After an election, it is useful to take a brief look back before moving forward with optimism for our country’s future.
During the postelection analyses, it has been said a variety of factors converged to create a “perfect storm” that led to President-elect Obama‘s victory.
As we know, storms often intensify while circulating over warm waters. In the case of Mr. Obama’s perfect storm, the warm waters fueling his victory were the national media.
Americans understand that the media generally favor Democrats over Republicans. Consider, for example, a Gallup poll found only 9 percent of Americans say they have a great deal of trust and confidence in the mass media to report the news “fully, accurately and fairly” and that more than twice as many Americans say the news media are too liberal rather than too conservative.
During the 2008 campaign, however, the media crossed a threshold that should be greatly troubling to Americans. Coverage of the election by many in the media ranged from slanted or biased to actually serving as strong and unabashed advocates for Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign.
For example, national news magazines such as Time and Newsweek essentially provided free advertising for Mr. Obama, featuring him on their covers far more frequently - and more favorably - than Sen. John McCain.
Day after day, the New York Times showed its favoritism by allowing Mr. Obama to dominate coverage and control the debate. For example, The Times’ opinion editor, a former staff member in the Clinton administration, refused to publish an op-ed by Sen. McCain about the Iraq war just days after publishing an op-ed on the same subject by Sen. Obama.
In general, media coverage of Sen. McCain was 3 times more negative than coverage of Mr. Obama following the conventions, according to the nonpartisan Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Another way to see the media’s bias is to follow the money. An analysis by Investor’s Business Daily showed journalists contributed 15 times more money to Democrats than Republicans during the 2008 election cycle. And journalists who gave to Mr. Obama outnumbered those who contributed to Mr. McCain by a 20-to-1 margin.
During and after the election, even some journalists acknowledged bias within the national media. Ombudsmen employed by the New York Times and The Washington Post questioned the fairness of their own newspapers. But the damage was already done.
As the gatekeepers of information, the media have enormous influence on public opinion and debate. In fact, a University of Illinois study found media bias “can lead to the election of the wrong candidate.”
President-elect Obama won by about 7 percent. That means if the media’s one-sided coverage changed the minds of just 4 voters out of 100, the media - because of their bias - determined the election’s outcome!
The American people rely on the media for the information they need to make decisions on the issues. If that information is consistently slanted and unbalanced, our very democracy is threatened.
Furthermore, now that the election is over, will President-elect Obama get a free ride from his media allies? Chris Matthews is already on the record as saying it’s his “job as a journalist to ensure that this presidency is successful.”
As we move ahead, it is important to recognize the American people themselves hold the solution to the problem of media bias. They can make their voices heard by insisting on the highest journalistic standards. This can be done by writing or calling media outlets to voice disapproval of unfair news coverage, canceling subscriptions, and changing viewing or listening habits.
As the Gallup poll above suggests, the media have done serious damage to their long-term credibility and have forfeited the right to call themselves the guardians of our democracy. Our nation faces significant challenges. We need vigorous debate to chart the course ahead. By adhering to the highest standards of journalism, the media can provide a valuable service. But we need to hold them accountable.
Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.