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A ‘Mostly’ Misleading Partisan Press
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A ‘Mostly’ Misleading Partisan Press

The big problem with media bias isn’t what it does to the other side, it’s what it does to the home team.

An encampment protesting Israel at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, United States on April 23, 2024. (Photo by Katie McTiernan/Anadolu/Getty Images)

Have you heard that “Republicans are seizing on the eruption of campus protests,” and using the “mostly peaceful” student uprisings “as a political cudgel”?

So says the top story about the protests in Monday’s Washington Post, in a bit of trope trafficking so hackneyed that it almost seems like a Babylon Bee parody. Of course, the only thing more hackneyed than the Post’s reflexive minimizing of actual political problems for Democrats as Republican schemes would be seizing, or even, dare I say, pouncing on the oh-so-unfairness of it all.

That’s the thing about our siloed media: The big problem with bias isn’t what it does to the other side, it’s what it does to the home team.

Before we get back to the problem Democrats are facing, let’s illustrate the effect with the Republicans who are getting high on their own supply. And there is no more obvious or damaging example of the dangers of self-talk and audience capture than the GOP’s ongoing obsession with the results of the 2020 election and the rioters who sought to overturn them.

One of the four lawyers indicted in Arizona last week for trying to steal the state’s electors for then-President Donald Trump is a woman named Christina Bobb. Whatever one thinks of the merits of the charges against Bobb, one thing is very clear: This is the last person the Republican National Committee should have as its “senior counsel for election integrity.” Even if you thought there was foul play in 2020.

Whether her 2020 claims, like other false representations she made on Trump’s behalf, were ignorant or cynical, Bobb’s leadership in what the committee says will be a “100,000 person” effort to root out election fraud would be politically obtuse. If your goal was to discredit elections, why pick someone so easily discredited themselves?

The easy answer is to say that Bobb is who Trump wanted and that his paranoia about vote counting supersedes political pragmatism. That may be true, but it is not a sufficient explanation. The Republican Party needs to embrace the big lies about the 2020 election because a significant enough share of its voters believe what their preferred media outlets have been telling them. 

With a close race in Arizona, a must-win state for Trump, Republicans can ill afford a repeat of what happened in Georgia in 2021, when MAGA voters sat out an election because they believed the system was rigged. Arizona has been ground zero for election kookery, and if the kooks are not placated, they could very well stay home.

But if we consider the Georgia example, we see that it wasn’t just MAGA nation who sat out the election, it was normie Republicans, too. The dip in GOP turnout was probably more because of mainstream voters who were grossed out by Trump’s ongoing efforts in the state to steal a second term than the diehards who shunned what they believed to be a crooked process.

In a swing state as evenly divided as Arizona, you can’t kiss off any substantial group of voters, but neither can you probably keep both the kooks and the squishes happy. Leaders of political parties, therefore, tend to side with the base at the expense of swing voters. When it’s time for primary elections and party conventions, the mainstreamers won’t be there, but the radicals will be. Self-interest wins. 

This is not new. For decades, we have seen politicians tack to the extremes to unite their parties before turning back toward the center for the general election. You placate your people and then get to work persuading the moderates. What is different from the recent past is how hard the work of placation has become.

And that is, in part, because of the siloed media. Partisan news outlets aren’t partisan in the sense that they are trying to help their preferred party win. They are partisan in the sense that they seek to, ahem, seize the viewers, listeners, or readers of one side. To get a partisan audience, an outlet not only has to tell its members what they want to hear, it has to keep telling them. This crowds out unhappy or inconvenient stories which might make partisans more open to circumspection and moderation. If you exist in an alternate reality, you will not be much interested in pragmatic considerations. 

Right-wing news organizations didn’t and don’t parrot Trump conspiracy theories to help Trump or Republicans. They do so to get a piece of Trump’s audience for themselves.

Imagine that you heard on your most trusted news outlet that Hot Pockets are the cornerstone of a nutritious diet, and that the only people who criticize Hot Pockets are lying to try to advance the nefarious schemes of the produce industry. What would you say when your friend at work suggests fresh salads for the office lunch? Have fun serving up a tray full of Buffalo Blasted Crust at the client meeting.

The partisan audience is the media’s objective, not the party’s advantage.

What’s happening now with anti-Israel protests across the country should feel very familiar to Democrats. In the summer of 2020, the partisan press served up mountains of Hot Pockets about “peaceful” protests and denounced “claims by some that protests associated with the Black Lives Matter movement are spawning violence and destruction of property.”

A report that 93 percent of the racial justice protests were “peaceful and nondestructive” was held up as not just proof that violence was limited, but that complaints about the chaos of that summer were illegitimate. The protests were mostly peaceful, ergo, people who say otherwise are either lying or misinformed, ergo, we do not need to change.

A lot of bad things are mostly good. Like the guy who fell off the roof of the Empire State building said halfway down, “So far, so good.” 

Encouraging Democrats to believe that the pavement wasn’t down there in 2020 almost cost Joe Biden the election. Progressive voters became so enchanted with the idea of a massive reordering of the criminal justice system that they were very willing to ignore the obvious political consequences of that kind of happy talk, and became receptive to truly preposterous ideas. Indeed, had Trump been less of a bumbler when it came to his response to the unrest, anxieties over the summer uprisings might have been sufficient to win him a second term. And this time around, he’s not being judged for his response. That’s all on Biden.

Democrats are in for a bad time this summer at their Chicago convention, but it will be appealing for rank-and-file members of the party to believe what the partisan media tells them about the pro-Palestinian protests. And that will only make things worse.

It takes a massive effort in any circumstances to see the problems with one’s own side. But that’s doubly hard when trusted voices are serving up excuse after excuse to confirm your existing view.

These protests may be “mostly peaceful,” and perhaps the majority of participants are not really Jew haters. But some are violent, and some of the leaders are unrepentant antisemites. And at the scale and scope with which they have been occurring, they are most certainly an annoyance and cause for alarm among normal Americans. Unrest is bad for incumbents, whatever the merits of the cause.

Democrats should not expect Trump and the GOP to be fair and evenhanded in their assessments of the problem, but they do need that from their news outlets.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.