The Beltway media have been in a feeding frenzy over the Affordable Care Act and President Obama’s declining poll numbers, and the biases behind that feeding frenzy are more structural and pervasive than ideology. (More)

“A chaotic, disorganized, confused party”

Just three weeks ago, Democrats seemed to be riding high. The Washington Post said the government shutdown last month “dealt a major blow to the GOP’s image and has exposed significant divisions between tea party supporters and other Republicans,” citing the Post’s own polling. The Huffington Post headlined “37 House Republicans Who Could Lose Their Jobs For Shutting Down The Government.” And CNN said the odds of Democrats retaking the House next year had increased:

“Republicans have ratcheted up their risk,” said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of The Rothenberg Political Report. “There is now a plausible case for the midterms being a plus for the Democrats, where I would never said that six months ago.”

Rothenberg said the GOP is being perceived as “a chaotic, disorganized, confused party” and it is likely that their fundraising numbers will likely begin to slow in the coming months.

“Big dollar donors, who are more pragmatic business types, are now worried about where the party is going,” he said. “For Democrats, this helps them for 2014 in recruitment, in fundraising and in overall morale.”

“A dysfunctional website and piling-up concerns about plan cancellations”

But all of that is ancient history, in the eyes of the Beltway media. Once the government reopened, their focus shifted to early glitches at the Healthcare.gov website and – when those problems began to be addressed – to President Obama’s poorly-worded claim that individuals who liked their current health insurance would be able to keep it. Or, as the Beltway media have agreed to call it, “Obama’s Big Lie.”

As Business Insider’s Brett LoGiurato writes:

The political gains that Democrats made on the generic congressional ballot as a result of the federal government shutdown have evaporated over the past few weeks.

Republicans and Democrats are now tied on the generic congressional ballot, according to a new Quinnipiac University survey released Wednesday. The ballot has moved nine points in the past six weeks from what was a 43-34 Democratic lead on Oct. 1.

And the National Journal’s Alex Roarty is anxious to explain why this won’t be just another passing political hiccup:

History says President Obama’s sagging approval ratings – which this month have neared the lows of his entire presidency – aren’t going to improve before he leaves the White House in 2017. And that’s a troubling trajectory for Democrats feeling the pressure of reelection next year.

Never mind that Roarty cites a ridiculously small sample set: Presidents Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. He has another source, Republican pollster Ed Goeas. President Obama and Democrats are doomed … just as House Republicans were three weeks ago.

“The inherent biases of journalism as a professional practice”

Of course, three weeks ago conservatives were howling about liberal media bias. And this week the opposite claim might seem plausible. But as journalism professor Andrew Cline writes, the media’s real biases aren’t about ideology, although they seem that way when the Beltway herd temporarily flocks one way or the other. Instead, Cline argues, the media’s biases are structural:

Is the news media biased toward liberals? Yes. Is the news media biased toward conservatives? Yes. These questions and answers are uninteresting because it is possible to find evidence – anecdotal and otherwise – to “prove” media bias of one stripe or another. Far more interesting and instructive is studying the inherent, or structural, biases of journalism as a professional practice – especially as mediated through television. I use the word “bias” here to challenge its current use by partisan critics. A more accepted, and perhaps more accurate, term would be “frame.” These are some of the professional frames that structure what journalists can see and how they can present what they see.

Among the structural biases he lists are:

  • Commercial bias – The media need stories that attract viewers and boost ad ratings.
  • Temporal bias – The media need new stories to keep viewers’ attention.
  • Bad news bias – Government employees laid off and parks and monuments closing is dramatic. Those employees returning to work and the parks and monuments reopening is boring.
  • Narrative bias – Good stories need drama and controversy, and reporters rarely challenge a “master narrative” once established. (E.g.: blindness to positive stories about the ‘failed’ 2009 stimulus.)
  • Fairness bias – This includes both false equivalence and the rarely-questioned presumption that reporting on a success by Leader A requires including a critical response by opposing Leader B.
  • Glory bias – Reporters like stories that boost their professional standing (front page, guest on cable news, etc.).

“Keeper of the official record”

In 1990, journalism professor Lance Bennett documented another structural bias in our media, namely, a filtering bias toward debates between political leaders to the virtual exclusion of other issues. Dr. Bennett writes:

Mass media news professionals, from the boardroom to the beat, tend to “index” the range of voices and viewpoints in both news and editorials according to the range of views expressed in mainstream government debate about a given topic.[…]

The press in this system might be seen to have settled for a comfortable role as “keeper of the official record,” while abdicating its traditional mandate to raise an independent “voice of the people” under appropriate circumstances.

This explains why there were almost no stories about how new insurance standards would affect American families until the Republican-fed umbrage about insurance cancellation notices. President Obama and Democrats were debating Speaker Boehner and Republicans over whether to repeal the ACA, not whether or how to improve it. Lacking an official debate, the media did not report the story.

Similarly, the official debate sets the agenda of stories to be covered. If the President Obama and Democrats are debating Speaker Boehner and Republicans about the federal deficit, you won’t see or read many stories about unemployment … even if more Americans care about jobs.

Add in what journalism professor Jay Rosen calls “the cult of savviiness” – the focus on partisan electoral strategies over policy details and their implications – and we get the current Beltway feeding frenzy about President Obama and the ACA being doomed.

The good news, such as it is, is that by next month temporal bias will force the media to herd around a new story. The bad news is that the media probably won’t revise their narrative about the ACA, even if the website is fixed by December 1st and the federal exchange reaches its targets by March 31st. By then, in the eyes of the Beltway media, the ACA will be ancient history….

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Happy Friday!