Thursday, September 27, 2012

Civility in Politics, Media Bias, and Choice (Thursday LINKS)

On Tuesday, October 9, I will be moderating a panel with NPR host of Maryland Morning Sheila Kast titled "Civility in Politics: Does It Matter?" I had the opportunity to discuss an outline of this discussion with Sheila earlier this week...and it was awesome.  I will admit up front that I am a bit of an NPR fan-boy, so having the opportunity to work with the host of Maryland Morning on this project has been a true honor for me.  During our prep session, we seemed to have felt out the parameters of this debate, to the extent it can be contained at all, and identified some of the critical issues that we will want discussed in order to get a full view of the subject. 

The preliminary question seems to be - Do we expect our press to be a moderator?  "This is uncivil.  That is civil.  Carry on."  The gut reaction is "no", because it implies a subjective filter that many of us would be uncomfortable with.  But then, any further thought brings you to the conclusion that this filter already exists.  Media bias is not a theory.  It is an accepted byproduct of the system.  Where I tend to disagree with those who rant and rave about bias is when they impute some objective to media bias.  "Media is trying to get you to think [this]." Ignoring the multi-level coordination that would be necessary between hated competitors and incongruous mediums, the thousands of "choices" that underlie what is communicated in our media can be coordinate with a slant, but rarely coordinated with a message.

As an example, Media Group A wants to cover the current state of the Romney campaign.  They can choose between Rasmussen polling, which shows Romney even with Obama, or Gallup, which shows Obama ahead.  One of those polling groups does not poll cell phones while the other does.  One of those polling groups presumes a particular turnout for Dems, while the other flips that in favor of Republicans.  Whichever they chose, they are essentially engaging in "bias".  Many take the safe route of using the RCP Polling average, which mashes together different sample sizes and methodologies to give the appearances of a uniform average amongst polls.

Then they must choose a Republican commentator to give them a quote on how things look.  They can call former Reagan staffer and WSJ columnist Peggy Noonan, who thinks the Romney campaign is a "rolling calamity" or they can call Karl Rove, who says that Romney is poised for a turn-around in Ohio.  They can cite both, but will most likely be accused of bias for citing an unfavorable statement either way.

And that does not even get to the choice of whether to cover the state of the Romney campaign in the first place.  Media Group A could cover riots in the Middle East (expensive and seldom read work), the plight of the working class (implicit bias in favor of the left), the National Debt and fiscal cliff (treacherous from a bias perspective, especially in light of two very different views on what the response should be), or the noise.

The noise seems to be the safest bet.  Write an article about something nasty candidate A said about candidate B, then get candidate B's nasty reaction to candidate A's nasty attack.  Rinse and Repeat.  There can be few accusations of bias, so long as you don't try to fact-check the attack (heavens-to-betsy, don't do that), because you are just providing sports journalism under a different headline.  Work in a poll or two and you may as well have standings on the left hand side of the page.  And this is where civility is lost.  If Media Group A wants to attract the largest audience (from both sides of the ideological spectrum), the easiest way to do that is spend time covering the rocks as they are being thrown.  Cover it evenly, don't measure the rocks, and treat it like sport.

Media isn't trying to "brain-wash" you.  They're trying to sedate you.  If you are fed up with the system, and see it as an "other" outside of your day-to-day life, what makes news any different from Mad Men or Breaking Bad?  You tune in to see the character development and plot twists, but rarely see yourself as part of the show.

The best way to get underneath "bias" is to identify the choices that were made in compiling the story.  Why did they use X when they could have used Y?  Did they use Y and I just overlooked it due to my emotional reaction to X?  Or, am I watching/reading/listening to noise?


Dem O's smacked the dickens out of the ball last night, beating the Blue Jays 12-2, tying the club record for most home runs in a game (7).  They stay 1.5 games back from the Yanks for the division lead.

Any advocate for referendum democracy should read this article about how much money is being pumped into campaign advertisements for Question 7 (expanded gambling).  Tens of millions of dollars are being spent on either side to try to sway the unsteady views of the voter, who will have two to three pages of referendum questions to answer this November.

I'm a little late to the party on this, but the International Downtown Agency has awarded a "Downtown Merit Award" to the Howard County Government for the Columbia Master Plan.  That is certainly exciting.

Meanwhile, the Flier's editorial about Ken Ulman's support for expanded gambling really puts the screws to our Annapolis aspirant, suggesting as many other have that this is a move to cozy up with politicos in Montgomery and Prince George's County.

Featured Blog Post of the Day: Sarah wonders whether we need to worry about protecting English as our Federal/State/County language as other jurisdictions look make such a declaration official.  My perspective is that this is populism under another label and that these same folks probably expect an English speaking desk clerk when their airplane lands in Paris.

That's all for today.  Thank you so much for all of your positive comments on yesterday's post.  While it was a difficult post that I was reticent to make, it also provided some closure on the whole thing for me.

Have a great Thursday doing what you love!