The myth of the liberal media, health care edition

The Pew Research Center has released a new report that perfectly illustrates how our broken media operates and why it’s virtually impossible for an American citizen to keep him or herself informed about the substance of government policy.  Health care reform was the most covered topic in the media from June 2009 to March 2010, yet the longer the debate went on, the less the public understood the bill being considered.  How liberal is the liberal media?!  Not very, it turns out.

There are many interesting aspects to this new report, but this chart tells you most of what you need to know.

By far the dominant theme of the media narrative revolved around “politics and strategy,” that is, the day to day horse race coverage that also dominates all modern political campaigns.  There is some value to understanding how the bill existed and was changed as it wound its way through the Congress, but that type of coverage falls squarely in the separate realm of “legislative process.”  “Politics and strategy” is about buzz words, and how effective they are, and whether this theatrical display or that will resonate with the public, etc.

Analyzing how that coverage was manifested shows just how superficial our media outlets are, and how incapable they are of performing any task save amplifying the latest scandal du jour.  I think Igor Volsky at The Wonk Room is correct when he writes:

The media covered the politics of health care — the death panels and ‘government takeover’ memes — because they were more sensationalistic and popular than the boring complexities of how the public option could compete with private plans or whether the individual mandate penalty should be structured as a percentage or a flat fee.

That’s true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.  Those memes are important and deserve to be covered, but even more important is the need to analyze those memes, and inform your readership when they’re being lied to; that is the basic role of the journalist.  Simply repeating focus-grouped buzz words politicians cynically employ to frighten the masses allows charlatans to dictate the terms of the debate, which is exactly what happened.  The conclusion the report reaches is that “opponents” of health care reform won the message war:

A study of the concepts and rhetoric that found their way into the media narrative from June 2009 through March 2010 revealed that the opponents’ leading terms appeared almost twice as frequently (about 18,000 times) as the supporters’ top terms (about 11,000 times.) Boiled down to its essence, the opponents’ attack on big government resonated more in the media than the supporters’ attack on greedy insurance firms.

That last sentence speaks volumes: opponents’ attack on big government resonated more in the media than the supporters’ attack on greedy insurance firms.  Our media landscape, at its core, is a verbal battleground in which truth claims aren’t subjected to rigorous fact checking and verification.  Objective truth has no place in American journalism, whose practitioners serve as little more than stenographers to the powerful, and whose self-identified role is to repeat claims that “resonate” with the outlet’s readership.  Write down what both sides say, and if one side makes their claims louder and more emotionally than the other, well, then they win the war.  Does it matter if one side is completely unhinged and delusional?  Not in the least.  Look at what terms “won” the media war for health care opponents.

In addition to the three memes listed in the chart, the researchers found 2,500 instances of the term “death panels” showing up in the media, which is to say about a 1/3 less than “insuring pre-existing conditions” showed up.  That is really quite astounding.  On the one hand you have a complete, utter fabrication that gained an incredible amount of traction and in fact dominated the health care debate in the awful month of August; on the other, you have the basic faith that government can and should provide care for its citizens.  The gap in coverage between those ideas should be greater than the gap in coverage between my college punk band and Lady Gaga, yet, relatively speaking, my college punk band was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone.

As far as the other 3 dominant conservative memes go, “rationing care” is the most obviously obscene.  Our current system rations care in the most brutal of ways by denying it to those who need help the most.  The idea that we don’t ration care now is insulting and disgusting — ask the people who waited in line for days to receive basic medical care.  Or talk to Wendell Potter, the insurance executive turned whistle-blower, about how companies conspired to deny care to those who were previously covered.  Literally, every time a right-wing politician uttered the phrase “rationed care,” a journalist should’ve written “Well, here’s the thing about that.  We already do.”  That’s not bias.  That’s reporting.

The “more taxes” and “more government” memes are equally absurd, though it’s less surprising that they took hold, as it would be slightly more difficult to debunk those myths.  Providing context and explanation is anathema to attracting eyeballs, apparently.  As far as “more taxes” goes, the CBO ruled the bill deficit neutral, and although I never supported the bill whole-heartedly, without any reform costs would have bankrupted the country.  Our citizens are getting older, and unless we want to eat them, we need to figure out how to pay for their care.  As far as the “more government” meme goes, well, people love Medicare and, when polled, over 50% said the bill should include a public option.  It’s very easy to scare people by screaming SOCIALISM — that doesn’t mean that people hate social programs.  Again, when people don’t understand the policy, bludgeoning them to death with the blunt instrument of “THE GOVERNMENT’S COMING” might be effective.  That’s where, you know, journalists and editors come in to clear things up.

The point here is not to cheer lead for the health care bill.  See this fantastic post by FireDogLake’s Jon Walker for the progressive case against it.  The point is that criticisms of the bill should be based in fact — not in base appeals to people emotions.  If the press abdicates their responsibility, then polls the public, then regurgitates the public’s understandable lack of knowledge, well, that just leaves us all covered in vomit.

