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August 12, 2010

The "Neutral Story Line" and How The Media Uses It To Justify Its Perpetual Game of "Guess That Party!"

Several months ago I wrote one of my better-received pieces. If you've read that you can skim and get to the new stuff; if not, I think (IMHO) it's worth reading. Excerpts below:


First of all, one of the media's go-to Neutral Story Lines is that incumbents have too much of advantage in elections and there's not enough turn-over and fresh blood (read: drama which makes the news more fun to write) each election. Mickey Kaus often notes the media likes Neutral Story Lines, as they're easy to write, but are supposedly nonpartisan, as they usually criticize some procedural defect in both parties.

What makes the "Neutral Story Line" not neutral at all is that the media seems most interested, each cycle, in the "Neutral Story Li9ne" that hurts the Republicans more. For instance, the amount of money flowing into elections became a more and more intense problem as more and more money flowed to Republicans, putting Democrats at a disadvantage. The supposedly Neutral Story Line doesn't really seem all that Neutral when you consider that there's-too-much-money-in-politics reached its crisis stage during Bush's 2004 election, when he spent more money than anyone in history, but suddenly wasn't a problem at all when Obama topped him in 2008. This despite the fact that Bush actually had a higher percentage of small-money donors than Obama (as a percentage of total money donated), and Obama had a bigger percentage of high-dollar donors.

The media loves these story lines, because facially they appear neutral -- "money in politics is a danger" has no on-its-face, explicit partisan import -- but the timing of when to deploy a particular story line is highly partisan, and always made with the Democratic Party's best interests in mind.

Thus, when Bush refused the campaign spending limits, and spent only private money, it was nearly a constitutional crisis; when Obama did the same, it was a triumph of people-powered politics.

Are conspiracy theories bad? Well, right now, when the Republican base is vulnerable to buying into conspiracy theories about Obama's birthplace or sabotaged deep-drilling oil rigs, conspiracy theories are bad, and examples of the Paranoid Style of American Politics.

On the other hand, when former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright confessed to Mort Kondracke she feared Bush had actually captured bin Ladin and was secretly holding him only to publicize his capture on the eve of the 2004 elections, a party's trafficking in conspiracy theories wasn't even worth noting.

Certainly such conspiracy theories weren't worth noting when Bush and Cheney (and their deadly cabal) were accused of sabotaging a plane in order to murder a sitting and popular liberal US Senator.

Now, of course, in the case of Bob Bennet, the media is instructing us that we on the right are too partisan and too ideological and too inflexible and so on and so on -- the "neutral story line" they're pushing; a call for moderation is neutral, by its own terms -- and ignoring the other possible neutral story line -- that it's wonderful that an incumbent got beat, which proves that our politics can change when an electorate gets involved.

But consider the case of Sestack and Specter: The media will once again have its choice of two "neutral story lines" when that primary is resolved. It's heads the Democrats win, tails the Republicans lose, as far as the media is concerned.

If Sestack wins, the media will in fact push the "neutral story line" they could have pushed, but chose not to, in Bennet's case: That we're retiring an old warhorse in favor of a fresh face and that proves that our system works.

On the other hand, if Specter wins, they'll push the "neutral story line" that the Democrats, unlike Republicans, are welcoming of moderates. (And Specter, a moderate Republican turncoat now voting as a somewhat-less-moderate Democrat, is still pretty moderate.) So that story line does have something to it.

But we'll have no stories about "overly-partisan and inflexibly ideological Democrats driving out a true moderate and fence-crosser" if Specter should lose -- trust that. Instead we'll have the other supposedly-neutral story line, the one that once again just happens to wind up praising Democrats.

And this is how media bias works 75% of the time. Most of the time, the media is selecting between several possible "rules," many of which are arguably correct, but which are contradicted by nearly opposite rules, which are also arguably correct. The media never decides which rule is correct in the most cases; instead, they choose whichever "rule" benefits the Democrats this cycle.

