Saturday, August 13, 2016

Today in journalism: Campaigns and biases

Since it's well and truly BIAS ALERT season over at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network, let's set the controls for this day in 1988, with the Washington Post explaining why a reporter is leaving the crosstown competition.

Long story short, the WashTimes had been lusting for some time after a story that would say Michael Dukakis (the Democratic nominee, in case he's slipped your mind) had undergone psychiatric treatment. Having finally found someone who would go so far as "it's possible, but I doubt it," the national desk put "it's possible" on the front and "I doubt it" somewhere after the jump. Surprised to find a made-up story under their bylines, both reporters on the story then quit (at the time of the hed above, one hadn't decided).*

As Walter Lippmann put it many years ago, "for the most part, we do not see first and then define; we define first and then see." The party press doesn't always, or necessarily often, make its news up (though if you read a lot of Fox, you can be forgiven for wondering why the stories so frequently fall short of the headlines). It sees the same events but, having defined the stage and players differently, sees a different world -- one in which "I doubt it" means "STOP THE PRESS!"

Hence "Bias Alert," a quadrennial Fox feature meant to remind the faithful that (a) all they hold dear is at every moment in existential peril and (b) their cries for help will be ignored by a corrupt media. This year's version started at midweek, "Media attempts to justify continued Trump bashing" and "Media confess to Trump bashing, try to justify it" at top left, by Fox media critic Howard Kurtz:

The media’s legions of Trump-bashers are finally acknowledging the obvious.

And trying their best to justify it.

But there’s one problem: Tilting against one candidate in a presidential election can’t be justified.

Um, bit of an issue with that. Here's the top story from that afternoon:


 ... which looks like a classic Fox story, except that it had the misfortune of calling forth this commentary the following day from someone at Fox who appears to have gone to law school:

The parents of two Americans killed in the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, filed a lawsuit against Hillary Clinton claiming, among other things, wrongful death and defamation.

From a purely legal standpoint, a roll of toilet paper has more value.

Next it fell to pantwetter-general Todd Starnes to take the libruls to task, regarding the Republican candidate's comments in Wilmington:

The Mainstream Media and Democrats have gone bat-crap crazy over Donald Trump.

This time they’re accusing Mr. Trump of threatening to assassinate Mrs. Bill Clinton.

Odd,  that's what a lot of the world heard as well -- including (and this had to hurt) Fox media critic Howard Kurtz!

Donald Trump has talked himself into big trouble—and this time it’s not the fault of what he calls the “dishonest media.”

Even the most generous interpretation of his comments about Hillary Clinton and gun rights activists makes clear that he has again plunged the campaign into a debate over whether he violated the acceptable bounds of political speech.

"Tilting against one candidate," in other words, is sort of the first order of business at Fox, even if someone else at Fox has to call out your fundamental incompetence before the ink is dry on the day's marching orders. The party press defines and then sees: A specious lawsuit against CROOKID HILLARY is a top story because, well, CROOKID HILLARY, and a dog-whistle about the coming revolution is good clean fun because, well, liberals hate guns anyway.

Hence, this year's take on BIAS ALERT! The party press isn't comfortable with the idea that there might be some fundamental difference between the campaigns of (a) a second-rate real-estate hustler turned reality TV star and (b) a neoconservative technocrat with acceptable levels of legislative and executive experience. Do as you will in the voting booth, but if your starting point is that those two are the same thing, you might want to work on the difference between seeing and defining a little harder.

* I had left the Times the previous month, but the Post and I heard pretty much the same story. (I was on international, which had its deeply bizarre moments but didn't suffer the party-line burdens of the national desk. The hot theory from national as I was preparing to exit was that the cunning Iranians had filled one of their own airliners with Iraqi POWs and baited the US Navy into shooting it down.**)
** Because the clothes are always blown off the passengers when airliners are hit by missiles and crash into the ocean, the POWs had been forced to strip first, which was supposed to be the smoking gun. We did not pursue the story.

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