The Politics of the Press

Jay Rosen wrote an excellent examination of the way the media treats political issues, and why they don’t understand how they do it. You really should read the whole thing, but I think this is probably the most important takeaway:

Deciding what does and does not legitimately belong within the national debate is—no way around it—a political act. And yet a pervasive belief within the press is that journalists do not engage in such action, for to do so would be against their principles. As Len Downie, former editor of the Washington Post once said about why things make the front page, “We think it’s important informationally. We are not allowing ourselves to think politically.” I think he’s right. The press does not permit itself to think politically. But it does engage in political acts. Ergo, it is an unthinking actor, which is not good. When it is criticized for this it will reject the criticism out of hand, which is also not good.

This is where I think progressives get frustrated in their media criticism, and why they see a Republican bias to the media, but ultimately the left and the right are not approaching things the same way. The left used trained and quasi-trained journalists to complain that the media is skewing the political debate, misframing issues, focusing on trivial matters no one cares about, projecting their consensus onto the rest of the country, etc., and the media dismisses it out of hand. That’s a media critique at its finest, but ultimately journalists just don’t see themselves as thinking, actively, about politics in that fashion, so the critics are inevitably ignored. The right, on the other hand, just screams endlessly that the press has a straight, ideological bias that infiltrates their coverage and disadvantages conservatives. It’s not true of course, but then it’s not supposed to be because it’s not a real media critique, it’s a political strategy. It’s like a perpetual case of working the refs, putting it into their head that their default position is liberal groupthink, and making them make a conscious effort to defer to the right to “balance” their liberal instincts. But the fact that the press listens to them and not Media Matters doesn’t make the MSM a right-wing outlet, it just means that the MRC understands how to manipulate the press better than MMA, in part because MMA is infinitely more intellectully honest than MRC.