Defining Bias Downward: Holding Political Power to Account Is Not Some Liberal Plot

Reed Irvine, the energetic liberal-bias hunter who died November 16 at eighty-two, wasn’t always wrong. Irvine founded Accuracy in Media, the conservative press watchdog group, thirty-five years ago. He was stone blind to his own prejudices, and he could be scurrilous and unfair in his attacks, but he knew something about our major media, most of them based in the urban capitals of what we now call blue states and influenced, naturally, by their context.

Irvine must have been amazed in the end by all the company he had: well-financed bias-busters, slews of books, think tanks, and radio and television icons, all singing his song. This has had the good effect of waking some left-tilting journalists to their sometimes unconscious leanings, pushing them to challenge their presumptions and broaden their reporting. It has had the bad effect of making other journalists afraid of their own shadow, for fear of the bias cops. And now there’s a new challenge.

In the wake of the election the bias symphony is reaching for a crescendo. The new refrain goes this way: aside from John Kerry, the election’s other loser was mainstream media. George W. Bush, the theory goes, won despite the strenuous efforts of the press to bring him down. Here’s an example of this view, from Tim Graham of National Review Online:

Every anti-Bush angle … was explored with great ferocity. Almost every week of 2004 was a bad media week for Bush. There was Paul O’Neill Book Week. There was 9/11 Ads in Bad Taste Week. There was Richard Clarke Book Week. There was Bob Woodward Book Week. There were two weeks of Alabama National Guard Whereabouts Hunt. There were four weeks of Abu Ghraib hype …

What’s disturbing is not the way that Graham is whining into his champagne but his little two-step away from reality. He and others are defining bias downward, as anything that challenges a GOP point of view.

When a Republican former treasury secretary publicly parts company with his president on economic policy, that’s a legitimate story fit for national discussion. Ditto for a book by a top antiterrorism expert who seriously argues that the administration is blowing the war on terror. Ditto for the need for some attention to the work of Woodward, a quality reporter on the insider perspective (and whose book on the run-up to the war was carefully balanced). An effort to map the young George Bush’s record in the Guard, unknown to this day? That’s legitimate, too — if, of course, it’s done right. Abu Ghraib? It was an insult to America’s commitment to morality that, if anything, has been undercovered. One can have a legitimate debate about the weight that ought to be given to stories such as these but to suggest they should not be aggressively reported is to slip away from the world of real discourse.

So now what? The prospect of four years of competition for the dominant version of reality on all things political is not only depressing — like being tied in a chair in front of an endless loop of “Crossfire” — but worrisome, because endlessly dueling versions of reality are ultimately unstable. Without some rough agreement on what is significant, citizens will not get the intellectually honest debate that citizenship requires. Journalists, whatever their inner political leanings, must work harder at being honest brokers of information, worthy of respect.

Honest conservatives, meanwhile, should consider a pair of New Year’s resolutions: first, recognize that challenging political power and holding it to account is the legitimate role of the press in a democracy, not some liberal plot. Second, swear off defining any story that is uncomfortable to you as an example of liberal bias. Such a tactic probably won’t work in the long run, anyway. As somebody once noted, facts are stubborn things.

—Michael Hoyt

Michael Hoyt is the executive editor of Columbia Journalism Review. This editorial appears in the current issue of the magazine.

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Mike Hoyt was CJR's executive editor from 2001 to 2013, teaches at Columbia's Journalism School and is the editor of The Big Roundtable, a startup that is a home for narrative writing.