This study illustrates as clearly as possible how absurd the myth of the liberal media is.  Whether or not editorial boards across the country endorse Democrats or Republicans, the “objective reporting” shapes the narrative, and if that reporting reduces itself to lazily repeating obscene and demonstrably false talking points over and over again like a magical incantation designed to kill the most at risk, well, they need to be treated like the pathetic servants they are.  A good journalist performs a function as necessary to society as a fire fighter; a bad journalist is a PR man with a serious case of denial.

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9 Responses to The myth of the liberal media, health care edition

  1. leonkelly says:

    As a conservative form the Goldwater/William F. Buckley school of thought, I find the idea that a dope like Sarah Palin has any visibility in the media to be frustrating and even disgusting. Most of what I read about her (something I should resolve to stop doing) is written by people that can’t stand her. As the old saying goes: “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” In Sarah Palin’s case, that publicity is delivered to her at no cost by writers that typically exist on the ideological spectrum at positions that are polar opposite to her’s. As we say in Pittsburgh: “Whatsupswidat?”

  2. Roy Brander says:

    Here’s the difference between your conservative and liberal commentators. There’s often a attitude in coverage that Al Franken was somehow a liberal Rush Limbaugh.

    But while Rush is unequivocal and vehement in claiming a Liberal Media, Franken’s “Lying Liars” book says, right on page one, I believe, that we don’t have a liberal or conservative bias in the media, we have “sell eyeballs to advertisers” bias, a “what grabs the reader” bias.

    And that’s all, I think that you see here.

    The tough question I just cannot answer is, do we have an ongoing string of conservative victories promoting their “resonant” messages because

    a) liberals are just too committed to Truth and Beauty to stoop to the “greedy, evil insurance company” counter-message (in this case; “greedy, evil oil company” message more recently)

    b) liberals would stoop there in a heartbeat, but are inept at it;

    c) “America is a centre-right nation” where you just don’t dare trying to sell that crap, but conservatives get away with selling “evil government” crap every day?

    • leonkelly says:

      Rule out c). It is prolly true, but is likely a result of a) or b). I have received some of the most preposterous forwarded e-mails on nutty stuff like death panels, rationing shortages, granny dying, n@. When the original mailer’s name is available, GOOGLE will reveal the stuff is purposely disseminated by people who are raking in way too much money for adding way too little value. It can be quite chilling to trace back some of this stuff. It’s about greed and the unwillingness of people who have been on the con from being flushed out.

    • jake brodsky says:

      Franken is not the first to have made that observation. However, I want to take that reasoning just a bit further.

      A conservative point of view is boring. It is a dog bites man story. You can only sell it while pointing out that the alternative is quite outrageous. This is what Limbaugh, Beck, and Hannity try to do. They cast the liberal side of the problem in as ugly a light as they can muster.

      Conversely, liberal points of view are interesting, they often turn things on their head, and in short, they often DO make great headlines. It is no surprise then, that the media like to report from a liberal point of view.

      Now, all that said, if something outrageous can be pointed out by the Conservative side, it may get lots of play. Outrage does make headlines, so it’s not a completely one sided affair.

      Liberals then see these outrages and then declare that SEE? News media is not biased! But an event here and there does not make a trend.

      Ultimately, conservatives are boring. Things that work as they always have are boring. Reporters can’t help but write stories from a mostly leftist point of view. It does sell more papers.

      Thus, I have no problem with news reporters and commentary biased toward some angle that will sell more viewers/readers/listeners. And that bias is mostly liberal. There is no shame in saying this. BUT DON’T PRETEND THAT IT ISN’T!

      • Roy Brander says:

        “…And that bias is mostly liberal”.

        …is contradicted by the entire subject of this post, and the scientific study upon which it is based.

        It was the largest news topic of the year. Hard to come up with a bigger example. And a careful, numerical study of all the examples available suggests that the conservative message got through better than the liberal one. Evidence against the bias.

        You read it, then comment “But that’s just not true, of course; stop pretending it is.” …without giving an example.

        It seems to me (I lack a scientific survey, this is just my take) that conservatives also generally won the “message war” between “The recession was caused by greedy bankers, they need more regulation” vs “The real concern now is government takeover of industry, which will heal itself via the magic of the free market”.

        My liberal reading of Paul Krugman and his current obsession convinces me that conservatives have won a message war between “Massive, sustained government spending during a recession is classic economics and will pay back” vs. “Government spending is always bad and must be curtailed at once”. Liberals can prove their point mathematically, but conservatives are winning the political decision.

        And I DO have a proper scientific study done:

        …that conservatism completely won the War “message war”. People who watched the major TV networks had a crucial level of misperception about such basic facts as whether Iraq was involved in 9/11, or whether the rest of the world supported the US invasion.

        (Incidentally, this problem was surely worse in the U.S. Canadians had partially the same problems – we watch all American TV – and Europeans, hardly at all. It’s hard not to conclude that specifically American media promoted misconceptions.)

        Perhaps I’m just clinging bitterly to my own misperceptions where I take victories for granted as wholly deserved and brood about defeats. In which case, you’ll have examples of at least three major political struggles where media bias for “selling more viewers … is mostly liberal” won a message war. My position is blinding me from seeing those examples.

        Can you help me out?

