Journalists pass a litmus test for fairness in covering politics when both parties hate their work.
It’s refreshing, therefore, at this early stage of the 2016 presidential campaign, to hear Democrats criticizing so-called liberal media, and Republicans chastising conservative media.
Republican Donald Trump attacked Fox News for its questioning in the first GOP debate. He appeared to be in stunned disbelief that reporters at Fox would dare toss anything but softballs his way. Fox reporters, he said, should be “ashamed.”
Across the aisle, listen to James Carville, chum of the Clintons and mouthpiece for the left, speaking the other day on MSNBC. About Jeff Bezos, owner of The Washington Post: “He ought to go on 15th Street where the Post is and get the place in order. There’s nobody editing that newspaper as far as I can see.” Carville fumed because a Post analyst dared write that Democrats were in a “freakout” over slippage in Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Are mainstream reporters treating Clinton fairly? According to Carville, “It’s mostly stupid media people talking to other stupid media people and making stuff up.”
That sounds frighteningly like the way conservatives sound off about media - all the way back to Vice President Spiro Agnew’s 1970 crack about “Nattering nabobs of negativism.” The rest of Agnew’s comment is all but lost to history, yet intriguing. He went on to say that media “have formed their own 4-H Club: the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.”
Agnew’s remarks, penned by the eloquent conservative William Safire, helped launch a half-century of mistrust by some Republicans - the “silent majority” - of mainstream media in America.
In the current campaign, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s staff is becoming what Politico calls “the most press-averse group in the Republican field.” That Walker is afraid of scrutiny by left-leaning organizations is one thing, but the conservative Wall Street Journal? Following a conference call with Walker, the Journal’s Stephanie Armour tweeted, “First time as a reporter I’ve ever had my questions pre-screened before I could ask them.”
In talking with diehards in both major parties, I hear an almost-nonstop refrain that media - all media - are out to get their candidate. They’re not referring to columnists and commentators who, by job description, are biased. They’re talking about reporters at established, mainstream outlets, from The New York Times and Wall Street Journal to CBS News and Fox News. As partisans see it, it’s pretty much all-bias all the time.
Many liberals are convinced, for example, that The Times has it in for the Clintons. They see prejudice in almost every news story, no matter how benign. Lately, they also believe The Times has a bias against Hillary Clinton’s closest rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The left-leaning Huffington Post sliced and diced a Times feature about Sanders, calling it “mildly and cheerfully disparaging.” The piece carried the headline: “The Times Doctrine on Bernie Sanders,” but when it was picked up word-for-word by Salon, the headline was changed to: “Bernie Sanders gets slimed by The New York Times.”
The Times report didn’t “slime” Sanders at all. Yet, media paranoia has reached a level where many see demons lurking in coverage that is even slightly critical of any candidate they favor.
Is there bias among news media? Probably, in certain quarters, to some degree. But at this point in the long slog to Election Day 2016, many in mainstream media deserve credit for treating all candidates with appropriate skepticism.
Here’s a fair and balanced news flash. The day candidates and partisans stop complaining about journalists is when we’ll know the coverage is skewed.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker