The Atlantic is right to claim that reporters feel safest when they simply relate the he-said she-said narrative. Detailing the conservative bias of Fox and the liberal bias of MSNBC on each issue would pad this list and be entirely unoriginal. Instead, I have focused on the metanarratives both these networks and many other news sources generally accept. I’ve found seven.
1. American Politics Began in January 2009: Republicans and Fox News seem to have an amnesia that blocks out all U.S. History from 2002-2009. Yes, 9/11 is still in the national consciousness. How could it not be? But the Bush presidency didn’t happen, or if it did the Obama presidency is so bad that the Bush presidency no longer matters. Democrats don’t argue that since Obama has been president everything has been perfect. That would be indefensible, and whether we’re better off now than four years ago is very debatable. And while many Americans are guilty of blindly accepting what their Social Studies taught them about American History, parents shape voters’ views of recent history. To understand the current American fiscal and diplomatic position, it’s necessary to have a historical understanding that extends at least to World War II. As this history is necessarily not current, it is not covered by “the mainstream media,” and is generally not in voters’ minds. And when it is covered, it’s by Glenn Beck. At the very least, he is not an authoritative historian.
2. Personality Matters More Than Policy: This bias is rooted in the medium of television and is thus structural, not based on individual stories. Every student of political science knows the story of the 1960 Presidential Debate where radio listeners thought Nixon won and television watchers though Kennedy won. This is easy to tell just looking at a picture of the two. Nixon didn’t even wear makeup.
The way candidates appear on camera is still paramount in politics today. This is not baseless, plebeian chasing after shiny things. The role of the executive branch has been expanding since Andrew Jackson, so it’s important to know who is wielding all that power. But the focus on personality and charisma has completely eclipsed concern for policy. The Republican Party’s official platform mentions almost no policy specifics, and its only data are for the cost of Obamacare. Gallup takes seriously polls that compare likability to approval and shows that the two are so closely tied.
We more or less dictate media, and large numbers of us are more concerned about who is running than why they are running. Washington had a temper, Jefferson was a flip-flopper, and Lincoln was ugly and moody. Howard Dean fell off the map with one emotional outburst, and John Kerry was nailed as inconsistent. There are no ugly, successful politicians. In fact, there are no ugly people on television. Even the star of Ugly Betty is attractive:
3. The Plural of Anecdote is Data: You may disagree with progressive Robert M. La Follette’s politics, but the era of data-driven politics he began is irrevocable. Fact-checkers countered Paul Ryan’s claims in his speech in Tampa and lamented the number of numbers in Bill Clinton’s DNC speech. And while fact-checking fact-checkers may begin a recursive cycle that only polarizes debate, surely it’s preferable to folksy stories from both sides of the aisle. If I take the story of how Mitt Romney transported his dog on his vacation with the courtship of his wife, will I understand how he will execute the office? If I learn about Obama’s recipe for the White House beer and the girl he met at a science fair, will I have a better sense of what he’d do in a second term? No, but anecdotes are what make the news, not relevant and substantive data.
4. Vice Presidents Matter: Yes, presidents die and are killed, and then vice presidents having to take over. But there hasn’t been a presidential death in fifty years, and Dick Cheney’s strong influence on George W. Bush was unique. For the most part, vice presidents do very little. John Adams contributed technically more than any vice president, casting a still unapproached record 29 tie-breaking votes. But he wrote to his wife that, “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” My favorite if ill-fated president, James A. Garfield, wrote that he preferred reading Goethe to presiding over the Senate. Today, vice presidents don’t preside over the Senate. I do not care if Joe Biden is a hair-plugged dope or Paul Ryan is an overeager health nut. Neither man seriously affects policy.
5. The Overall Popular Vote Matters: Nationwide opinion polls are mostly irrelevant. The presidential election comes down to a few swing states, and just a few districts within those swing states. So if you live in Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Virginia or New Hampshire, pray you live in a contested voting district and get out and vote. But as 2000 proved, if you live anywhere else your vote for president does not matter. The popular vote is largely irrelevant because the Electoral College, which answers to states that answer to individual, gerrymandered, voting districts, elects the president. Thus, overall polls that pit Romney against Obama do not really matter, despite what any medium tells you. This election comes down to a few voting districts.
6. Only the Presidential Race Matters: There’s hope if you don’t live in a swing district! Most media focus is on the presidential race because, per number two, that’s the most narratively interesting story. But, thanks to James Madison’s checks and balances, the executive branch is indeed checked by the legislature, and the judiciary reviews all. It is reasonable to vote for a president for not just what he stands for, if you even know what that is, but based on what judges he may appoint. But no president can get anything done without the support of Congress — just ask Gerald Ford. And even though the president can now commit troops and execute military attacks on a whim, Congress still votes to fund wars. Setting aside the strength of the .com-bubbling economy, a lot of Bill Clinton’s high approval ratings in his second term were the result of hard-fought compromise with the Republican-controlled Congress. Historically, divided government is the norm, and it produces compromise policies that nobody really likes but everyone can agree to. The president isn’t the only one who matters.
7. There Are Only Two Parties, and They Could not Be More Different: This might be the biggest point, and that’s why I saved it for last. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama agree on staying in Afghanistan, supporting Israel, embargoing Iran, letting the UN deal with Sudan, not granting constitutional rights to terrorists, extending the Patriot Act, maintaining gun control, not decriminalizing drugs, not actively fighting online piracy, extending subsidies, maintaining welfare for those who work and expanding offshore drilling. But did you know they’re not the only ones running for president? The Libertarian Party nominated Gary Johnson and the Green Party Jill Stein are too. The former is on the ballot in forty-seven states and the latter in thirty-seven. You probably haven’t heard about either of them on cable news networks or in daily newspaper articles, because evidently only a Republican or a Democrat can be president. But the current two-party system is not that old and certainly not concrete. Just considering the past three years, the Nader vote in 2000 made the Democratic Party much greener, and the rise of the Tea Party has significantly affected the platform of the Republican Party. The RNC doesn’t quite know how to incorporate all the Tea Partiers yet, but the primary candidate field and speaker selection at the convention show they recognize how important they are. So, despite what you may hear and read, a vote for not-Romney and not-Obama is still a vote — and one that matters.
Media bias can be disheartening, but truth is a mountain, and each source is but an artist's rendering of the mountain. The best way to get a sense of the mountain is to critically assess as many depictions of it as possible. This is difficult, so many will say there is no mountain or one particular depiction is all there is. But ultimately, we can successfully climb the mountain by critically combining several depictions as our guide.