      • jake brodsky says:

        You are looking at a single issue here, noticing that conservative outrage did win much of the media attention after all, and then declaring that therefore there is quantitative data showing there is no bias. This is not the full picture.

        Even as a conservative, I’ll grant you that the health care systems we had before were not sustainable. The problem is that too many of the liberal alternatives (not all) were outrageous. The problem most center right conservatives had is that the bill tried to do too much with too little review.

        Most people had no idea what was in that bill when they voted for it. The problem wasn’t health care reform as an abstract notion, the problem was process. People picked at whatever tidbits they could latch on to. And given the sheer volume of text in this ridiculously complex bill, I think we’ll still be discussing the ramifications for at least a year or more.

        And there will be outrage because the process of passing this bill was outrageous.

        Now people look at this one issue that was fraught with all sorts of problems, and then they say, well, it seems that conservatives carried the day on this issue.

        They will do that sometimes. However, coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been very biased toward the other side. Reading first hand accounts from embedded reporters such as Michael Yon and then reading the New York Times reports on the same front leave me wondering if they’re even discussing the same continent.

        The recent reporting of the Turkish flotilla to Gaza was horribly biased toward the “outrage” expressed by the hostile passengers. Not much was said about what became of the cargo (it was inspected and delivered), or who these “peaceful” passengers were.

        The limited reporting on the Cordoba House Mosque near Ground Zero does not discuss cultural background that comes with the building of such a “tolerant” religion or who the supporters were. Those who objected were portrayed as racists.

        These things make for good headlines, but they obscure the fact that a liberal view of history tends to be quite revisionist and often does not acknowledge that there are other views of such history that might explain why some people might take offense.

        I’d cite more examples, but I think you get the idea. Oh, and one other thing: despite winning “the message war” on health care, the bill still passed. Pyrrhic victories make good headlines too.

      • John Knefel says:

        “However, coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been very biased toward the other side.”

        I’m assuming that “the other side” refers to liberals. The idea that reporting about our two illegal wars has somehow been adversarial or skeptical of those in power — whether Republican or Democrat — is absurd. With very few exceptions, discussion of the wars is limited to “how long should we stay?” and “are we meeting our noble objectives.”

        The point of my post is not that reporters should be more sympathetic to liberals because I happen to agree with that philosophy. The point is that when outright falsehoods dominate the public discussion, there is no room for actual objections to proposed policy.

      • Roy Brander says:

        Also a reply to John (below) here:

        Numbers, I want numbers. Anybody can say “The viewpoint was well represented by the media, my viewpoint, not so much.”

        Better yet, two arguers can play the game forever, if there are no numbers. Example, the flotilla:

        I would agree the “We were attacked by killer commandos from helicopters” viewpoint was well represented. But it seems to me that the Israeli viewpoint was never neglected in any news or opinion-panel presentation. G.Greenwald pointed to Eliot Spitzer on MSNBC giving GG his 90 seconds to go ballistic, but had about 3 guests – and Spitzer’s own longish air-time – to promote the Israeli POV.

        Far more importantly – image is everything – the only video played over&over&over on any network was the tightly-edited Israeli video that showed the commandos being hit with chairs, etc. Later on, some short excerpts from captured cameras – no unedited video was ever shown. (This reminded me of the networks showing the super-edited “Acorn” videos over and over without ever saying “Even we have never seen the unedited version, so this could be misleading”, much less refuse to air so edited a presentation.)

        But, please let’s not argue. I was looking for something that’s hard to argue about, numbers.

        One I recall was a claim that for every anti-war voice on TV in spring 2003, there were FIVE pro-war.

        A count of speakers is a number; a count of airtime minutes or column-inches is a number. “They just give preference to the other point of view” is a gut-reaction. We are ALL willing to listen to our own POV for hours and they fly by like minutes. When it’s a POV you hate, the minutes go by like hours. So it’s quite literally possible to have your own point of view represented by 80% of the airtime and STILL say “They gave preference to the other guy” if you don’t have a stopwatch in hand as you view the program.

  3. questioneveryone2 says:

    Great comments already, I’ll just add to it. I have always questioned the label of our country being a center-right nation. What I do believe is that the right gets the nod in that department because they are very willing to say anything, regardless of validity, to drive home their agenda.
    From my point of view, this is allowed and carries more weight because the right is willing to let it happen in the pursuit of their vision for our country. It’s not that the left doesn’t have a vision, but the simple nature of taking a liberal view of the world around you predisposes you to question with an open mind what is actually happening. On the other side of the slate the right gets away with their preposterous claims, because they constantly beat the drum that the left are communists, socialists, revisionists, etc, etc. This mantra has gone on for many years, but the simple reality is that Palin and her like are nothing more than Joe McCarthy, 21st century style. Every-time a Democrat wins the presidency the same rhetoric is marched out with the new polish but the same message; the left are trying to destroy our country.
    The biggest difference between the two viewpoints is that the right preys on people’s fears, fears that are totally unfounded, but when you have a base that has been fed fear from generation to generation, and not inclined to question their leaders, it’s easy to understand why their messaging can be so effective and people believe we are a center right nation.

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