David Frum

11.10.12

The "Media Bias" Dead End

Video screenshot

Once upon a time, there existed a United States of tightly concentrated media power. Three national television networks, three national newsmagazines, at most two newspapers in each major city, with the New York Times setting the agenda for them all: that's the way it was. The people who staffed these media companies shared some deep unexamined prejudices about what was news and what was not news. They shared some common political views too: in favor of civil rights, in favor of a strong American leadership role in the world, in favor of the New Deal social reforms, and so on.

If you dissented from those common assumptions, you found yourself in a pretty marginal place. That was true whether you were a left-winger who questioned America's global role or a right-winger who still rejected the New Deal. You could publish in your little magazine or broadcast on a local AM radio station; you could publish books (that might or might not be reviewed) and mail mimeographed newsletters and give speeches to lunch clubs; it was a free country after all - but except in the most unusual cases, you could never aspire to a national audience.

That world is as dead as the Hittites. You have to have advanced well into your fifties to remember when it operated at anything like full power. In our modern world, "the media" are technologies, not institutions: a waiter with a smart phone can blow up the Romney campaign more devastatingly with one short video clip than all the reporters in the country.

But of course, people well into their fifties are the base of the conservative movement. For these people, "the media" remain as they were in the 1970s, hugely powerful and desperately loathed enemies - enemies more real than any opposing politician.

When they talk about "the media," conservatives battle with ghosts.

Which is why so much of that talk has so little to do with reality. Here's an example from Newsbusters, the blog of the Media Research Center. The item is of special interest to me for obvious reasons, but it's also interestingly illustrative of a more general problem:

David Frum blames the media for Mitt Romney's loss. Not the liberal media, of course--we are talking David Frum, after all. No, Frum blames the conservative media, or as he calls it, "the conservative entertainment complex."

Frum touted his upside-down take on the media during a Morning Joe appearance today while promoting his instant e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Joe Scarborough liked the line so much he asked Frum to repeat it. Frum refused to name names, saying he does so in his book, but do we doubt whom he was targeting? View the video after the jump.

In what kind of parallel universe does Frum exist? The MSM served as the communications arm of the Obama campaign, among other things suppressing the real story of the Benghazi outrage that could have turned the election around. And Frum thinks the media problem was on the right?

Question: where was the news about Benghazi broken? Answer: right here on the Daily Beast/Newsweek site, by my colleague Eli Lake. Eli Lake's reporting inspired other work by other journalists at other media corporations, which in turn caused Martha Raddatz (of ABC!) to ask about the Benghazi in her very first question of the vice presidential debate. Benghazi was also of course discussed in the foreign policy presidential debate moderated by Candy Crowley - and if Romney fumbled the issue there, that was his own doing.

Larger question: if there's any parallel universe here, it's the universe in which Benghazi "could have turned the election around." That's just a total fantasy, and a fantasy based not on the known facts of the Benghazi fiasco, but on conservative surmise, speculation and rumor about those facts. It's a strange kind of media criticism that attacks media companies for not publishing rumor as fact - but maybe not nearly so strange as the actual fact that there now exists a media company, and the very most powerful of them all, that does exactly that.