September 8, 2008
So powerful are the media that they have been referred to as the fourth branch of government. Indeed, they can make or break reputations. Example: when former Vice President Dan Quayle misspelled “potato” by adding an “e,” the press magnified and harped on the incident so much that Quayle never escaped the general perception that he was a light-weight. By contrast, when Barack Obama stated earlier this year that he had visited 57 states, the media glossed over the gaffe, sparing Obama the Quayle treatment. Double standard, anyone?
At times, the media’s power goes to their head. When Sarah Palin was picked by John McCain as his vice-presidential candidate, several of the most prominent commentators in the D.C.-NYC media elite pouted and were superciliously dismissive toward Palin. How dare McCain pick someone who had never been on “Meet the Press!” One famous female commentator was so upset that she called the choice of Palin “insulting to women.” The onslaught of nasty comments about Sarah Palin has already begun.
One of the most flagrant abuses of media power was their coverage of the Vietnam War. The media convinced many Americans (including me) that the United States was defeated militarily. Only after the war did I learn that the famous North Vietnamese “Tet offensive” of 1968 was a major defeat for the North, yet U.S. journalists made it seem like a U.S. loss. Years later, North Vietnamese General Giap’s memoirs explained how his side’s eventual victory was won in the American media, not on the battlefield.
There is danger today of the U.S. media committing a similar atrocity. After years of barraging the American public with depressing stories of every American life lost in Iraq, criticisms of our military strategy, and monotonous insistences that we couldn’t prevail, victory is now within sight. On Sept. 1, our troops formally transferred security control of Anbar province to the democratic government of Iraq. This is huge. Anbar was the center of the Sunni insurgency and the base of al-Qaida in Iraq. As recently as a year ago, gloomy prognosticators claimed that it could never be pacified. Now it has been, but did you see this reported on the news? Granted, it was a busy week for news, due to Hurricane Gustav and the Republican convention, but isn’t good news in a long and painful war newsworthy? Why did the media never hesitate to publicize our setbacks, yet now they’re reluctant to publicize American success? I’d like to ask them: Aren’t you glad we are winning? Or are you afraid that by reporting our success, you would have to give credit to John McCain, who was instrumental in convincing President Bush to install new military leadership with a better strategy, while his opponent took the defeatist and mistaken position that the U.S. could not prevail?
Another example of Big Media misshaping public opinion is their long-time role in bashing Big Oil. I can still remember the oil crunch of 1979-80, when the network anchors reported a major oil company’s quarterly profits as having risen 100 percent. That sounds like a huge number to the mathematically unsophisticated, but in reality, it often meant that profit margins had risen (temporarily) from 5 percent to 10 percent. Interestingly, while casting the oil companies in a sinister light, the networks’ own profits at the time had increased by a larger percentage—a fact they didn’t bother to include on their nightly news shows.
Seeing journalists up close can be disillusioning. Once, while visiting Washington, I was given press credentials by a newspaper I had written for to attend a press conference with leaders of the Nicaraguan Contras. Sitting among the Washington press corps before the Contras arrived, I felt like I was witnessing a gang plot, an ambush. The pre-conference chatter was dominated by reporters enamored of Sandinista ruler Daniel Ortega—the young Marxist with the cool mustache and designer eyeglasses, whose major achievement was redistributing riches from friends of Somoza to friends of Daniel. They were planning how they would trash the Contras and bash President Reagan for supporting the Contras’ efforts to liberate their country. The reporters had an agenda, and objectivity and truth-telling were not part of it.
Fearing and resenting the success of conservative talk-radio, and frustrated by their own inability to win market share with liberal-oriented programming, liberals in the media are pushing for a return to what they call “the fairness doctrine,” in which government would impose “equal time” requirements on stations, thereby forcing them to carry programming with a different ideological content than what listeners have freely chosen.
A word about media bias: it is inevitable. It is also subjective, meaning that news reporting is too conservative for liberals and too liberal for conservatives. You just need to know what the biases of your news sources are. Two conservatively-oriented news watchdogs are Accuracy in Media (www.aim.org) and Media Research Center (www.mediaresearch.org). Studies of media bias can be Googled under Rothman-Lichter media bias.
A parting thought: we need fair-minded bright people in the media. The potential impact for good in disseminating truth and wisdom can be enormous.
Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is a faculty member, economist, and contributing scholar with the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.