Evil Geniuses? Us Media Types?

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It's amazing how fast the electronic media are able to make the transition from screw-ups to evil geniuses.

Last week, after the Great Panhandle Mishandle, when the TV networks called and retracted the state of Florida for Gore and Bush on the same night, the knock was that, driven by competition and ratings-lust, TV made a bipartisan fool of itself. But this week — perhaps not coincidentally, as the wrangling over the contested election has festered — the story has changed. Now it turns out that the apparent Keystone Kops bumbling hid a maniacal effort to swing the election.

If only we could figure out for whom. Republican congressman Billy Tauzin has promised congressional hearings into the networks' election-night projections, arguing that TV was too eager to call states for Gore — as they did early on with Florida — thus suppressing Republican turnout in Western states by making the election seem like a done deal. On the other hand, media critics have slammed Fox News for its first, premature call of Florida, and the election, for Bush —especially because it turns out that the guy making the call is Bush's cousin. Not only was this distasteful, they claim, it slanted post-election coverage by implying Florida was "taken" from Bush when in fact he never had it.

There are problems with the arguments of both sets of partisan critics. (I call them partisan because, even if they don't carry an explicit brief for either candidate, it's curious that the people who are infuriated by the premature Gore call aren't bothered by the premature Bush call, and vice versa.)

On the right, Tauzin claims that "there must have been — there probably was —bias in the reporting of the election by the major networks of our country," because the networks quickly called a number of states for Gore. The charge would carry more weight if most of the calls — except the Florida one, which cut both ways — weren't in fact right, and if Fox, with its heavy roster of conservatives, didn't fully participate in this supposed left-wing coup. It also ignores the fact that the media's most egregious historical early call, in 1980, was in favor of that old pinko Ronald Reagan, whose victory was announced before polls in much of the country closed, supposedly discouraging Democrats from voting.

Critics of the later call, for Bush, target a legitimate problem — that John Ellis, a Bush cousin, had no business running Fox's decision desk — but use it to draw a specious conclusion: that Fox's early call tipped the post-campaign maneuvering to Bush. Media watchdogs Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in the New York Times, "misleading coverage... created and sustained the suggestion of an election that was called back and might be stolen."

Several other critics have leveled that charge: that the temporary call of the election for Bush gave him the p.r. game, by creating the impression that he was the "winner," whose victory was now simply being questioned. This argument too is undercut by the fact that every other network quickly pounced on Fox's call. But more important, the idea that this changed the morning-after view of the results is just preposterous. The perception the morning after was that George W. Bush had a very slight lead in the state that would decide the election, though that lead could be reversed. And that would have been precisely the situation even if no network had called for Bush — and partisans on both sides would have argued it exactly the same way.

In fact, you could make a pretty good argument that the early call for Bush, if anything weakened him in the follow-up coverage. Why? Because the next morning we saw all those pictures of newspapers with "BUSH WINS!" headlines. The message? That Bush's victory was a laugh, a "Dewey Defeats Truman" moment — in a word, a mistake. If anything, this reinforced the impression that Bush hadn't won. In this light, Ellis must have been a double agent, secretly working to undermine his cuz — a Manchurian Spin Doctor.

Are the media biased? Of course. Among the footsoldiers of the media — not just journalists, but more broadly, p.r. and the entertainment industry — the dirty not- so-secret is that, in many circles, your colleagues pretty much assume you're a Democrat. I can't tell you how many times in the past two weeks business contacts have casually mentioned to me how terrible it would be if Bush won, an assumption they would probably have the good taste not to make if I were, say, a heating-and-cooling-systems salesman. This offends me, not for partisan reasons, but because the comfortable belief that one is surrounded by friendly ideological bedfellows leads to intellectual laziness: No one ever got smarter or more rigorous by failing to have their beliefs challenged.

That doesn't mean that this bias usually shows up in reporting. More important, it ignores another, countervailing bias. There's also a front-office bias — that of publishers, owners, corporate boards — that tends to be much more conservative. While the Ted Turners of the world get a lot of attention, the fact remains that newspaper publishers as a rule tend to be much farther right than their employees; hence the preponderance of newspaper endorsements for Bush. And certainly media corporations, like the one I work for, tend at the very least to have self-interests that are economically conservative, favoring, for instance, loose government regulation of mergers and getting access to the airwaves without paying for it.

So if we're going to accuse journalists of being biased because of the way they vote, simple common sense requires that we consider the possibility of their also being biased in favor of not getting fired. And let's not forget that, in talk TV and radio, being a raving right-winger has been a far better career move in recent years than being a squishy liberal.

The media-as-puppetmaster thesis is appealing for a couple of reasons: It flatters the media, by conferring absolute power on them, and indulges partisans, since the last thing any campaign wants to do is concede it lost an election on the issues. But the notion that the media somehow gave the election a concerted push in one direction is as laughable as the idea that they could have done so if they wanted to.

Equally laughable, but at least more plausible, is this: that the media's built- in, contradictory biases made them want to swing the election to both candidates. In which case, so far, their evil plan is working perfectly.