Saturday, April 22, 2006

Bill Maher's panelists on press bias

After the show Real Time with Bill Maher wraps up, the panelists do a special extra segment for webcasting on The panel on Friday 2006-04-21 consisted of General Anthony Zinni, Mort Zuckerman from U.S. News & World Report, and Heather Higgins of the Independent Women's Forum. Their Oh, and One More Thing webcast segment contained some jaw-dropping exchanges.


Higgins: I think the media has a real role to play in the perceptions people have. Michael Brown tells this entertaining story about an interview he had with the newsroom editor of a major place. He said to him, "So, do you think it matters that the news media is 90% one party?" The guy was saying, "No, no, no, it's all fine, because they're very balanced and fair." Michael said, "If they were 90% Republican, would it matter?" "No, no, then they would be biased." The reality is that stories get framed in particular ways. It mattered that reporters were embedded; that made them maybe have a more positive view. Now that they can't get out, maybe it makes them have a more negative view. Plus you have the choice to list the number of casualties you have on our side, but you don't similarly show how many terrorists were killed on the other side, you frame it as a civil war —

Zuckerman: That is nonsense, if I may say so —

Higgins: There's two- or three-to-one negative stories —

Zuckerman: It is not the media's fault. There is something going on on the ground there that the media is covering. Security is a major issue. Security is in terrible shape in Iraq. This is not the fault of the media. It is ridiculous to blame the media.

Higgins: I'm not blaming the media.

Zuckerman: Yes, you are. Yes, you are blaming the media. You're implying that it's a partisan approach — it's nonsense to say that. It really is.

Higgins: Then why are the stories 2- or 3:1 negative?

Zuckerman: Because the stories are 2- or 3:1 negative on the ground, that's why.

Higgins: You asked repor — soldiers who've been there, and they say, "I talk about what I'm doing with water plants or anything else and they have no interest, but they see a burned-out car or a shooting and that they want to cover."

Zuckerman: Oh, please! That is absolutely —

Zinni: I would say that we ought to be careful with all this. Eighty journalists have been killed in Iraq, and a number have been kidnaped and wounded. To blame the journalists for only bad news and skewed reporting when they're putting their life on the line to get the story, I think it will backfire. [... snip ...] I hear these stories about good news — where are they? We have anecdotal stories from the field, and as reporters go out and check them out, they turn out to be not quite the way they're presented.

Zuckerman: Security is the news. Everything in that country is about security. That's why we cut back for reconstruction and put the money into security. That's what the media is covering. That's what they have to cover. That's the story. If we had that many suicide bombers in this country, that's all we would cover.

Higgins: Well, what about the news editor who decides to report on the 7 Marines who were killed, but not on the 50 terrorists who were killed in the same engagement?
Wow. It all sounds so familiar: the measure of victory is killing more Huns Japs Gooks of "them" than "they" kill of us. The good news that's not being reported is how much Ay-rab blood our boys are shedding over there. The other question is, what planet is Heather Higgins from? Look at the local news when there's a plane crash somewhere. "Oh, yeah, about 300 people were killed, which is sad and all, but Joe Schmoe out in Suburb X knows someone whose cousin once gave a haircut to the poodle belonging to the ex-wife of one of the passengers. Let's go to Geraldo Rivera, live in Suburb X with a report on how the Schmoe family is dealing with this tragedy." It's all about the local angle. In the case of American reporting on the situation in Iraq, the "local angle" is the American soldiers. The American viewing public cares about the soldiers as individuals vastly more than they care about even the body count of the terrorists. You may argue that's a bad thing, but you can't argue that it's the fault of the news media that suddenly American viewers are terrifically provincial in their determination of what news they care about.

Beyond that, show me one major national news organization that is anything remotely close to 90% Democrats. I dare you. I double dare you. Even the big bad New York Times is far more than 10% Republicans, and the Washington Post, and CBS News, and all the rest. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that Fox News and the Washington Times are 90% Republicans, and that their coverage is openly biased by that political affiliation from the top down, but it would take a whole lot of media organizations being 99.9% Democrat to balance that out. This myth of the "liberal news media elite" is so transparently absurd, and yet it refuses to die.

In any case, using Michael Brown, a victim far more of Republican scapegoating, as an example of liberal media bias, is downright laughable. Brownie didn't do quite as bad a job as everyone first thought. In particular, he did raise alarm bells on many fronts that were ignored by the top brass at Homeland Security and at the White House, and Michael Chertoff deserves at least as much blame as Brownie, but first of all, Brownie did still do a terribly inadequate job, even with the resources he had available to him, and secondly he is anything but a victim of "liberal media bias."

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