Commentary: Goodnight, Irene: Reflections on media bias | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: Goodnight, Irene: Reflections on media bias

Sep 1, 2011

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 1, 2011 - By now, nearly everyone agrees that the mainstream media have a distinctly liberal bias. Whether said bias actually exists, and if it does, the extent to which it intentionally skews coverage, are concerns that have become largely irrelevant because the charge has been leveled so often that it has entered the common wisdom as an article of faith.

Locally, the evidence cuts both ways. With its leftist slant, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch fits the profile. But the CBS radio affiliate serving the region is KMOX, the self-proclaimed "Voice of St. Louis." Each weekday, the station airs three hours of Rush Limbaugh beginning at 11 a.m. After the mound of sound concludes his daily vituperation regarding all things Democrat, listeners are treated to four additional hours of Mark Reardon. Though far more reasonable than his predecessor, Reardon is an unabashedly conservative commentator who routinely devotes his first two hours of air-time to politics.

Like many of my contemporaries, I grew up listening to KMOX. I used to leave it on throughout the day as a way of monitoring events in the world outside my office. I abandoned that habit, however, because I tired of listening to what amounts to a five-hour advertisement for the Republican Party five times a week. For that matter, I also don't want to sit through a similar Democratic tutorial. BS is BS and 25 hours a week of propaganda is just too much.

Nationally, the ideological gloves come off for real when you enter the realm of cable TV news. There, two major outlets have all but abandoned any credible pretext of objectivity. "Fair and balanced" Fox News advances an editorial agenda somewhat to the right of Benito Mussolini, while "forward-leaning" MSNBC -- excepting its even-handed early morning programming -- generally falls to the left of Che Guevara.

The former channel features Sarah Palin as a news analyst; the latter counters with Al Sharpton. (Note re honorifics: I refuse to refer to Mr. Sharpton as "reverend" so long as he uses a left-wing news program as his pulpit. I also won't call Mrs. Palin "governor" because she quit the job before her first term ended.)

Though the prejudices of these newscasters are blatant, they are likewise transparent. Reasonably informed viewers understand that they're going to get the party line when they tune in. In fact, most watch such programming for precisely that reason.

The more subtle bias is an unintentional by-product of perspective. This pervasive, largely unnoticed influence often spawns moral panic -- a disproportionate and obsessive fear of a possible threat. Recent coverage of Hurricane Irene illustrates my point.

Natural disasters are always news ,and 24/7 news outlets have a bad habit of beating the story of the day to death. That's because these stations have hours to fill and nobody wants to put on a show that isn't topical. As a result, when one program concludes, the next tends to begin with a different host recapitulating the same information.

Hurricane Katrina and the deadly tornado in Joplin, for instance, both dominated their respective news cycles and received extensive follow-up coverage. Neither, however, could rival the attention devoted to Hurricane Irene's forecasted visit to New York.

Because I have a daughter who lives in NYC, my interest in Irene was more than academic. But monitoring the storm's progress, I began to wonder whether the rest of the world had ceased to exist. As the storm crawled northward at 13 mph, all other stories were virtually abandoned in favor of the city's preparation for the onslaught.

For days, the storm was the story. In the hours preceding its arrival, MSNBC interrupted its around-the-clock coverage for a special one-hour edition of the NBC Evening News with Brian Williams. I thought we might finally receive some word about the plight of the rest of humankind. Williams devoted the entirety of his broadcast to Hurricane Irene, after which the cable station returned to storm coverage.

It dawned on me that priority is a matter of perspective and, that like politics, all news is local. The burglar crawling through your back window is a much bigger story to you than the bank heist taking place on the other side of town. If you're sitting in Manhattan, the tempest heading your way makes events in Afghanistan seem to pale to insignificance.

The famed media bias may not be so much a product of liberalism as it is of New York, because that's where most media executives live. Were an extraterrestrial to watch ESPN during baseball season, for instance, he could reasonably conclude that the Major Leagues exist so the Yankees can play the Red Sox. Out here in fly-over country, we may have different interests but that's the game that naturally grabs the eastern sports producer's eye.

Thankfully, Irene degraded before striking the city, and devastation was averted. The anticipated meteorological apocalypse devolved into a heavy storm. The morning after, my daughter called to advise that she was fine and preparing to go out for a run. Maybe after a few days of retrospective, programming will return to normal as well.

I suppose we can now reprise the old tune and say goodnight to Irene. If you'd like to stay abreast of events in the rest of the world, however, pray that Kong never returns to the Big Apple.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.