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Weekend Conversation – Mainstream Media Bias and Its Impact on the Election

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

In this installment of Weekend Conversations, PF Whalen of The Blue State Conservative and Parker Beauregard of The Last Best Hope look back on the coverage – and sometimes lack of coverage – of issues critical to voters. Is this the Republicans version of Russia, Russia, Russia, or is there something more sinister going on?

 Parker: Let’s start with the obvious. Both the legacy media and social media platforms have the ability to influence elections. Common sense would suggest as much; knowing that people are swayed by celebrities (why else would advertisers rely on big name stars to pitch a product?) and swayed by their peers (who wants to be alone?), it is not hard to consider the possibility of a Google news alert or Facebook feed introducing content meant to nudge a voter toward a particular political position. It is especially easy to consider the rife opportunity of media when they are engaging with tens of millions of low-information voters. 

If common sense doesn’t make a strong enough appeal, consider the facts. Back in 2019, a research scientist wrote and later appeared with Mark Levin stating that in “laboratory and online experiments conducted in the United States, we were able to boost the proportion of people who favored any candidates by between 37 and 63 percent after just one search session.” If that were extrapolated, the power of an ever-so-slight Google algorithm would have to power to “shift millions of votes.” Facebook was accused of engaging in political operations during the 2016 campaign and admitted to as much a year later. One NPR report noted “the company said ‘malicious actors’ used the platform during the 2016 presidential election as part of a campaign ‘with the intent of harming the reputation of specific political targets.’” Though the overall impacts are still in doubt, there is no question that whichever party purchased ad space or disseminated information considered the social media environment as one where voter persuasion could occur.

PF: Absolutely the media can affect an election, whether it’s social or legacy media. When Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee and told Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) that his company has no influence on elections, Cruz’ response was spot-on. Cruz’ answer was essentially, “you must be kidding, Jack.” But I think to some extent, the incredible level of media bias we’re seeing is starting to work against Democrats and the Left.

Last week we discussed whether or not President Trump was successful in his attempt to Make America Great Again, and to a large degree, I think one of Trump’s great accomplishments in that effort has been his success in exposing the majority of the media as just political hacks. Trump endured over 90% negative media coverage since his 2016 election, including the unprecedented Russia Hoax and an outrageous impeachment. Yet weeks after the election it’s still not clear if Trump lost, Republicans picked up double-digit seats in the House of Representatives, and the GOP seems likely to hold power in the Senate. It’s truly extraordinary, and indicates to me that many Americans recognize the bias and are rejecting it.

During a press conference on Monday, a news reporter – someone who is supposed to be an objective journalist – actually asked the following question of Joe Biden, “What do you see as the biggest threat to your transition right now given President Trump’s unprecedented attempt to obstruct and delay a smooth transfer of power.” I don’t think Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev enjoyed such complicity from Pravda during the USSR’s heyday. Many people see the insane level of bias and aren’t buying it.

Parker: To some extent, I expect bias. After all, these media entities were started less for imparting impartial news and more for earning viewership – viewership that could be sold to advertising companies. While the employees likely believe the mission of the network, such as Don Lemon embracing all the lies he spouts about conservatives, whether it’s an MSNBC or Newsmax, founders and boards seek to maximize their bottom line. You recently wrote about Fox’s viewer shares nose-diving in favor of Newsmax; the consumers will dictate to an extent what kind of content they want. Not that any of this hyper-partisan journalism is helping matters, but as a free market proponent, I just wanted to throw that out there.

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Now, capitalism aside, what we are living through is dangerous. For ABC, Google, NBC, or Twitter – legacy and social media giants – and all of the others to operate as “independent” platforms while openly censoring or skewing towards one political philosophy, then it becomes less about viewer freedom and more about leftist totalitarianism. The most obvious example in recent memory is the move by Twitter and Facebook to deem the NY Post’s Hunter Biden story as “mis-“ or “disinformation” and thus scrub their sites of it. Most glaringly, they allowed knowingly and provably false stories to circulate freely for the entire Trump tenure. At this point, the media is focused on creating or burying a story; not disseminating the story. 

