Tag Archives: media bias

The Washington Post’s Lurch Toward Developers

According to The Washington Post’s editorial board, “balance…has eluded” Marc Elrich, the Democratic nominee for county executive in Montgomery County, Maryland whose campaign I managed during the primary. This allegation is based largely on Elrich’s written commitment, if elected, to “invite the [president of the county’s major labor union] to the interview and selection processes for all of [the county’s] department heads,” which the Post calls “an extraordinary promise, even for a pro-labor politician — and one without precedent in any area jurisdiction, as far as we can ascertain.”

It is true that local officials do not typically give labor a voice in government decision-making. But it is strange to say the promise to do so is less “balanced” than the more common practice of giving employees no input whatsoever on the managers who will be overseeing their work. In fact, giving workers substantially more control over private companies’ operations by allowing them to elect a portion of a company’s board of directors may be “among the most broadly popular ideas in American politics” right now. That practice, called co-determination, is already widespread in Germany and Western Europe. Elrich’s proposal, like co-determination, would help ensure that employees are assigned productive work that advances the mission that both managers and workers share.

Perhaps the Post’s confusion about the meaning of the word “balance” stems from the complete absence of it in their coverage of the Montgomery County executive race. “Marc Elrich’s lurch toward labor” was not the first, not the second, not the third, but the fourth explicitly anti-Elrich piece the editorial board published. They even wrote a fifth piece about ranked-choice voting (a policy that Elrich strongly supports) that subtly attempted to delegitimize Elrich’s primary victory before the votes were officially counted. While the Post’s editorial board is of course welcome to support or oppose whomever they please, the sheer volume of negative copy they’ve devoted to Elrich appears to be without precedent in their commentary on previous Montgomery County executive candidates (not to mention executive candidates in other area jurisdictions) – at least, as far as I can ascertain. The editorial board also violated some basic journalistic principles in their anti-Elrich advocacy.

Even more concerning, the Post’s anti-Elrich bias and journalistic malpractice weren’t confined to the editorial pages. The paper’s news coverage also suffered from a serious slant, casting a misleading narrative pushed by a few powerful developers and their allies as objective reporting.

Between when I started as Elrich’s campaign manager in October of 2017 and early February of 2018, the Post reported on pretty much every major event in the executive race and did so more or less neutrally. They covered county executive forums in October, November, and December, the decisions of former Rockville mayor Rose Krasnow and Potomac businessman David Blair to enter the field, the first major campaign finance filing in January, and the organizational endorsements of CASA in Action (Elrich), SEIU Local 32BJ (Elrich), the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO (Elrich), the Montgomery County Sierra Club (Roger Berliner), and Progressive Maryland (Elrich). In stories about important county issues like the government’s budget shortfall, the minimum wage bill Elrich co-sponsored, and the departure of one of the county’s major businesses, the Post also quoted Elrich and the other sitting members of the county council who were running for county executive while mentioning their candidacies.

In February, a new reporter took over the Post’s Montgomery County beat. And as major endorsements for Elrich continued to roll in, the Post stopped covering them. They did report on a racial justice forum on February 25, their piece on the crowded field in the county council race a few days later mentioned the county executive candidates in passing, and their article about whether to prioritize funding for the school system’s proposed capital budget or for road projects noted the candidacies of Elrich and Berliner, who were on opposite sides of that debate. But the Post mostly went silent on the executive race for a while, not carrying another news story about it until April 19.

That story, entitled “In Maryland’s largest jurisdiction, contest for county executive seen as anybody’s race,” quoted two “experts,” both of whom – Keith Haller and Steve Silverman – sat on the four-person candidate interview committee for a group called Empower Montgomery. Purporting to “effectively represent all Montgomery County residents – and avoid having political decisions influenced by narrow special interests,” Empower Montgomery actually represents the county’s most powerful special interest group: wealthy developers. Blair has been listed among the organization’s co-founders (Silverman has, too, though neither man currently appears on the Empower Montgomery website) and Elrich was the only county executive candidate who refused to take developers’ campaign contributions, insisting he would hold them accountable for paying for the school construction and transportation infrastructure necessary to support new development. So it wasn’t too surprising when Empower Montgomery launched a series of attack mailers against Elrich right before the election.

While calling Haller and Silverman election experts, the Post’s April 19 article did not mention either of their affiliations with Empower Montgomery or the county’s developers. The article did, however, give Silverman space to downplay the significance of Elrich’s endorsements and characterize his candidacy as occupying “the far-left, pro-union, anti-development lane.”

