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Think Again: How Conservatives Treat Media Bias (Hint: Confusingly)

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Last Sunday, on the very same morning when he complained on "Meet the Press" that the mainstream media were, in his view, treating Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney more harshly than President Barack Obama (of course without presenting any evidence), Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) admitted on ABC's "This Week," "I'm not going to sit here and complain about coverage of the campaign because, as a candidate, if you do that, you're losing."

Ditto Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the former Massachusetts governor's vice presidential running mate. Appearing (apparently without irony) on "Fox News Sunday," the show that brought Rep. Ryan a birthday cake and whose moderator, Chris Wallace, bragged that "we kind of discovered" him, Rep. Ryan insisted that "it kind of goes without saying that there's a media bias," adding, "We've -- look, I'm a conservative person, I'm used to media bias. We expected media bias going into this." But like Gov. Christie, Rep. Ryan did not have any specifics in mind when asked to present an example. And later, he sort of took it back -- or at least his spokesman did. In an email to Politico, the spokesman insisted that Rep. Ryan "did not blame the media. He was asked a question about media bias and answered it. And his answer made clear it's not something he worries about."

One thing that many conservatives profess to worry about of late is polling. In a letter addressed to what they called the "Biased News Media," conservative leaders Brent Bozell, Gary Bauer, Ed Meese, Tony Perkins, Rush Limbaugh, and Richard Viguerie signed a letter authored by Bozell's right-wing Media Research Center, "holding the liberal media accountable for shamelessly advancing a left-wing agenda." The signatories argued: "This election year, so much of the broadcast networks, their cable counterparts and the major establishment print media are out of control with a deliberate and unmistakable leftist agenda." Again, not much in the way of evidence was presented. (See for yourselves if you doubt this.)

The issue of alleged bias that most excites conservatives this year is polling. The purpose of this year's polls, according to Rush Limbaugh, is not to take the pulse of any given election contents. Rather, "they are designed to do exactly what [Rush has] warned you to be vigilant about, and that is to depress you and suppress your vote. These two polls today are designed to convince everybody this election is over." Again, zero evidence from Rushbo. And according to FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver, that would be awfully surprising. As he explains, "The polls have no such history of partisan bias, at least not on a consistent basis."

Polling is a decidedly inexact science and is never perfectly accurate, even allowing for changes in peoples' minds over time. Silver explains:

There have been years, like 1980 and 1994, when the polls did underestimate the standing of Republicans. But there have been others, like 2000 and 2006, when they underestimated the standing of Democrats. ... but as in the case of the presidential polls, the years in which the Senate polls missed in either direction have tended to cancel one another out. On average across 240 Senate races since 1990, the polls have had a Republican bias of just 0.4 percentage points, a trivial number that is of little meaning statistically.

Add up all of the above and you have a great many accusations -- some withdrawn, some not -- but not a whole heck of a lot of data to support a single one of them. It may be because they are absolutely correct but that liberal bias in the media is so sneaky it disappears before you can catch it, quantify it, or even identify a compelling example of its persistence. Then again, it may be because the entire notion is a lot of nonsense, cooked up by conservatives to be used as a kind of stick with which to beat journalists in the hope of getting better coverage.

Think I'm making this up? Just ask Rich Bond, who, as the then-chair of the Republican Party,complained during the 1992 election, "I think we know who the media want to win this election -- and I don't think it's George Bush." That was Bond on a bad day. On one of his truth-telling days, however, the very same Mr. Bond observed of the very same election, however, "There is some strategy to it [bashing the 'liberal' media]. ... if you watch any great coach, what they try to do is 'work the refs.' Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one."

This latter sentiment is not really so rare among conservatives, at least the ones who understand that they are playing a game. Far-right pundit and sometime presidential candidate Pat Buchanan admitted, "I've gotten balanced coverage, and broad coverage -- all we could have asked. For heaven sakes, we kid about the 'liberal media,' but every Republican on earth does that."

And conservative standard-bearer William Kristol told The New Yorker, upon launching The Weekly Standard back in 1995, that "the liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures." Even so, in a 2001 subscriber pitch for the magazine, Kristol complained, "The trouble with politics and political coverage today is that there's too much liberal bias. ... there's too much tilt toward the left-wing agenda. Too much apology for liberal policy failures. Too much pandering to liberal candidates and causes."

This constant confusion -- you might even call it "flip-flopping" -- was finally explained in 2003 by The Weekly Standard "senior writer" and Kristol protégé Matt Labash, who told the website JournalismJobs.com:

While all these hand-wringing Freedom Forum types talk about objectivity, the conservative media likes to rap the liberal media on the knuckles for not being objective. We've created this cottage industry in which it pays to be un-objective. It pays to be subjective as much as possible. It's a great way to have your cake and eat it too. Criticize other people for not being objective. Be as subjective as you want. It's a great little racket. I'm glad we found it actually.

It sure is. And after all this time, it still works.

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