How it works

Did you ever wonder how it comes to be that anyone, after the 2000 and 2002 campaigns, still believes in the fairytale about liberal bias in the mass media? Well, here’s a tiny example.

Glenn Reynolds links to a post on a deservedly obscure blog called Fraters Libertas. He writes (I quote in full):

FRATERS LIBERTAS DOES A BIAS TEST on AP’s description of Bill Frist. It comes back positive.

That’s all. Most of the tens of thousands of people who see that post won’t bother to click through. They will trust Glenn (perhaps not noticing that he hasn’t exactly endorsed the finding of bias) and note that the AP is biased against Bill Frist. Well, what do you expect from the liberal media, anyway?

The minority that clicks through will find this (again quoting in full):

You’ve got to love the way the Associated Press chooses to introduce new Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to America:

With Lott’s departure, Frist, a close ally of Bush, was the only publicly declared candidate to replace him and quickly emerged as the favorite to do so, lawmakers and aides said. The Tennessee lawmaker, a wealthy heart surgeon, revealed his candidacy Thursday evening and had garnered public support from several key senators, including Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, No. 2 Senate Republican Don Nickles of Oklahoma, and John Warner of Virginia.

A close Bush ally? And he’s wealthy? Come on now AP, is it really newsworthy that a member of the Senate Republican leadership is a Bush ally? Or that a heart surgeon is wealthy? I don’t want to tell you professional journalists your business, but no, it’s not. If the opposite were true, then that would bear mentioning. Something like, “Bill Frist, an indigent, homeless heart surgeon and avowed enemy of the Bush administration is the only declared candidate to assume leadership of the Senate.” See how that jumps off the page and grabs you by the lapels? That’s the definition of news, baby! Keep listening to me boys and people may just stop reading blogs and start coming back to the daily fish wrap for the truth.

Note that the brothers don’t actually accuse the AP of “bias.” (That was Glenn’s contribution.) But note also that both of their points are wrong.

Frist isn’t merely a prosperous heart surgeon. He’s what they call in Texas “Big Rich,” with a personal fortune somewhere in eight figures. That leaves him a poor relation compared to his billionaire brother, who runs the for-profit hospital giant HCA, but it’s still a lot more than the typical heart surgeon can show. It would be fair to criticize the AP for using such a weak word as “wealthy” to describe Frist, but his wealth is certainly a newsworthy fact about him. So is the fact that most of it is still in HCA stock, which gives Frist an automatic conflict of interest every time a health care issue is debated. [So long, patient’s bill of rights.] The stock is supposed to be in a blind trust, but in fact the trust barely needs glasses; Frist knows perfectly well where his money is, and of course his brother’s holdings are public record.

As to being a supporter of the President, Frist is closer to the White House than Lott, whom he replaces, or Nickles or Santorum, who seemed to be his competition. The choice of Frist is a clear win for Rove and Bush. That’s also news.

So we start with a perfectly reasonable piece of political reporting, filter it through the ignorance of some obscure blogger, add a little bit of spin from the world’s least obscure blogger, and — Hey, presto! — we have more evidence of media bias. And as always, a misstatement takes about ten times as long to explain as it did to concoct. I don’t have any reason to think that either the Fraters or Glenn were in bad faith; they just saw what they wanted and expected to see, and passed it on to an audience that wants and expects to see the same things.

And that’s the way it’s done.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com