Insidious Media Bias and the Current Coverage of President Barack Obama

— Richard E. Vatz, Ph.D.

One of the long arguments over ideological media criticism by the mainstream media — and even longer is the fact of such coverage — is whether self-described liberal journalists can leave their political predilections at the gate while covering politics.

Over the past few decades, poll after poll has shown tremendous liberal-conservative discrepancies among news gatherers and writers. The consistency in such polls — finding a high proportion of liberals to conservatives within and among most newspapers and electronic media sources — is to my knowledge without exception.

The standard response to such findings is that journalists can overcome their biases and report the news without such reportage being affected by source bias.

The reason that it cannot is that all reporting involves the two basic steps of rhetoric: what to cover and what interpretation to give to that which is covered.

This current blog could be a book’s length argument, but let me just look at some of the recent coverage of President Obama by just two liberal reporters, reporters whom I generally like because of their intelligence and insight.

Despite our political differences, I generally enjoy Dana Milbank because he is usually hard-nosed and insightful. His recent piece (“Obama, Lost in Thought,” April 27, 2011), however, illustrates well how a columnist’s politics can affect presidential coverage.

Milbank’s column deals with the President’s inconsistency in leadership, inconsistency which has been criticized by many, including tellingly by columnist Charles Krauthammer.

Milbank doesn’t deny the incredulity that most fair observers have pursuant to President Obama’s vacillations, but he says that such unpredictability is due to his exceptional, but action-disabling, thinking prowess, his “integrative complexity.” Milbank supports this unsupportable exculpating take with the facile remark that Winston Churchill was a “simple thinker.” (!) He supports this quasi-psychobabbling defense by quoting a psychology professor whose speculations reveal him to be either ignorant of or uninterested in qualities necessary for effective leadership.

President Obama, pleasingly bright, is our Hamlet, lacking in courage, afraid to disappoint, so he searches for reasons not to commit to matters that require at times some risk. At times. He is always, it seems, conflicted, so he lacks predictability.

The Washington Post‘s E. J. Dionne who almost always gives the President a pass on everything, opines on the birther issue by castigating the press for focusing on it. Not a word from Mr. Dionne on the President’s untoward increasing of the matter’s saliency or on the press who have used the issue to ignore the presidential aspirations of Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney and others. Not a word on the columnists who falsely imply that mainstream Republicans believe that President Obama was not born in the United States.

In the days following President Obama’s well-delivered but uncharacteristically unclever speech to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, it’s important to remember the importance of disinterested coverage of the President: the road to bad reporting is covered with good intentions.

Professor Vatz teaches Media Criticism at Towson University

Addendum: The Obama-superintended successful raid on and killing of Osama bin Laden coincidentally occurred on the day of this blog, May 1, 2011. That fact does not invalidate any of the observations herein. It does, however, show the conflicted nature of the President’s leadership, but to be fair it also reveals a leader who under the right circumstances is manifestly capable of taking decisive action, irrespective of his alleged “integrative complexity.”

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