Media bias in elections

We often hear about media bias, usually in the form of accusing the media of a liberal bias. I don’t pay too much attention to that kind of bias. There’s probably ideological bias both ways. I read the Wall Street Journal and love most of it, but the op-ed page is a little too blindly pro-Bush (though they do go after him on economic issues from time to time — for being too liberal).

What I find most troubling is a combination of pro-incumbent and anti-challenger biases. These biases are common in various institutions. For example, when I ran in 2004, the Fulton County YMCA had a dinner and had the incumbent in my race as the keynote speaker. I was not offered a chance to speak. When I contacted the head of that YMCA, a guy who I know fairly well, he would not give me any opportunity to speak at all. I don’t mean to single out the Y. The Albany-Colonie Regional Chamber of Commerce did the same thing.

In first confronting this, you might think there’s nothing wrong with this. But there is. The biggest problem for most challengers is name recognition. Incumbents already have it and want to reinforce it. Challengers want to get it in the first place. By having an incumbent politician speak at your event, and further by refusing to give a challenger equal time, you are helping the incumbent in that race.

Let’s turn to the media. First, it’s very difficult for challengers to get covered at all. In my 2004 race, only the Times Union gave my campaign significant coverage. Other major papers in the district (Troy Record, Schenectady Gazette, and the Fulton County Leader Herald) ignored me. The Gazette and Leader printed a couple of letters to the editor mentioning me, but between them I think they wrote one article mentioning me. The Record attended a debate but wrote no article about it, and then endorsed the incumbent shortly before the election, misstating one fact in a way that favored the incumbent and exaggerated something about me in a negative way. TV and radio news coverage was almost non-existent. A couple of channels did about 30 seconds on the debate. Channel 13 gave me the best soundbite in that one and I still fondly remember the newscaster who called me to check on it before it was aired. Alan Chartock and Fred Dicker interviewed me on their shows, and they were both fair and pleasant. One popular radio personality openly refused to mention me, even refusing to let me speak at an open mike event he had set up at Crossgates. He told me I’d have to pay for airtime. I should also mention that the Metroland gave me decent coverage, and the Amsterdam Recorder mentioned me a few times.

I’m going to focus on the Times Union though. While I will be demonstrating their bias, it is still among my favorite news sources in the area. While their approach was biased, it was the least biased of all media in the area. The Troy Record was the absolute worst.

Anyway, the TU had about 15 pre-election articles in 2004 mentioning me related to the campaign, including a couple of articles that were pretty favorable. The best was about my appearance in a Japanese newspaper. I met a reporter from the Yomiuri Shimbun (one of Japan’s largest papers with a huge readership) during the Republican convention, and she wrote an article about me. I called the TU and said that if my campaign was newsworthy in Japan, you’d think it would be newsworthy here. The reporter was not interested in my campaign, but thought the appearance in a Japanese newspaper was worthy. While I was disturbed by his values, the article was great. There were several other articles, most of them good.

But compare their coverage of the incumbent. Doing a search in their archives shows over 150 articles with his name (searching for michael AND mcnulty in 2004). So he got roughly 10 times the coverage. And this was mainly because I made a big effort to get them to cover me. The 2002 challenger got virtually no coverage.

Beyond the difficulty getting covered, one also sees another kind of bias. I actually mentioned this in a letter to the editor to the TU on August 23, 2004 (which to their credit, they printed). When they do mention challengers they often use subtle (or not-so-subtle) negative terms to describe them. In that letter I referred to their use of “relatively unknown” or “little-known”. In the last couple days the TU has twice referred to my 2004 campaign as “unsuccessful.” Yes, I do know I didn’t win the election. But one could easily say that I had a better than usual campaign. I got 30%, while the past 7 challengers got 25%. When you consider how little money I spent, getting a 5-point increase was actually quite an accomplishment. Of course I hoped for better. But the point here is that they’re associating me with a negative word — unsuccessful.

They’ve covered the incumbent’s flip-flop on the war in Iraq. They mention that he voted for it and now calls it a colossal failure. But they don’t describe it as a flip-flop or put any other kind of negative spin on him. Look at his quote: “the Iraq War is one of the biggest blunders in the history of warfare.” How about attacking him for voting in favor of the war?? Where’s the negative spin? The TU blog post mentions that he “voted in favor of the Iraq war”. How about saying he “foolishly voted for the war”, or some other negative take? I’d pick the word cowardly, since chickenshit is too coarse for a newspaper. How about calling him up and asking him to explain why he voted for the war in the first place. Here’s a guy who calls his own vote “one of the biggest blunders …” and they’re not calling him on that. Incumbents get a free pass.

Unless, of course, they get challenged by a special challenger. In the 20th district, Kirsten Gillibrand has been anointed somehow as a worthy challenger. The TU has made an editorial decision (consciously or subconsciously) to cover that race. Is it because Sweeney gets caught drunk at frat parties, or because Gillibrand raised a million dollars from PACs and New York City liberals? Probably both. I don’t mind them covering that race. But why the editorial decision not to cover the race in the 21st – or at least not give it as much coverage? Why not cover the Libertarian candidate in the 20th district? Even if you think he doesn’t have a chance of winning, he might get enough votes from one side or the other to make a difference in the race between the two others. He might force them to talk about issues they don’t want to discuss. Do a search in 2006. 46 articles mention Gillibrand. Sundwall (the LP candidate) is mentioned once (in an article where Gillibrand is in the headline with Sweeney). But don’t think Gillibrand is getting such a great deal. Sweeney (sweeney AND john) is mentioned in nearly 250 articles.

Despite this criticism, I want to emphasize that the TU was by far the least biased of all major media in my 2004 race (with the possible exception of the Metroland, and I guess also the Yomiuri Shimbun). I say this both to credit the TU for its effort to be fair and to note that the media bias is actually worse than what I’ve described above in most media outlets.

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