What “Liberal Bias” Is Really About

Politico's Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei have an article up this morning with a dog-bites-man headline and premise: “To GOP, blatant bias in vetting.” Republicans? Alleging liberal media bias? Pardon me while I find some pearls to clutch.

The conceit behind this whole affair is that Haley Barbour and Ari Fleischer told Allen and VandeHei that “liberal bias” is real and it's devastating, and Allen and Vandehei believe them:

Republicans cry “bias” so often it feels like a campaign theme. It is, largely because it fires up conservatives and diminishes the punch of legitimate investigative or narrative journalism. But it also is because it often rings true, even to people who don't listen to Rush Limbaugh -- or Haley Barbour.

The best evidence Allen and VandeHei could muster regards the placement of stories about Mitt Romney's high-school bullying and Barack Obama's high-school drug use:

And the imbalance can do slow, low-grade but unmistakable damage to Romney: Swing voters are just getting to know him. And coverage suggesting he is mean or extravagant can soak in, even though voters who took the time to weigh the details might dismiss the storyline.

It's certainly hard to argue that the Romneys' horse-riding habits today are worse than the Maraniss revelations, which have gotten little mainstream coverage.

And the horse-riding story came a few weeks after a second story that made Republicans see red -- another front-pager, this time in the Washington Post, that hit Mitt Romney for bullying a kid who might have been gay, in high school nearly a half-century ago. The clear implication to readers: Romney was a mean, insensitive jerk.

Maraniss works for the Post and his pot-smoking scoop, which included details of Obama's college-era dope-smoking club and waste-no-weed rules for inhaling it, never made the front of his own paper.

The idea that these examples of youthful misbehavior by our presidential candidates should be given equal weight by news organizations, as defined in this case by their placement in the physical newspaper, consciously disregards the fact that Obama's drug use has been known ever since he wrote about it in the early 90s. It was talked about incessantly during the 2008 campaign. Maraniss adds detail to the story, but it can't be rebroken.

With Romney it's different. He didn't do us the courtesy of writing a memoir confessing his bullying ways -- as Allen and VandeHei note, “swing voters are just getting to know him.” Contra the entrenched right-wing narrative, one could plausibly argue that we know less about the former Massachusetts governor than we do President Obama. It seems more like a question of what's new, not what's “worse” for a candidate. And, as noted by Andrew Beaujon at Poynter, one feature of online journalism is that “every story has a fair chance at becoming a huge 'talker,'” regardless of its placement in the actual paper.

But this is all essentially meaningless as it pertains to the accusation of “liberal bias.” People who level the “bias” charge aren't looking for balance. They're not interested in journalistic good practices and they certainly don't give a damn where a story appears in the Washington Post. They're looking to game the refs.

It's all about discouraging journalists from turning a critical eye on Republicans and conservatives, lest they be tarred with the “liberal bias” epithet. The placement of the Romney bullying story isn't what upsets them -- it's the fact that it exists in the first place. And in writing that the “bias” charge “often rings true, even to people who don't listen to Rush Limbaugh -- or Haley Barbour,” Allen and VandeHei are saying that they, as refs, are willing to be gamed.