The boy who cried media bias

Two recent examples show that both sides of the political debate are sometimes too quick to see a slant that doesn't exist.

Published February 5, 2009 11:30PM (EST)

Believe me, I know there's plenty to complain about when it comes to the press. But it often seems to me that partisans on both sides of the divide are too quick to see bias in coverage when there are simpler explanations out there. Sometimes people who don't really know how the media works just jump right past Occam's Razor in order to claim victimization.

I bring this up because of two examples of this phenomenon I noticed recently. First, there's the reaction to a Politico story published Wednesday night about a reporter at the White House who was briefly held by the Secret Service after jumping a rope in an attempt to get an autograph from President Obama. At the time of the initial report, the reporter's identity was unknown. So conservative bloggers ran wild with the story, suggesting it proved the depths of the media's crush on Obama.

"It's a wonder that the press doesn't mob him every time he appears!" Warner Todd Huston snarked at Newsbusters, a blog run by the Media Research Center, a conservative press watchdog. "One wonders how many room keys and thrown underwear the White House cleaning staff finds on the floor every time the press and Obama leave the room?"

The "thrown underwear" bit was a consistent theme, though Politico's story had made it clear the reporter was male. Jim Treacher titled his post on the subject "Fortunately, the Secret Service wrestled him to the ground before he was able to throw his panties" and at the Corner, Mark Steyn wrote, "Tom Jones only lets fans hurl their panties during up-tempo numbers, not serious ballads. Maybe it's time for the White House to give the press corps similar guidelines."

It's funny, apparently, because those liberal reporters are just like teen girls -- the male liberal reporters, especially. Only it turns out that the reporter wasn't from the liberal media elite, as someone with real knowledge of the press would have guessed pretty quickly. (I'm not saying a reporter wouldn't want an autograph; sometimes we do, even from Republicans, but a professional from a big mainstream publication knows the proper time and place.) In fact, Politico revealed Thursday, he works for Jewish World Review, a fairly obscure conservative outlet that publishes people like Ann Coulter, David Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly.

This sort of thing happens on the left, too. Think Progress recently released research showing that, in cable news coverage of the stimulus, Republican members of Congress appeared twice as often as their Democratic counterparts. "[T]he cable networks are still turning more often to Republicans and allowing them to set the agenda on major issues, most recently on the debate over the economic recovery package," Think Progress said in a blog post accompanying the research, adding that the media had been "aiding" conservatives' efforts to attack the proposal.

Other liberals in the blogosphere piled on. On his blog, Matt Yglesias wrote, "I think the basic way to understand TV booking practices is this. When the GOP is in power, it’s important to have more Republican guests because they’re the influential newsmakers. And when the GOP is out of power, it’s important to have more Republican guests to provide an alternative point-of-view to that presented by the powers that be."

To their credit, though, others -- like Jane Hamsher and Digby -- guessed correctly what was really going on. The discrepancy wasn't really the media's fault as much as it was the Democrats'. The Washington Post's Greg Sargent reported Thursday that one "very senior leadership aide who is directly involved in booking Congressional guests on the chat shows" had conceded that point to him.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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