NBC’s Chuck Todd wrote a piece for the Atlantic yesterday in which he says it’s time for the media to stop allowing accusations of media bias to go unresponded to. Instead, he wants the media to start fighting back against those who make the accusations, especially against Fox News.
Some of the wealthiest members of the media are not reporters from mainstream outlets. Figures such as Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, and the trio of Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham have attained wealth and power by exploiting the fears of older white people. They are thriving financially by exploiting the very same free-press umbrella they seem determined to undermine…
Take the word balanced. It sounded harmless enough. But how does one balance facts? A reporting-driven news organization might promise to be accurate, or honest, or comprehensive, or to report stories for an underserved community. But Ailes wasn’t building a reporting-driven news organization. The promise to be “balanced” was a coded pledge to offer alternative explanations, putting commentary ahead of reporting; it was an attack on the integrity of the rest of the media. Fox intended to build its brand the same way Ailes had built the brands of political candidates: by making the public hate the other choice more.
There are some great journalists at Fox, including Chris Wallace, Bret Baier, and Shep Smith, but it’s not an organization that emphasizes journalism. Instead, Ailes created an organization that focuses on attacking the “liberal media” whose “liberal bias” was ruining America. Almost any big story that was potentially devastating to a conservative was “balanced” with some form of whataboutism. The Ailes construction has been so effective that these days, I often get mail from viewers who say: Now that you’ve focused on all of President Trump’s misdeeds, you are biased if you don’t dedicate the same amount of time to Hillary Clinton’s misdeeds. It seems completely lost on this segment of the population that one person is the leader of the free world, and the other is a retiree living in the suburbs of New York City. Because journalists report on new and controversial ideas all the time, it’s not uncommon for us to be accused of championing an idea—think of same-sex marriage—that some members of our audience find objectionable. Letting folks know that a movement is afoot, and documenting its successes and failures, is our job. But Ailes exploited the public’s lack of knowledge of journalistic conventions, portraying reports about social change as advocacy for such change. He played up cultural fears, creating the mythology of a biased press.
I think Todd has bitten off more than he can chew and, to be fair, it’s more than anyone can chew in a brief article. A book on this topic would only begin to scratch the surface. But let’s start with this charge of whataboutism.
There’s something to the idea of whataboutism. I wouldn’t say that every exercise in changing the subject is as cogent or worthwhile as every other. There are definitely some complaints that take this form which really do sound like complete non-sequiturs to me. That said, there is also a place for challenging the media’s assumptions about what the story is and whether or not it’s important which cannot be swept neatly under the rug by labeling it whataboutism.
For instance, when the whole of the national media decides that Sarah Palin is responsible for the Tucson shooting, it’s not whataboutism to ask: Why didn’t the media have a problem with DCCC targeting maps with bullseyes on them? It’s not changing the subject, it’s the exact same subject, i.e. what martial tone or visuals are we allowed to use in our politics without being accused of inspiring murder? Whatever the answer is, the rules should apply to people on both sides of the aisle, not just to Sarah Palin.
Similarly, when the media fails to cover the Gosnell case, with some deciding it’s a “local crime story” it’s not whataboutism to point out that the media usually treats abortion clinic shootings as big national news, not local crime. Again, the counter-example isn’t just an attempt to change the subject, it’s an attempt to demand some kind of balance in the approach taken to stories on a given topic, regardless of whose ox is being gored on a given day. But as you can see above, Chuck Todd thinks the very idea of “balance” is a trick.
Meanwhile, you have one of the allegedly down-the-middle reporters at CNN comparing Antifa, a group the U.S. government has warned is a domestic terror threat, to soldiers landing at Normandy and telling us “all punches are not equal.” But hey, no need to concern ourselves with a lack of balance at any network besides Fox News. In fact, my even bringing this us as an example of media bias is probably just more whataboutism that Chuck Todd would prefer everyone ignore.
Here’s the truth. The people who make up the media lean overwhelmingly to the left and are spectacularly bad at recognizing their own biases. That’s why conservatives are forever forced into the position of trying to point out that the media’s laser focus on the bad behavior of one set of partisans (those on the right) is not the complete story. There is another side to the story which often gets less attention because it doesn’t grab people like Chuck Todd as equally significant or important.
That’s why, just as an aside, you so often see the “GOP seizes on…” headlines. That’s a signal that people on the right are worked up about something which the media doesn’t think is a problem and therefore can only cover at all if they make it a story about the GOP’s odd (or perhaps dishonest) behavior.
But Todd isn’t satisfied with diagnosing the problem, he has a solution too:
Instead of attacking rivals, or assailing critics—going negative,in the parlance of political campaigns—reporters need to showcase and defend our reporting. Every day, we need to do our job, check our facts, strive to be transparent, and say what we’re seeing. That’s what I’ve tried to do here. I’ve seen a nearly 50-year campaign to delegitimize the press, and I’m saying so.
Fifty years ago, Walter Cronkite was still on the air, a man many still consider the gold standard of news anchors. But a biography released after Cronkite’s death revealed that he was very much a Democratic partisan, one who even interfered in the news he was paid to read. Here’s Howard Kurtz:
After Cronkite had belatedly turned against LBJ’s Vietnam War, he met privately with Robert Kennedy. “You must announce your intention to run against Johnson, to show people there will be a way out of this terrible war,” he said in Kennedy’s Senate office. Soon afterward, Cronkite got an exclusive interview in which Kennedy left the door open for a possible run—the very candidacy that the anchor had urged him to undertake. (Kennedy announced three days later.) I am shaking my head at the spectacle of a network anchor secretly urging a politician to mount a White House campaign—and then interviewing him about that very question. This was duplicitous, a major breach of trust…
In what would likely be deemed a firing offense today, Cronkite blatantly manipulated an interview with LBJ shortly before Johnson died. According to Brinkley, his producer spliced the footage in unflattering ways, reshooting Cronkite asking the questions so it appeared that he was nodding or raising his eyebrows in disgust when Johnson talked about Vietnam. LBJ saw a rough cut and pronounced it “dirty pool”; I would call it a video version of lying. Under pressure from the former president’s team, CBS undid the misleading editing, so the public never learned of the deception.
I guess we know where Samantha Bee learned that trick. The point is that the 50-year history of complaints of media bias Chuck Todd rants about at the Atlantic is one side of the story. The other side is the 50-year history of media bias which he either isn’t interested in talking about or doesn’t think matters. If you don’t want to deal with that reality, you can just declare it off limits by labeling it whataboutism.