When we were children and encountered others in the rough-and-tumble of the playground who constantly whined about how mean and unfair everybody was, we had a sensible way of dealing with them. We taunted them by singing, “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I’m going to eat some worms…” These days it seems to me that our conservative friends could benefit from a bit of that same bracing grade-school remedy. Too many conservatives have become political paranoids who search out, collect and brood over any kind of negative press, however trivial, and catalog it in their minds as incontrovertible proof that the whole massive media industry is a bunch of big mean poopyheads who are all totally biased against them.
In the recent Presidential election their whining, grievance and delusions of persecution reached such a level that Republicans actually did start to eat worms. They were so upset by masses of polls showing the national unpopularity of their chosen candidate, they went out into their own back garden and dug up a mess of fat, slimy “unskewed” polls, which they all proceeded to chew and swallow with gusto. Sad and painful bellyaches inevitably followed… because paranoia makes people do really irrational and dangerous things.
The meme of “anti-conservative media bias” started decades ago with Richard Nixon, the ultimate political paranoid. By now it is virtually impossible to convince any conservative that liberals do not have a death-grip on all kinds of media, which they have spent years infesting with ineradicable left-wing bias. They believe this in spite of much evidence to the contrary including articles like this one pointing out various conservative advantages in the media, including the fact that that the highest-circulating newspaper in the nation is the staunchly conservative Wall Street Journal, the dominant cable network in the land is FOX News, and the top political talk radio programs, Limbaugh and Hannity, outdraw the opposition by practically an order of magnitude. But none of this is persuasive to conservatives, who perceive any negative report about a Republican politician (or any praise of a Democrat) as further evidence of rampant bias.
The Neiman Journalism Lab has done some fascinating work on the perception of bias. They think much of it comes from our reaction to branding, and they provide an illustration of how readers perceive bias differently when the same story is reported under a New York Times headline and then a FOX News one. The final determination of the researchers, unsurprisingly, is that the more strongly we identify with a particular group, the more likely we are to perceive a bias against that group. And since conservatives not only bond together more strongly than Democrats, but also are more likely to share a paranoid view of a world that is always changing too fast for their comfort, it is unsurprising that they would perceive massive systemic bias where it does not exist.
In fact, there are many media analysts and critics who feel that media in general, pummeled by these constant attacks from the right, is being too zealous with their efforts at “balanced journalism,” wherein they not only try to portray the view from both sides, but to balance a report of negative behavior from one party by searching out something equally damning from the other side. This was evident in the recent election when Republican Senate candidates Todd Aiken and Richard Mourdock made extremely damaging comments about rape. Conservatives complained that similar gaffes on the left were unfairly being ignored. In fact, there were no “similar comments” from the left to report. What was the media expected to do…dig up and publish unflattering high school yearbook photos of Democratic Senate candidates to provide “balance?”
At last it appears a few sensible Republicans, stung by election losses and worried about the image of their party, are finally showing signs of being ready to give up their fixation on “media bias” as the cause of all their troubles. Michael Potemra, right-wing commentator at the National Review, expresses the view that even some on the right are growing tired of the “media bias” excuse so often trotted out by disgruntled Republicans. Potemra ends his comments with this:
I once heard the conservative political philosopher Hadley Arkes, in a speech, refer to media bias as akin to the “law of gravity.” There was much wisdom in that comparison: To say that the law of gravity is the cause of plane crashes is not especially helpful, and if airlines got in the habit of relying on that explanation, we would have cause for worry.
The Republican aircraft may not yet be plummeting to earth, but it is certainly experiencing some scary turbulence. If their once-mighty plane does eventually crash, gravity will be a factor but it will not be the underlying cause. For that, Republicans will need to look elsewhere… not at “media bias” but at the ideological stances within their political movement that are currently making it so unpalatable to a majority of Americans. And if they want to avoid becoming subject to the downward pull of gravity and its inevitable result, they’ll need to work fast to figure out what those factors are.
And they really need to stop eating worms. That’s just nasty.