Are we too interested in personal scandals which don't really have much to do with a party's governing philosophy? The answer is "No" if you mean Mark Foley or Mark Sanford; the answer is "Yes" if you mean Eric Massa or John Edwards.

Is it out of line for a former vice president to toughly criticize a new president of a different party? Well, if you're Al Gore criticizing Bush, you're just being patriotic and expressing the frustrations of millions of Americans. If you're Dick Cheney criticizing Obama, you're deliberately weakening a new president and endangering national security.

Is it patriotic, or treasonous, for a high-level national security staffer to leak to the press? Well, if you're exposing Bush's SWIFT snooping, you're a patriot, keeping a vigilant eye on the shadowy, murky world of espionage. If you're embarrassing Obama by noting that he has no Iran plan at all, you're a dirty leaking traitor giving away critical state secrets for a cheap partisan advantage.

And dissent? Is it the highest form of patriotism or the lowest form of partisanship? I think you know the answer there, and the answer is, of course, It depends on who's dissenting.

In each of these situations, a halfway decent case can be made either way -- often, both of these "rules" is kinda-sorta true and kinda-sorta false.

The way the media shapes opinion is by stating, categorically, without caveat, that one rule is true in all cases when it benefits Democrats, and then, the following election cycle (or even the following month) that its opposite rule is categorically, and without caveat, true, in all cases, when it hurts the Republicans.

Neutral story lines are only really neutral when the criteria for choosing them is neutral. When partisan and ideological considerations drive the choice of which conflicting "neutral" story line to push, it's just a partisan press covering its tracks with the thinnest pretense of objectivity. As usual.

Now, here is how these "neutral storylines" are used to justify Guess That Party!

Scandals involving politicians tend to fall, as with any bad behavior, into two large categories:

1. Sex.

2. Money.

Here's how it works: When a Republican is caught in a sex scandal, his party affiliation is extremely relevant because the Republican Party stands broadly for family values and sexual restraint, so party affiliation is very relevant, as it shows hypocrisy, that is, it tends to undermine the public image of the party.

Is that true? Actually, standing alone, that is basically true! Standing alone, I could see that rule as defensible.

Now, what happens when a Republican is caught in a money scandal? Well, that's not really hypocrisy, really, as Republicans have the reputation of being into dirty filthy money. But in that case -- in the case of a money scandal -- the media says noting the Republican's affiliation is relevant because it reinforces widely-held public opinion about the party.

Do you see the brilliance of that? Of those two rules together? Republicans get hammered -- not just personally, but the sins are attributed to the party as a whole -- on sex scandals because sex scandals undermine the party's public image, so noting the party is relevant; and money scandals also get attributed to the party as a whole, and party affiliation is very relevant there, too, because such scandals reinforce the party's public image.

Heads the MFM wins, tails, the GOP loses.

So these two rules, taken together, mean that in 99.9% of all scandals, the party affiliation of the Republican is very relevant to the story, in the MFM's eyes. That this is a scandal not just of a fallen man, but of a fallen party, which is tainted along with that man.

Now: Does the media use the same rules with Democrats?

If the Republican Party is supposedly money-grubbing and only cares about big business and corporate interest, then the Democratic party is, supposedly, the party that cares about the little guy, that stands stubbornly against monied interests in favor of Joe Six Pack.

Is it not the case, therefore, that if hypocrisy dictates that party affiliation is intensely relevant as regards a sex scandal involving a Republican, then hypocrisy should dictate that in a scandal involving a Democrat taking money from big business that the Democrat's party affiliation should be similarly intensely relevant?

Yes, indeed it should-- and yet the MFM doesn't see it that way. Money scandals (as in Bell, CA) involving Democrats are reported without any mention of the party affiliation of the malefactors.

But wait -- the media says this is a rule. Why isn't it then applying that rule to the Democrats?

Because the rule is fake. It's a post-hoc justification for their decisions, not a rule that actually guides their decisions. But it sounds like a neutral rule when they mention it in a single sentence. They just never explain why it suddenly stops operating when it comes to a Democrat.

