The real bias of the press is not that it’s liberal. Its bias is a decided preference for the negative. As scholar Michael Robinson noted, the news media seem to have taken some motherly advice and turned it upside down. “If you don’t have anything bad to say about someone, don’t say anything at all.” A New York Times columnist recently asserted that “the internet is distorting our collective grasp on the truth.” There’s a degree of accuracy in that claim but the problem goes beyond the internet and the talk shows. The mainstream press highlights what’s wrong with politics without also telling us what’s right.
The thing is, though, if you accept that, then negative stories are naturally going to accrue about whoever is in power to the favor of those who are not, and I have not seen actual data on that at all. For example a comparison between the number of “negative” stories about a single Bush administration initiative and those about a single Obama administration one during the same phase of the initiative in the same amount of time.
It would be nigh on impossible to make that direct of a comparison, too, given how other factors influence political coverage (wars, natural disasters, etc).
My general sense that — despite the assertion that overall coverage was negative before it was biased — Republican presidents and candidates get the benefit of the doubt and Democratic ones have to prove themselves is only backed up by having lived through four terms of both and OH YEAH BY EVERYTHING ELSE IN THIS REPORT:
Week after week, Trump got more press attention than did Clinton. Overall, Trump received 15 percent more coverage than she did. Trump also had more opportunities to define Clinton than she had to define him. When a candidate was seen in the news talking about Clinton, the voice was typically Trump’s and not hers. Yet when the talk was about Trump, he was again more likely to be the voice behind the message.
Moreover, bias is toward the EASY, not just the negative:
Journalists’ fondness for polls is no great mystery. Polls are a snap to report and provide a constant source of fresh material. Their influence on election news goes beyond the stories that describe the latest poll results. Poll results increasingly frame the content of other stories, as journalists use them to explain shifts in candidate strategy or the impact of the latest development. When the FBI director announced nine days out from the election that a new batch of Clinton emails had been found, the major story line was the likely impact of the revelation on Clinton’s standing in the polls, which was followed in subsequent days by reports of new polls showing that her support was slipping.
Bias is also toward things that are already accepted as truth. As much as we like to pretend journalists are attracted to the new and different, they’re really not. They are attracted to the new WITHIN THE PARAMETERS OF WHAT THEY ALREADY THINK THEY KNOW.
Therefore, Clinton being “historically unpopular” meant her candidacy could be unpopular in new and exciting ways, but could never be truly popular. It was a self-reinforcing thought loop. Clinton is scandal-prone and here’s a new scandal which makes her scandal-prone!
This isn’t bias, even toward the “negative.” (What exactly would positive coverage of Trump look like, by the way? Even people who voted for him acknowledge he’s an asshole. It’s the core of his appeal.) This is laziness and institutional cowardice and a refusal to reconsider and test every fact in a story even if those facts have appeared before without challenge.
This is accepting the journalistic shorthand that says Republicans are strong and Democrats are weak, Clinton is scandal-prone and Trump is novel (Jesus Christ, Joe McCarthy is suing from hell for copyright infringement), and a hundred thousand other assertions that are just as wrong because we’ve all read them over and over and it’s a keyboard macro at this point.
You don’t deal with that, political bias hardly matters.
From the study:
It’s a version of politics that rewards a particular brand of politics. When everything and everybody is portrayed as deeply flawed, there’s no sense making distinctions on that score, which works to the advantage of those who are more deeply flawed. Civility and sound proposals are no longer the stuff of headlines, which instead give voice to those who are skilled in the art of destruction. The car wreck that was the 2016 election had many drivers. Journalists were not alone in the car, but their fingerprints were all over the wheel.