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Media Filters and the Tools of Perception

October 16th, 2003

We’ve seen it before, you know. Back in the Reagan administration, when things were seen as not going well in the nation, Reagan’s people blamed the media back then, just as Bush is blaming them now. They said that the media only reported bad news, and that they should “balance” their reporting with good news. And before him, Nixon also gave it a try–with his vice president Spiro Agnew denouncing the “nattering nabobs of negativity.” The suggestion, of course, was as hollow back then as it is now; the real reason behind the claim was not due to a fault or lack on the part of the media–it was due to falling poll numbers for a conservative presidency, unpopularity caused by factors beyond the control of the presidency. And since the root problem could not be helped, the president tried to make people believe that the root problem was not so bad–it’s just that the media is making it look that way.

Reagan’s attempt to spin the media was perhaps the embryonic beginning of the conservative myth about the liberal media; the reason behind creating that fiction is very much in line with the current administration’s attempt at massive media spin. It all has to do with perception, the kernel of American politics.

It’s like the old haggling ploy of trying to place the perceived center as close to your side as possible. Let’s say that you have to negotiate with someone and come to a settlement. When people start to dicker, the assumption is that they will compromise towards a central point. Let’s say that the fair settlement is 100. You want 200, your counterpart wants zero. Your counterpart, not wanting to insult you with a zero offer, starts at 50. You see an opportunity to move the center closer to you, so you start at 250. That puts the center at 150, much closer to the place you want to be–and your counterpart is now at a disadvantage, because they have to make you give up more than they do.

And that’s more or less what conservatives have been trying to achieve with the entire “liberal media” canard: to place the perceived “center” of fairness closer to their side. By claiming the media is liberal, they create the appearance that the truth is not what the media says it is, but rather the truth is much closer to what they say it is. If media stories show a conservative figure in a negative light, such as Rush Limbaugh, we are supposed to discount it because of the “liberal media,” and believe that he is less culpable than he appears. If a liberal cause is perceived as popular in the media, such as a gun control measure, we are again supposed to discount it and believe that few people really support it, and it is being propped up by those liberals in the media. If you can get people to believe there is a liberal bias in the media, then, you can push public perception to the conclusion that the truth is more on the conservative side of things. That is the motive for the right wing to engender, espouse and sustain the illusion of left-wing bias in the news that we receive.

Joe Conason does an excellent job of upending that cliché in his book, “Big Lies,” where he compares it to “working the ref.” In basketball, if the referee calls a penalty against a team, the coach goes out of his way to protest, calling the decision unfair to as far a degree is possible in the hope that the ref will give the team some slack to make up for it next time. Conason points out that while a majority of reporters vote Democratic, a greater majority of editors and publishers–the real ones that decide bias and direction–are conservative. And he reports on conservatives who have, in candid moments, owned up to the truth; Bill Kristol, for example, in 1995, saying that “the liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used by conservatives for conservative failures.” Even Rush Limbaugh has claimed that the media today is more conservative. And that is hard to deny, with Fox News leading a frightened CNN into the conservative realm, and with a seemingly endless line of conservative radio and TV commentators with their own biased shows, with nary a liberal in sight with even a half hour of his or her own.

The grand Republican tradition of swaying perception simply continues with George W. Bush; nothing here is new. With his Iraq policy in shambles, and things looking grim for an election year, there’s not much he can control that would improve things–he can’t stop the guerillas, and he can’t guarantee the capture of Saddam Hussein. He can’t pull the troops out, he won’t be the humble leader he promised in 2000 in order to get the U.N. to sign on, and he can’t avoid spending yet more and more billions of dollars. Without the ability to make any substantive changes, he does the only thing he can do to try to win the day, the tactic that has served the GOP so well over the decades: blame the media for making things look so bad.

It’s a tough sell, with American soldiers dying daily, car bombs blowing up streets every week, with the world largely against us and the patience of the American people wearing thin.

But then, conservatives are very, very good at this game.

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