Similarly, if Republicans are shellacked as a party when one member turns out to be corrupt, because such corruption reinforces public beliefs about the party -- well, then, if it's a sex scandal, shouldn't that mean that the Democratic Party should be broadly tainted if one if its members is caught diddling the secretary? After all, if the Republican Party has a wide reputation of being somewhat prudish and scolding on sexual matters, doesn't the Democratic Party have a reputation as being in favor of sexual licentiousness and a lack of fidelity to old-timey sexual morality?

In other words: Doesn't a sex scandal involving a Democrat reinforce widely held public opinions about the party, and, therefore, according to the "rule" the media imposes against Republicans, shouldn't the party affiliation of the sexual malefactor be just as intensely relevant as a Republican's affiliation would be in the case of a money scandal?

Yes, indeed, it should.

But it isn't.

Because which rule the media will claim is controlling depends upon which party we're talking about. And they never, ever examine the corollaries to these "rules."

If the Republican Party should be tainted as a whole over a sexual scandal due to the hypocrisy "neutral story line," then the Democratic Party should be tainted as a whole over a money scandal, because that is their version of hypocrisy on key moral issues.

If the Republican Party should be tainted as a whole over a money scandal due to the idea that that scandal "reinforces public concerns over the party," then a sexual scandal should likewise taint the Democratic Party as a whole, because an easy-breezy regard for sexual morality is in fact a widely-held public concern about that party.

But the MFM, of course, does not see it that way.

Heads the MFM wins, tails the GOP loses.

They continue to advance dishonest "rules" that appear, superficially, neutral to justify their biased decisions, but never explain when these rules apply and when they suddenly do not.

That's where bias comes in. It's bias, pure and simple, that dictates these decisions. The "rule" is selected as a post-hoc rationalization/justification for the bias.

And that is why I contend that there should be a stylebook dictate demanding that party affiliation involving a politician or politico (that is, a political actor not holding office, like a fundraiser or pundit) mention the party affiliation of the subject in the first or second paragraph. Always. So that media liberals do not have the license to apply one rule, and then the other, and then none at all, depending on whether they wish to see the Republican Party punished or the Democratic Party protected.

But because that rule takes away their ability to be biased, they refuse to include it, and in fact won't even explain why they won't add such a common-sense, bright-line, easily followed, no-arguments rule.

Because they want to be biased. And they want to keep being biased. And they will resist any attempts to reduce their bias the same as a wild bronco resists a saddle.

Oh, I Forgot Racism: Obviously a Democrat racist, such as former Kleagle Robert Byrd, who started his own KKK chapter (he didn't "merely" join), should be a highly relevant datum due to the hypocrisy rule.

But of course it never is. A Democrat racist isn't a Democrat. He's just a man with bad thoughts. His bad thoughts are in no way relevant to the party as a whole.


Rule vs. Rationalization: A rule actually restrains and compels certain behavior. That's what a rule does -- it limits you from making one choice, dictates you take another.

A rationalization is just something you say after you've made a decision with full freedom -- no restraint or dictate by a rule -- and want to offer a justification for that decision.

The MFM calls these "rules." They are not. They are rationalizations only.

The actual rule is that party affiliation of someone caught in corruption is always relevant in the case of a Republican and never relevant in the case of a Democrat.

That is the actual rule. But they won't say that, of course. That is clearly biased.

So instead it's this three-card-monte spot-the-queen hucksterism about this supposed "rule" or that alleged "rule," with the MFM not actually acting according to "rule" (which would dictate they note the partisanship of corrupt Democrats prominently), but according to partisan impulse, with a made-up after-the-fact rationalization to hide their bias.

This has been a running joke on the the internet for years now -- the media has not even acknowledged it. They refuse to even write a single word about this.

You see: It's so indefensible they refuse to even attempt defending it.

They simply refuse to acknowledge it at all.

If what you're doing is so indefensible that you truly have absolutely no defense and your only defense is arrogant silence -- you've got a problem on your hands.

Don't you?

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posted by Ace at 01:23 PM

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