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Why and How Martha Won the Debate -- Over Media Bias

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It didn't take long for the reviews to start pouring in on Martha Raddatz and the job she was doing moderating the vice presidential debate. It started almost as soon as the debate did, it kept on coming, and it was overwhelmingly favorable.

"I vote for Martha Raddatz to moderate all the debates," from Roger Ebert.

"Everyone seems to agree that @martharaddatz is the star of this debate," from Charlie Rose.

Not everyone was as pleased, of course. Sean Hannity tweeted that "Martha Raddatz is the worst moderator." And from Erick Erickson: "Wow, Martha Raddatz really is in Obama's camp it seems."

Still, overall and based on my un-scientific sample (as well as the morning-after summaries and analysis), Poynter got it just about right when it tweeted: "Vice Presidential Debate Winner: Martha Raddatz."

What Martha really won last night with her masterful handling of the debate was an important victory over those who find media "bias" in just about every nook and cranny of the news. We're told that the political reporters are biased, that the polls are biased, that reporting on the killing of U.S. diplomats in Benghazi was biased, and that reporting on the U.S. economy right here at home is biased. Is it any wonder that Americans reportedly trust the news media less than they ever have before?

There's nothing wrong with people, of any political persuasion, raising questions about whether what's being reported is true or is being skewed by what the reporter wants to be true. Or wants the audience to believe to be true. All of us have various biases we bring to our jobs, and sometimes there's a fine line between what our experience has taught us and straight out bias.

But recently the debate about media bias has taken a new and dangerous turn. Ted Koppel recently did a report on NBC's Rock Center on how the extreme partisanship of people like Ann Coulter and Bill Maher was changing the political discourse -- and not for the better. You could agree with Ted or disagree with him. (I for one think he's right.)

But what was most interesting was the response. Greta van Susteren of Fox News immediately took to her blog to make a remarkable argument: There simply is no difference between those who are avowedly partisan in their commentary and those who are trying their best to get it right. As she put it, the straight-ahead journalists are guilty of "self delusion." She thinks we should be more concerned about reporters who fight to overcome bias, rather than embracing it. At least with the Ann Coulters of this world, we know what we're getting. Pollster Pat Caddell has taken it a step even beyond this: He calls the press an "enemy of the people" because of its bias.

And then along came Martha. On the eve of the debate, some tried to drag her into the bias swamp. Matt Drudge featured front and center a link to The Daily Caller claiming that Raddatz had a conflict of interest because over 20 years ago private citizen Barack Obama attended her wedding to one of Obama's best friends -- a man from whom she was divorced 15 years ago. To their credit, several conservative commentators dismissed the charge out of hand.

Much more important than what anyone said was what Martha did -- and what it shows all of us about how best to refute claims of media bias. Throughout the debate, she was fearless in holding both Vice President Biden and Representative Ryan to account. She asked the vice president pointedly whether the initial reports out of Benghazi weren't "a massive intelligence failure." When he claimed that "not a single thing [Representative Ryan] said is accurate," she curtly said: "Be specific." She pressed Congressman Ryan to tell us "what's worse... another war in the Middle East, or a nuclear-armed Iran?" And she pressed him on his criticism of the stimulus, asking: "You did ask for stimulus money [for your district], correct?"

Martha challenged both candidates directly and forcefully. But her questioning was far more powerful because she knew the facts. She didn't let the debate turn into a mere exchange of opinions and quips and "zingers." She forced the discussion to specifics because she had done the reporting -- and had the experience to back up that reporting -- to take it past the first question or even the second.

I'd like to say that Martha's master class in journalism put an end to all the talk about bias -- at least as it applied to her. Or at the very least as it applied to her work as moderator of this important debate. But it didn't. Sean Hannity suggested that "next time @PaulRyan should invite her to his wedding."

That doesn't seem all that likely. But if he does, Martha's given us every reason to believe that she'll be just as prepared, just as focused, and just as rigorous with him (and his opponent) as she was this time.