Most journalists will swear that, despite the fact they vote Democratic, they treat both sides fairly. Indeed, it is a rare event to read a news article that directly attacks the Republican party or one that praises the Democratic party.
But that does not mean media bias does not exist. It does – its exercise is just subtler than this. And the last two weeks have been a great example of how it operates.
Back in the 1950s there was a debate between political scientists and sociologists about power. Political scientists argued that power in our society was about who had an opportunity to influence the debate. These “pluralists” took an optimistic view of power in our republic, arguing that it was widely dispersed and everyone had a chance to have his say.
But there was staunch opposition from sociologists, who argued that the pluralists were not looking at the complete picture. Yes, average folks might have a say – but power is also exercised by determining what people are talking about. It’s like the difference between a regular member on a committee and the chairman – both get exactly one vote, but the chairman decides what they will be voting on. That’s the power to set the agenda.
We can think about media bias in a similar way. Sure, the media gives both sides a say in their articles, so they are not biased in the way the pluralists might say. Yet we can also examine what they are choosing to write about. Are they setting the national conversation, i.e. the public agenda, in a way that helps their ideological friends?
And the last two weeks have given us an excellent test case of whether, and to what extent, the media is biased in this way. Just ten days ago, we received an utterly terrible jobs report, which reinforced the suspicion that the economy might once again be falling into recession. This could have substantial second-order effects on public policy, especially the deficit, and call into question the efficacy of the Obama administration's policies.
In other words, talking about the rotten economy is bad for this president.
So, the media – following cues from the Democratic party – has pursued an alternative storyline: Mitt Romney is rich! He worked at a firm dealing in high finance! His money is invested overseas!
To be clear, these are legitimate storylines to pursue. Indeed, that is the typical response we hear from journalists, who argue that this is just part of the vetting process, a noble journalistic duty. Instead, the timing of these otherwise legitimate inquiries is biased. There was a bad narrative out there for the Democratic party, but it has been replaced with a bad narrative for the Republican party.
After all, Mitt Romney has basically been running for president for five years. Why are these stories about Bain Capital cropping up now? It is not as though the “scoops” in these stories were that hard to come upon; everything is in publicly available documents filed with the federal government.
Generally speaking, we can perceive media bias on a whole different level when we start asking ourselves, “Why is the public discourse revolving around this question at the moment? Whom does this help?” This is where we can often see the alliance between the mainstream media and the Democratic political class. Journalists do not bend facts to support their ideological allies, but they ask questions that help them.
Sometimes, we can see the media change its questions even if the only difference is who is helped by the answer. For instance, exactly eight years ago job growth was anemic and an incumbent president was up against a fabulously wealthy Massachusetts politician. What was the media talking about then? Was it about the sources and uses of the politician’s wealth, or was it about the “jobless recovery” we were going through?
And, of course, four years ago Barack Obama ran for the White House built on the premise that he could build bridges to the opposition. This was belied by his background in radical urban politics, as well as his coziness with seedy, pay-to-play fraudsters ensconced within the Chicago Democratic machine. However, the mainstream media not only avoided asking tough questions about that background, but effectively labelled such inquiries as racist.
All of this is why the Romney campaign must tread very carefully with the Bain attacks. Because the media is looking to advance the storyline the Obama campaign desires, a direct response is going to be counter-productive. It only feeds the beast for that much longer, as the media will then lustily cover the "controversy" between the two sides.
That's not to say these attacks cannot or should not be countered. It's just of question of how and when that should happen. Romney should not try to plead his case to the media, in the hopes that it will be a fair judge of who is right and who is wrong. It will not be. Instead, the best approach is to use his own resources to get his own message out. For what it's worth, I think that is precisely what Team Romney is up to. It plans to use the GOP convention as its launching point -- not to rebut Obama's attacks item by item, but to tell Romney's story in his own terms. Then, through the general election campaign, the argument will be: Obama has failed and Romney's background proves he can do better.
Is Romney's timing on this questionable? Perhaps, but there has been no movement in the head-to-head polls -- either nationwide or in the crucial battlegrounds of Florida, Ohio, and Virginia, where Obama has been spending all that money. Why should Romney deviate from his strategy if Obama's attacks are having no ostensible effect?
Whatever Romney does, he cannot take the media's bait on this. Despite how effective establishment journalists are at utilizing a neutral news frame, they are not neutral. They are looking to keep this story on the front page as long as possible, and if Romney tries to respond directly to the charges, he is playing right into their -- and Obama's -- hands.
Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.