Rich Lowry notes that the video recorded assault on Steve Crowder by pro-union demonstrators does not seem to have gotten much reaction in the mainstream media news sections. Compare the lack of mainstream media interest in this story with the many media insinuations that the Arizona shooter was or might have been tied to the Tea Party. News articles covered the debate about whether conservatives were somehow to blame for the Giffords shooting. The different mainstream media reactions to the political salience of the two events would seem strange. In the Arizona case you had a deranged man who did not seem connected to any political movement and who was uninterested in the partisan debates of our time. He was a crazy man with his own deranged reasons. In the Michigan case you have an avowed member of a protest movement engaging in an unambiguous act of political violence.
You can only imagine the coverage that would have resulted from a Tea Party protester punching Jon Stewart. Lowry concludes that, for the mainstream media, sometimes thuggery is okay. I sort of disagree with the okay part. If you ask them, I’m pretty sure that most liberal mainstream journalists are against punching conservatives who are peacefully exercising their rights to free speech – and they will probably mean what they say. I do think that how liberal-leaning journalists interpret events is powerfully and often unconsciously shaped by their social networks and that this influences their coverage choices.
First let’s get some things straight. When I speak of liberal journalists I don’t mean the Paul Krugman’s of the world. Krugman doesn’t especially care if his insinuations that his political opponents incited mass murder are correct and incorrect. No matter the facts, he can always hide behind his undisproveable idea that the political “climate” incited the Arizona shooting. Krugman and his ilk on MSNBC have chosen to put honesty aside. that is who they are.
The liberal journalists I’m talking about produce what I’ve called culturally biased news. Unlike Krugman or Ed Schultz, they care more about whether a story is true than whether it advances the interests of Team Red or Team Blue. They have their biases, but they try to get it right. So why did they put the Giffords story in a partisan context that was obviously inappropriate to the facts of the shooting, while ignoring the obviously political attack on Steve Crowder? I think it comes down to the reality that not only are most news reporters and producers liberals themselves, they are also embedded in social networks of people who are much more partisan liberals. They are much more tied into the liberal upper-middle class in academia, entertainment and their friends from college. These peer effects can’t help but influence story selection.
First let’s look at the Crowder assault. It was one guy attacking one other guy. A lot of reporters and producers know a lot of people who have sympathy for unions. They know that the membership of unions represent a broad range of personality types. The reporters also know that the overwhelming majority of union workers neither commit nor condone this kind of violence. A report that says “Conservatives say this man’s actions show union thuggery. What do you think?” is obviously unfair. No matter what “answer” the report gives, just asking the question is a stain on millions of innocent and peaceful people. You wouldn’t build a similar report asking about the proclivities of a racial or ethnic group based on the actions of one group member. That is how stereotypes are perpetuated.
Now let’s look at the Giffords shooting. The day of the shooting, my local cable news channel had a lot of stories regarding “questions” about Tea Party involvement in the shooting. The stories didn’t come down on one side or the other. The reports had some people claiming the Tea Party was involved and some people saying it wasn’t. It seemed, in the absence of facts, like a reasonable question. And then the lack of “civility” was a reasonable question after it became clear that the shooter was not “political” as we think of the term. There wasn’t much worry that a group of peaceful political dissenters were being subjected to fact-free smears.
In his book Before The Storm, Rick Perlstein wrote about how mainstream reporters reacted to Goldwater voters in 1964. Perlstein wrote that, for the reporters, the Goldwater voters might as well have landed on Earth on election day and then went back up to spaceships after casting their ballots. I think something similar was at work in how mainstream journalists and producers reacted to the Tea Party. The reporters and producers were much less likely know anyone in their personal life very well who participated in, or strongly approved of, the Tea Party. Maybe there was an obnoxious (as they saw it) uncle who ruined family gatherings. These Tea people were out there with their ridiculous hats, and calling the Democratic, liberal (moderate if you think about it), first black president a Nazi. What does that even mean? Maybe the violent loon who shot those people really was a Tea Party person. Maybe he was inspired by their rhetoric. It is worth investigating. If it turns out the Tea Party wasn’t at fault, then the mainstream media would be doing them a favor by putting the questions to rest. Anyway, it is always a good idea to call out incivility wherever it appears.
The differing reactions occur months or years apart, and the contradictions aren’t evident to the people involved. They aren’t getting contrary feedback from their own social circle. The problem is sociological.
I don’t have any particular answers for this asymmetry in media power, but I can see some implications. First, while Republicans should appear on mainstream media news programs as often as possible and with the pithiest message possible that is aimed to persuadables, there are limits to the benefits of this approach. The most important stuff doesn’t happen during the interview. It happens during news reports where you aren’t interviewed. It happens when the producers select the topics that will be covered in the interview.
In some ways, the problem for the center-right isn’t new. The three big networks were plenty liberal-leaning in the old days. Right-leaning figures like Michael Deaver and the other media mavens of that era were able to use paid media and manipulate the norms of mainstream media news programs to get their message across. Media consumption patterns have changed and those methods (especially the thirty second ad) don’t work as well. The greatest technical messaging challenge for conservatives is to find ways to speak to nonconservatives unfiltered for a couple of minutes at a time.