Many people think “the media” are consistently virulently anti-conservative, while many others think the media are not biased against conservatives at all.
Only a few people think that mainstream media – namely CNN, ABC, NBC, and CBS -- sometimes are but sometimes are not hostile to conservatives.
I am a pundit who thinks the latter is true, although not equally fair and unfair. The two recent powerful examples of media-conservative clash in the Republican presidential debates are illustrative.
On January 19, 2012 and January 26, 2012, Newt Gingrich accused CNN’s John King and Wolf Blitzer, respectively if not respectfully, of unadulterated unfair treatment of conservatives in the Republican presidential debates in South Carolina and Florida.
The first attack appeared to help Gingrich win the South Carolina primary.
CNN’s King, who in mid-June of 2011 hosted a Republican presidential debate and consistently made derisive sounds to communicate his dissatisfaction with the answer and/or the length of the answer, hosted the January 19 debate.
He started that South Carolina debate by asking if Gingrich would “like to take some time to respond” to an ABC interview in which his ex-wife said he asked her to “enter into an open marriage” at a time in which he was “having an affair.”
In a lengthy response regarding the “destructive, vicious [and] negative nature of much of the news media,” Gingrich also ensured that there was a personal component of his outrage, saying in answer to King’s claim that he did not initiate the issue: “John, John, it was repeated by your network. You chose to start the debate with it. Don't try to blame somebody else. You and your staff chose to start this debate with that.” He then added that King’s significant introduction of such an irrelevant, personal issue was “close to despicable.”
Given King’s prior self-defined role as provocateur at the earlier Republican debate, the insistence of the question being the first asked and his recent Republican-negative reputation, no reasonable observer could doubt that Speaker Gingrich had portrayed King’s anti-conservative media bias accurately.
Then last Thursday night’s Floridian Gingrich-Blitzer clash was round two in the debate media bias wars.
After the debate had gone on for some time, Blitzer asked Gingrich, “Earlier this week, you said Governor [Mitt] Romney, after he released his taxes, you said that you were satisfied with the level of transparency of his personal finances when it comes to this. And I just want to reiterate and ask you, are you satisfied right now with the level of transparency as far as his personal finances?”
Gingrich lit into him with a vehemence not revealed by the language of the attack: ”This is a nonsense question. Look, how about if the four of us agree for the rest of the evening, we'll actually talk about issues that relate to governing America?”
Blitzer defended himself: “But, Mr. Speaker, you made an issue of this, this week, when you said that, ‘He lives in a world of Swiss bank and Cayman Island bank accounts.’ I didn't say that. You did.”
Gingrich argued that the question was illegitimate because it quoted him from “an interview on some TV Show…” but that this was a “national debate.”
Gov. Romney asked rhetorically, “Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations somewhere else that they weren't willing to defend here?”
Decision: Mr. Blitzer.
Unlike John King and a wealth of other anti-conservative questioners and news people in the media wars, Wolf Blitzer has no reputation of unfairness, even of just recent vintage, such as King; in fact, quite the opposite.
The question did not lead the debate, and it was eminently reasonable to ask a candidate if he stood by his statements issued publicly, especially statements indisputably material to a presidential race.
Gingrich, probably overconfident from his successful criticism of John King, had let his overconfidence lead him into an unfair misjudgment of what criticism would fly in this debate.
The lesson: media bias is real, but to accuse good journalists asking good, relevant questions of such unfairness is itself unfair and harmful to the quest to convince people of the existence of genuine media anti-conservative prejudice.
The Premier blog of conservative and Republican politics and ideas in the Free State, named one of Maryland's best political blogs by the Washington Post.
Professor Vatz has taught Media Criticism for about twenty years at Towson University. He is author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2012).