren't machines, and some prejudice inevitably finds its way into print or on the airwaves. But our dominant bias is skepticism of whoever is in power. Don't just take it from me, though. In a candid admission, former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer writes in his new book: "Many Republicans, especially conservatives, believe the press are liberals who oppose Republicans and Republican ideas. I think there's an element of truth to that, but it is complicated, secondary, and often nuanced. More important, the press's first and most pressing bias is in favor of conflict and fighting . . . No one can claim with a straight face that the White House press corps were easy on former President Bill Clinton."
Regardless of the merits, the pervasive accusations of bias are making it increasingly difficult for the traditional media to play their role of gathering and reporting facts. The danger in this situation became evident in the exit polls from November's elections. These polls are one of the most valuable tools for understanding the American electorate, but they were made unreliable because some conservatives were so distrustful of the media that they declined to answer questions from media-sponsored pollsters; this, in the view of some experts, may explain why early exit polls forecast a victory for John Kerry.
The Bush administration has exploited the fragmentation. The president avoids the media "filter" -- as his aides like to call it -- by holding few news conferences and granting more interviews to conservative talk show hosts, local news stations and specialty publications less likely to ask tough questions. Officials also routinely disparage mainstream media efforts to hold them to account. In a presidential debate last year, after Kerry cited a news report, Bush retorted: "In all due respect, I'm not so sure it's credible to quote leading news organizations."
This is no coincidence. Look at Page 77 of the Defense Science Board's 2004 study titled "Transition to and from Hostilities." The Pentagon advisory board writes: "Today, political struggles are about the creation and destruction of credibility." The board was writing about foreign propaganda, but the lesson applies at home, too. In the past, the key to winning in politics was to control the information. Now, when information has no controls, the key is making your information credible and casting doubt on other information -- such as that found in the mainstream press.
Ultimately, it's not good for anybody, even partisans, to get into a postmodern morass where there are no such things as facts, only competing perceptions of reality. Would liberals really favor the absence of a press that calls into questions the Bush administration's claims about Iraq's weapons and ties to al Qaeda? Would conservatives really favor the absence of a press that brought the Clinton scandals to light?
The Republican National Committee cited The Washington Post to refute Kerry's claim that his vote to authorize force in Iraq was not really a vote for war. More recently, the RNC cited The Post to show that Democratic leaders were at odds with Democratic voters on Social Security. The Democratic National Committee, in turn, cited Post reporting to highlight Bush budget cuts that the administration played down. Partisans love to complain about bias when the facts are against them, but pleased to cite the mainstream media when the facts are in their favor.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism asserts that, at a time of media fragmentation, the traditional press's truth telling is more important than ever. "In this new world, we continue to believe journalism is not becoming irrelevant," the new report argues. "The need to know what is true is all the greater, but discerning and communicating it is more difficult." But we're up against some short-sighted partisans who would prefer to do away with this truth-telling role.
Stephen Hayes of the conservative Weekly Standard protested in a November article that during the campaign, "journalists at the New York Times and the Washington Post and the television networks saw themselves not as conveyors of facts but as truth-squadders, toiling away on the gray margins of the political debate." These journalists, he continued, "fancy themselves thinkers, not mere scribes. They go to work every day to tell us not what the Bush administration has said, but what it has left unsaid."
Imagine that! An independent press looking for the truth rather than serving as stenographers for the powerful. It's a quaint tradition Americans would be wise not to abandon.