PF: Excellent point on the likelihood that market forces are part of the equation, I’m sure you’re right. There’s a large segment of people who want to hear “good” news, meaning news that makes them happy, and that affects what they watch.

Speaking of capitalism, there’s something I’ve been wondering about for a while, however. What would happen if an existing major network actually shifted their approach and went straight down the middle? Imagine, for instance, if ABC News decided to play the moderate. If they were to remove the bias on their nightly news, and if they were to play fair during This Week each Sunday, I think it would be a huge boon for them. I think the majority of Americans just want the truth so they can form their own opinions, and ratings could skyrocket. I doubt it’ll happen, but it’s interesting to consider the possibility.

As for using the word “dangerous,” I think that’s exactly right. The press has often been referred to as the ‘fourth branch of government,’ and it’s critical that we have a free, trustworthy and vibrant media. So when we have Twitter actively suppressing information, and the New York Times choosing to simply ignore significant stories they don’t like, there’s no other way to describe it. It is undoubtedly dangerous, and I hate to apply a phrase that’s wildly overused, but our media’s behavior is absolutely a threat to our democracy.

Parker: I am an eternal optimist – which probably correlates to my being a conservative – and like to think that one day this extreme polarization could be reconciled. It will take a lot of undoing and trust building, though. Understandably, just under 10% of people identifying as Republicans trust radio, television, and newspapers. It never ceases to amaze me that anyone trusts institutions like media or Congress. How are they not at 0% by now?

This entire argument reminds me of our founding principles. (As an aside, every day I am alive provides further proof that the Founding Fathers must be considered among the wisest group of men ever assembled in history; their values and institutions have withstood centuries of human nature. That both the American Constitution and The Bible are as relevant in modern times as they were in their contemporary days seems less like a coincidence as I age). But, is it happenstance that freedom of the press was one of the very first rights enshrined? I think not.

They borrowed a phrase from the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which stated “freedom of the Press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic Governments.” The left will no doubt seek to expand on its shadow banning, censorship, demonization, and possibly even criminalization of so-called hate speech and misinformation. It’s not hard to see how. It’s also not hard to see how vital objective truth is; as our trust in media and news collapses, our very belief in the system shrinks. If conservatives cannot trust that voting is conducted fairly (and watch the NY Times declare there are ZERO examples of even one ballot being cast illegitimately) or that the Hunter Biden situation isn’t vetted to the same scrutiny as a Trump son or daughter, why should we believe anything else? 

PF: We shouldn’t, and ultimately I think that will be their undoing. Alternate sources of news have been popping up for years, and the more the legacy and social media giants shift to the left, the more opportunities there will be for competition. I just joined Parler last week, and it looks like there are a lot of folks doing the same, and Twitter will lose members as a result. The New York Times and Washington Post have been hemorrhaging subscribers for years, and online outlets like The Daily Caller and The Blaze have benefitted. That trend will continue.

A sad byproduct of the media’s destruction of their own credibility is how it continues to divide our society. We’ve got politics everywhere now. We’ve got politics in our athletic footwear: Nike for the left, and New Balance for the right. Many conservatives stay away from Starbucks coffee and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and liberals likely avoid Goya brand foods and products from My Pillow. It’s bad for the country, and it’s getting worse. And the media is a big part of the division, as we now have clear choices for news based on our political beliefs.

Like you, I’m an optimist, and I’m optimistic that at some point these rifts will subside. I’m hoping that it will come in the form of a strong leader, and not a tragedy. The country largely came together after 9/11, but that’s a terrible price to pay for unity. A leader like Ronald Reagan could do the trick. Reagan won 49 of 50 states in 1984, and while there were still divisions, it was nothing like today. There are some young people on the right who have a lot of promise, so maybe it will be one of them. Let’s hope so.