In a highly publicized $100 million lawsuit against her former employers at NewsCorp, Judith Regan has made various seemingly paranoid claims about a conspiracy against her at the publishing giant. The accusations seem to center on her claim that NewsCorp has a political alliance with Rudy Giuliani and has attempted to discredit her so that she can't harm Giuliani through the use of information obtained through her former relationship with Giuliani associate and former NYPD Chief Bernard Kerik.
Regan's accusations have raised some ire in both the new and the old media, both directed at her and surrounding the issue of media bias, trotting out the good old accusations that Fox News is partisan and that they are actively promoting Giuliani for the presidency to the exclusion of other candidates. At Salon.com they've even gone so far as to analyze how much airtime Giuliani has been given compared to other candidates and concluded that he's their chosen golden boy.
Not surprisingly, when an accusation like this comes up, we can turn to the blogosphere for some pretty sophisticated analysis, including Juxtable.com which has compiled a variety of raw candidate exposure stats online and in the media, and Outside the Beltway which has done a detailed breakdown by network and candidate of whom the various networks seems to be giving the most face time to. By this analysis Giuliani does seem to be the FoxNews favorite, but he's only slightly ahead of Fred Thompson. But other networks have their favorites too. MSNBC loves Biden and Dodd. CNN likes Richardson and Hunter. NBC likes McCain and Edwards. CBS likes Obama. ABC likes Edwards. With all the networks taken together McCain and Biden are actually way out ahead on overall exposure. Interestingly, front runner Hillary Clinton gets relatively little exposure in cable news and the broadcast media.
To be entirely fair, it seems an awful lot like the candidates who get a lot of media time are the ones who make themselves most available, handle themselves well in interviews and know it. And it's debatable how valuable all this exposure is, since the two frontrunners are ranked 9th and 12th in overall media exposure, while the rapidly vanishing Joe Biden is ranked second and McCain's top ranking doesn't seem to be catapulting him ahead of Giuliani or even into second place. So the whole issue of Fox News being extra nice to Giuliani may be fairly meaningless if other candidates are getting more overall exposure and all that extra exposure doesn't really help the candidate all that much.
Then there is the question of whether media partisanship is even an issue which we should find controversial. This bizarre idea that news sources are supposed to be impartial is of very recent origin and has always been honored more in the breach than in observance. From the very beginning of American history our news outlets have been overwhelmingly partisan. They have had alliances with specific parties and candidates, and they've even been owned by political organizations. In fact, through most of our history, if you had a cause to promote the way you did it was to start a newspaper and then use it to viciously attack your enemies.
In the federalist era the Federalist Party got their political message out through their pet paper The Gazette of the United States where Alexander Hamilton would fill the pages with scurrilous attacks on political opponents under various pseudonyms. In response Thomas Jefferson and his Republicans hired Phillip Freneau to publish The National Gazette while he was on the government payroll to smear Hamilton and the Federalists. These papers accepted advertising and published news, but their primary purpose for existing was as vehicles of political propaganda.
In the 1830s and 1840s abolitionists like Benjamin Lundy and William Lloyd Garrison started newspapers to promote their cause. Garrison published The Liberator for more than 30 years. The tradition of radical causes publishing newspapers continued throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. One of the most famous examples being the German-American Anarchist/Socialist newspaper Arbiter Zeitung which was published in Chicago prior to World War II. Its major competitor, the New York communist paper The Daily Worker, continued to be published until 1958 and even carries on today as the Peoples Weekly World.
As newspapers became better established this pattern of partisanship did not change. When every city had more than one newspaper invariably one would side with one political party and one with the other. Newspaper chains even had political associations. William Randolph Hearst was notorious for promoting particular candidates and policies through his newspapers nationwide. His support could make a political career and he boasted that he could swing the votes of Congress behind any issue. Even today that tradition continues in newspapers despite a veneer of objectivity. Every New Yorker knows that the New York Times is the liberal paper and the Daily News is the conservative paper. Every Washingtonian knows that the Washington Post is liberal and the Washington Times is conservative.
When newspapers were our only real mass media no one thought twice about their blatant partisanship. Their editorial pages endorsed candidates and their news reporting was politically slanted, and no one expected it to be any other way. For some reason, as new media like radio and television began to emerge, journalists became obsessed with the unrealistic fiction of media objectivity. Their role as the 'fourth estate' seems to have gone to their heads, and they bought into the egotistical idea that they were protecting some great public trust with a monopoly on truth and honesty.
This idea of expecting neutrality, balance and objectivity from our news sources is relatively recent in origin and seems inherently designed to encourage hypocrisy. Reporting the news factually does seem desirable and there is certainly a need for straightforward news content, but that's not really what news networks are selling. Most of their programming is not pure news, but is more on the order of editorial content and news-based entertainment. Talking head shows with celebrity hosts like Bill O'Reilly, Chris Matthews and Sean Hannity are not reporting the news and they shouldn't be expected to be neutral. These partisan shows are the ones which get the interviews and which provide a welcoming atmosphere for candidates and national political figures, because they see the hosts as sympathetic. These hosts have political preferences just like any other citizen or group, so why not encourage them to be above board and open about their allegiances and give up hypocritical claims of neutrality or being 'fair and balanced'?
The idea that every issue and every candidate and every perspective should be treated equally is ridiculous. Measuring out airtime to give each political pespective a fair airing is utterly impractical. It's also an idea which seems only to be taken seriously when there's political advantage to be gained from it or a specific target to be attacked, as is the case with the so-called 'fairness doctrine' which is transparently intended to silence talk radio because it's too right-wing while ignoring other areas of the media where left-leaning causes and candidates fare better. Listeners hardly come to Rush Limbaugh or Fox News with virginal ears. They come there looking for a particular slant on news and it's bizarre and authoritarian to suggest they should be forced to listen to something other than what they sought out. The 700 Club features a newscast. Would it be reasonable for the Church of Satan to sue Pat Robertson demanding equal time?
We've got right and left wing media outlets in every format, from print to radio to broadcast and cable television. All of them are run by people with political allegiances or driven by successful shows with particular political leanings. They are businesses which have business relationships with politicians and power groups. Maybe it's time to step back, be a bit realistic and stop expecting impossibly high standards of neutrality from the media. Know them for what they are and the faults and biases which they so obviously have, and watch or read the ones you like and take them no more seriously than they deserve. So long as the pure news portion of their programming gets the basic facts right, their editorial slant and their political allegiances ought not to be an issue for contention.
Media bias is a fact of life. Let Fox News be the Rudy Giuliani cheerleader squad while the New York Times tries to figure out whether to deify Hillary or Obama first. Is anyone really so naive to expect something different from these news outlets? People pick which one to watch or read based on the awareness that they come with a particular bias. Hell, that's a big part of what helps make them popular with their target audience.