Over at the Huffington Post, Dan Froomkin talked to Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann about their recent survey of media coverage. And guess what? It confirms what many of us already knew, which is that the “objective journalism” obsession forced the media to bend over backward for the Republicans. So much for the “liberal media bias.”
Ornstein and Mann previewed this argument during the election with their “Admit it. The Republicans Are Worse” article, but now they follow it up to see how the mainstream media handled Republican lies. The verdict is not promising:
“I can’t recall a campaign where I’ve seen more lying going on — and it wasn’t symmetric,” said Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who’s been tracking Congress with Mann since 1978. Democrats were hardly innocent, he said, “but it seemed pretty clear to me that the Republican campaign was just far more over the top.”
Ornstein said the media’s failure led him to conclude: “If you want to use a strategy of ‘I’m just going to lie all the time’, when you have the false equivalence meme adopted by a mainstream press and the other side lies a quarter of the time, you get away with it.”
This isn’t a new theory. James Carville famously laid it out in the documentary The War Room. But Ornstein and Mann are non-partisans and intellectuals who have thoroughly investigated the claims of both parties over this cycle.
And they have specific examples of how false equivalence has taken over policy debates:
Most reporters, however — including many widely admired for their intelligence and aggressive reporting — simply refused to blame one side more than the other. Mann said he was struck in conversations with journalists by how influenced they were by the heavily funded movement to promote a bipartisan consensus around deficit reduction and austerity. Such a bipartisan consensus doesn’t actually exist, Mann pointed out. But if you believe it does, than you can blame both parties for failing to reach it.
I can’t count the number of times people have told me that spending is out of control and warned of the impending bankruptcy of Medicaid/Medicare/ Social Security. People react with confusion when I dispute that, even when I cite credible analysis from experts to the contrary.
Did the rise of fact-checking help the process? Not so much according to Ornstein and Mann:
“We had these little flurries of fact-checking — which I found not worthless, but not a substitute for coherent, serious reporting — and most of the time it just got stuck in the back of a news organization’s output and there was no cost to a candidate of ignoring it,” Mann said.
And then there was this terrible irony: “Fact checkers almost seemed obliged to show some balance in their fact checking.”
“There was some damn good stuff done, and stuff that really did hold Romney to account,” Ornstein said. But no fact-checker intent on “appearing to be utterly straightforward, independent, and without an axe to grind, is going to actually do the job of saying that we’re going to cover 20 fact checks on one side, to three on the other.”
So, Ornstein concluded: “If you looked at where the scales should have been, and where they were, they were weighted. And they weren’t weighted for ideological bias. They were weighted to avoid being charged with ideological bias.”
Fact-checking even fell victim to false balance. Ugh.
Well at least there are media watchdogs out there:
Ornstein is particularly infuriated that none of the supposed reader advocates at major newspapers have raised the issues they brought up. “What the fuck is an ombudsman doing if he’s not writing about this?” he asked.
I guess there are no watchdogs. Except Ornstein and Mann. The whole piece is worth a read and their full book makes a great gift for a political junkie this season. It’s called It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.