A View from The Middle… Media Bias

Media bias?

It seems to me that everyone is calling the media “biased” today.  Traditionally, the most vocal critics of the media have come from the right.  That is not without merit in many cases.  I think it is pretty clear that most media folks lean left.  Fox wouldn’t exist if there were not a sense by right wing zealots that all other media is full of left-wing enablers.  However, we are seeing media critiques from traditionally Democratic places.  Joe Biden has come close to claiming he is subject to “fake news” about his presumed blunders.  Bernie Sanders has often softly argued that he gets the short end of the stick by media sources that prefer “mainstream democrats”.

I was stuck again by this in the reaction to Michael Bloomberg’s performance in his first Democratic debate.  I think it is instructive to look at the reaction to his debate performance because it helps us see media bias in a slightly different way.

During the debate, most of my Twitter, Instagram, Facebook feeds followed the tone set by Elizabeth Warren’s horse-face lesbian[i] attack on Michael Bloomberg.

Elizabeth Warren might go down as the 2020 version of Chris Christie because of her attacks on Bloomberg.  In 2016, Christie eviscerated Marco Rubio in a New Hampshire debate at a time when Rubio was probably the only real hope to stop Trump.  It is at least plausible that Bloomberg was the last best hope to stop Bernie Sanders, and then Warren gutted him.  If Bloomberg dies, it will be because of Warren’s shiv.

This almost universal “total disaster” reaction to Bloomberg’s performance is instructive not because it was so 100% real.  Don’t get me wrong, Bloomberg sucked.  But even if he had done much better, I think he would have had a hard time being perceived as “winning” because of a media bias that is different than the one we normally talk about.

The media landscape of today requires characters and shorthand about those characters.  Journalists need to develop themselves or follow the collective shorthand created about candiates.  This is because, today one reporter is doing the work that 10 used to do.  The New Jersey Statehouse Corps is living proof of this.

Luckily for these time-strapped journalists, debates, zero in on the weakest characteristic in a candidate.  It has happened to every single candidate on the stage.  Bernie is socialist. Elizabeth is a lecturing librarian. Pete is a smug kid. Joe is slow and old. Amy is angry. On social media, these shorthand narratives are overwhelming.  It is not at all surprising that “might as well be Trump” would come out as Bloomberg’s weakest link in a democratic field. Given this was his first and only debate pent-up and lesser important sub-narratives of “testy” “arrogant” and “entitled” and “misogynistic” all came in the mix as well.

The second type of media bias we don’t often talk about is this. The shiny apple gets the arrow and the Phoenix rises from the ashes.   Almost every candidate remaining, has had a point in time where they appeared to be ascending only to be smacked down by the circular firing squad.  Similarly, candidates seemingly on the “ropes” all of a sudden have great performances.  For example, Amy Klobuchar did better than expected in Iowa and New Hampshire and was awesome in the New Hampshire debate but apparently tanked in the Nevada one and is back to being angry and mean.  Same with Pete Buttigieg, except that instead of being mean he is back to being smug and young.  Elizabeth Warren was on life support after horrible outcomes in Iowa and New Hampshire.  She had the debate performance of her life in Nevada.  Even Joe Biden got better than ever reviews on the Nevada debate, but his are still coached with “not enough” label. Bloomberg is the shiny new apple, so cue William Tell.

But just as important to all this is that ultimately, those rising stars get shot down.  If you look at the week prior to the last debate, Bloomberg was on a role.  He was exploding in polls, he was scaring people with his money, he was positioned as the adult in the room.  He was the savior from Bernie.

Once again, the actual debate performance is secondary.  Journalism today (maybe always) is biased toward something happening, in essence it is biased towards movement.  It is no fun to talk/write about the fact that candidates are doing the same thing over and over again.  It is more fun and more “newsworthy” to talk about how the “game has changed”, or “we saw a new side (fill in the blank)”.

The next 7 days are likely to be the most important of the campaign.  The race is still volatile, and a lot can happen.  However, here are some predictions based on these concepts of media bias.

Mike Bloomberg will have a good night at the debate on Tuesday and up through Super Tuesday.  The reasons for this are simple.  First, he has no place to go but up.  Second, him doing well implies movement in the race.  Third, it is an easy shorthand to say, “better than expected” with the additional teaser of future movement being “but is it enough.” Fourth, a billion dollars of your own money means you get to stay are longer than most.

Elizabeth Warren will have a bad night at the debate on Tuesday and limp through until Super Tuesday.  She will then play the Chris Christie roll and drop out to support Bernie, the way Christie tried to support Trump.

Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg will continue their side war.  It is fun to watch, it is intergenerational and once again makes a good if ultimately meaningless sub plot in the story next day.  But I think the “movement” path for both of them is also out the door.

Joe Biden either wins South Carolina or goes home.  See not everything is media narrative.  Actual votes matter sometimes.

You will notice that I end with Bernie Sanders.  When we think about him through this particular lens of media bias, what do we see?  Nothing.  Bernie unlike all the other candidates, doesn’t have a place to “move” or a “shorthand” that must change for him to move on.  Bernie just has to be Bernie for 7 more days and he will likely be the nominee.  That is his advantage and it is a big one.

So there are some predictions.  We will see how I did soon enough.  But just in case,  I will end with a quote from the patron saint of pundits the Czech Novelist Milan Kundera.

All predictions are wrong, that is one of the few certainties granted to mankind


[i] Just in case it isn’t totally clear. Warren claimed that Bloomberg said those words, I not calling her one.

Matthew Hale is a professor of political science at Seton Hall University.

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