Tuesday, March 13, 2007

For most of my lifetime, criticism of media bias was largely confined to those on the right side of the political spectrum. When I first moved to Washington in the mid-1970s, conservatives called The Washington Post “Pravda on the Potomac” for its uncompromising liberalism and disdain for all things conservative, which spread far beyond the editorial page and permeated its news coverage as well.

Today, the situation has changed greatly. While conservatives still believe the major media are biased against them, one hears more and more criticism from the left. Indeed, judging by what one reads on the left-wing blogs, many liberals truly believe the major media now have a conservative bias.

In my view, the media did have a strong left-wing tilt for many years. But over the last 20 years or so, I think that has mostly disappeared. Major newspapers like The Post and New York Times are now pretty even handed in their news coverage. Their editorial pages are still pretty liberal, of course, but The Post in particular is far less liberal in its editorial positions than it was in the 1970s.

If, as I believe, the major media tilted left and have moved toward the center, this means they moved to the right. It is this movement that the left has picked up on and complains about. But the idea that the media now tilt toward conservatives is absurd.

However, I do think that in some ways conservatives have become better at using the media, taking advantage of its institutional biases to spin stories in conservative directions. Contrary to what the left thinks, this is not nefarious but simply the application of good public relations skills.

Journalist Michel Wolff — who is hardly sympathetic to conservative thinking — explains in the April issue of Vanity Fair how Republicans have learned to use PR to their advantage. One simple technique is that Republicans make themselves available to reporters, while Democrats often don’t. “The one constant I’ve observed, in 27 years as an on-again, off-again political reporter, is that Republicans return reporters’ calls and Democrats don’t,” Mr. Wolff observes.

When I first began dealing with the media as a congressional aide 30 years ago, we were taught that Republicans had to try harder to get our message out in order to combat the media’s liberal bias. One thing we were told was to always return reporters’ calls promptly and politely.

Many conservatives resisted the advice; they felt they were just playing into their enemy’s hands. But Republican PR people correctly explained that talking to reporters, even hostile ones, at least gave you a chance to give your side. Over time, if you were straight with reporters, gave them what they needed, helped them meet their deadlines, and so on, they might warm to you and at least give you a fair break.

This was very good advice, which I have always followed. There have been a number of occasions where I think I was able to talk a reporter out of some incorrect line that he had been given from a liberal source. I have even gotten a few favorable stories by giving a reporter solid facts and analyses that supported some point I was making.

Over many years, I think I’ve earned the trust of a few top reporters at papers considered by conservatives to have a strong liberal bias. They will now take my word for things because I’ve never steered them wrong. These reporters have also told me of other people on both sides of the political spectrum that they will never trust or give a break to because they have lied or intentionally misled them.

The problem for those on the left these days is that during the long period when there was a pronounced liberal bias in the media, they got lazy. They just assumed the major media would automatically take their side, do hit jobs on conservatives and basically do their job for them. By contrast, conservatives have always had to contend with an adversarial media and thus learned better media skills and techniques in order to compensate.

I would advise my liberal friends to stop whining about media bias. You had a long free ride, and now it’s over. Get used to it, and learn how to use the media. Take a page from the conservative handbook and go around it. Figure out why talk radio works for conservatives and has dismally failed for liberals. Learn how to marshal facts and argue cogently instead of haranguing people and using ad hominem attacks on those who disagree. It has to work better than what you are doing now.

Bruce Bartlett is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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