The news media are more biased than ever—as well they should be. Whoever said the media ought to be above petty partisanship, blatant favoritism and payback shenanigans had it all wrong.
We do expect some professionals to be above bias. Doctors should mend the homeless as conscientiously as they stitch up millionaires. Court-appointed attorneys, underpaid and overworked though they may be, ought to be as conscientious defending a homeless vagrant as a debutante shoplifter. Preachers minister to both saints and sinners. Even umpires who hate the Yankees, as patriotism requires, are expected to call balls and strikes without favor.
But reporters have no professional credentials, no plaques on the walls, no binding code of ethics. Why shouldn’t they dish out as much as they take?
Despite my best intentions, I am thinking of the 2016 election. Donald Trump surrogates have plied the airwaves defending his claims that the election is rigged by suggesting that what he really means is that the media are biased against him.
This is the same Donald Trump who has lambasted the “dishonest media” at rally after rally, who has threatened to strip away libel protections, who has personally attacked reporter after reporter after reporter, sometimes to the point that they have required a Secret Service escort.
Imagine if Trump had launched the same attacks at every rally against plumbers—plumbers are corrupt, laws should punish plumbers, Trump supporters should jeer at plumbers. Would anybody expect Trump to get the plumber vote?
Yet reporters are supposed to not only shrug off those attacks, but then to crank out immaculately fair and evenhanded news coverage. It’s too much to ask. Heck, even disinterested umpires are known to call strikes just to educate whining rookies about how to act.
The worst of it is that Trump’s fans chalk up the media bias to the traditional liberal leanings of the press. Even if Trump could be reliably pegged as a conservative, that would be unfair.
I first concluded that Trump was a clownish buffoon at least 25 years ago, long before I knew anything about his politics and back when Spy magazine regularly railed against that “short-fingered vulgarian.” Nothing since then has caused me to revise my opinion.
Indeed, that view has only been reinforced by his history of excesses, untruths and absurdities. To list only one: his habit of refusing to pay contractors. I ran a small business for 18 years and dealt with many jerks of that type, and I would never vote for any of them. You know who you are, you bastards.
OK, one more: Trump’s attacks on women, both rhetorical and physical, have become a cornerstone of the Clinton campaign. But hardly anyone now mentions his relentless and shameful attacks on Heidi Cruz. Ted Cruz deserves whatever he gets, but his wife never did anything to justify the Trump treatment.
To argue that I should not be biased against a man like that is to argue that I should be a cad.
As usual, the liberal bias attack is hopelessly facile. Last week I wrote a column making the unprecedented assertion that I would consider no Republicans in this year’s election. In response, one reader called me “an ass,” which is true but irrelevant. Another labeled the column as “more liberal media,” which is relevant but untrue.
The arguments I made against Republicans were all perfectly consistent with sound conservative principles, even my defense of John Maynard Keynes. Conservative economist Milton Friedman himself famously said, admittedly somewhat out of context, “We are all Keynesians now.”
To the extent journalists lean liberal, it has mostly to do with spending a lot of time watching government actually work. I spent five hours last week at a Billings City Council meeting and came away feeling what I often do: All elected officials err, and some are corrupt, but they deal with real problems, mostly in a serious and responsible way, and we ought to at least occasionally be grateful for that.
Sadly, media bias is most evident not in favor of liberal causes but in favor of the hot story of the moment. According to the Tyndall Report, the network evening newscasts have devoted more time this year to Hillary Clinton’s emails than to all policy issues combined. Between them, the networks have devoted only 32 minutes to issues coverage this year, down from 220 minutes just eight years ago.
Over the weekend, I spent an estimated 987 hours listening to cable TV news while grading stacks of papers. I recall hearing only one issue-related question, and even that was focused purely on the horse race: What effect do you think rate hikes in the Affordable Care Act will have on the presidential race?
It’s true that issues seem less important this year than in any presidential race in my lifetime. I myself have made that case. But perhaps we would not be in this rugged pass if the news media had been writing about issues, not horse races, all along.
Imagine that: a media bias in favor of issues. That would be a bias to cheer.