Then, on April 27, for the first time in two months, the Post finally covered another candidate forum. This forum – the last the paper would cover before the primary election on June 26 – was co-hosted by none other than Empower Montgomery. Referencing the report Empower Montgomery commissioned to be unveiled and discussed at the forum, the Post’s title warned that the “Montgomery Co. economy is stagnant, and leaders are ignoring job creation.” Among the solutions Empower Montgomery recommended to this ostensibly dire situation? As the Post summarized: attracting Amazon’s second headquarters (that “would help to solve pretty much every many [sic] of the economic problems the county faces,” the Post gushed); “reduce energy taxes and impact fees on new development; and increase economic development resources” (emphasis mine). The article referred to Empower Montgomery as a “nonprofit advocacy formed by business leaders,” making no mention of Blair being listed as a co-founder or the very narrow business interests – developers – that the organization actually represents.

When the Post’s editorial board endorsed Blair on May 12, they linked to this April 27 news article as justification, calling the Empower Montgomery-commissioned report “the unsettling backdrop for the June 26 Democratic primary…The central question is which of the candidates for county executive is most capable of juicing a sluggish commercial environment — the only way to broaden the local tax base so it can sustain the county’s excellent schools and progressive services.” In addition to endorsing Blair, the editorial board made sure to note that four of the other candidates would be acceptable. The only exception was Elrich, “whose popularity owes much to his reflexive opposition to innumerable local projects — including the Fillmore, a beloved live music venue in Silver Spring. Mr. Elrich would be the wrong person to broaden the county’s tax base and revive its prospects.”

This editorial prompted a flurry of angry letters to the editor from Montgomery County residents, one of whom reminded the editorial board of something they should have already known: “Mr. Elrich was not opposed to the ‘beloved’ Fillmore music venue but to the $11 million in public funds given to Ticketmaster.”

In an apparent attempt to justify their pro-Blair, anti-Elrich position, the Post’s editorial board doubled down with a follow-up piece on June 5. This second editorial inaccurately accused Elrich of “declar[ing] he’d rather divert jobs to neighboring Frederick County than attract them to Montgomery,” relying on a dishonest claim from a developer-funded blog that proudly asserts: “[d]evelopers are part of the solution and we welcome their support.” Elrich wrote a letter to the editor to correct the record, and the Post published it on June 10. But less than a week later, the Post highlighted the allegation again in a feature on Elrich that they published as part of a series on all six of the Democratic candidates. The feature linked the inaccurate blog post and – until I emailed the author and the piece was edited post-publication – failed to include a link to Elrich’s response.

Unlike the features on the other candidates, which focused on why those candidates were running and what they wanted to accomplish, the Elrich feature centered around criticisms and Elrich’s responses to those criticisms. “Marc Elrich is tired of being called a socialist,” it began, following up with “rumors about a Che Guevara poster on his office wall” and claiming that “business leaders” felt “unease” at the prospect of an Elrich-led county government. Whereas other candidates’ endorsements were all described positively, Elrich’s much more extensive and diverse endorsements list was mentioned briefly and then qualified with a less overt version of the critique in the Post’s most recent anti-Elrich editorial (see below). Prior to my email to the author, the feature didn’t even mention that Elrich would appear on the teachers union’s “apple ballot,” which is quite possibly the county’s most coveted endorsement prize.

Endorsement Paragraphs - Post Features

Though it’s hard to fully appreciate how much of an outlier the Elrich feature was without reading them all (those interested can do so here), the graph below provides a quick illustration. Each bar represents the percentage of paragraphs in the feature that paint the candidate in a positive light minus the percentage of paragraphs that portray the candidate negatively. As the image shows, Elrich is the only candidate who received a net negative portrayal. (The categorization scheme is somewhat subjective, of course, but I tried to categorize conservatively; anybody interested can download and play with the categorizations here).

Positivity - Post Features

To be fair to the Post, they did cover the teachers union’s endorsement on June 6. They also covered candidates’ and progressive groups’ attacks on Blair for trying “to buy the election” in two separate pieces. Yet even there, the paper was less credulous about attacks on Blair than it was when evaluating attacks on Elrich. For example, the paper asserted that the Progressive Maryland Liberation Alliance super PAC “does not offer any proof that its accusations [about Blair’s business record] are true.” Not once did a Post news article put a similar note after “business leaders’” unfounded critiques of Elrich.

The combination of the bias in the Post’s main feature, their elevation of developers’ narrative without proper citation, and the editorial board’s blatant mischaracterization of Elrich’s positions surely influenced the primary vote. While Elrich won anyway and we’ll never be able to quantify the impact the Post’s misinformation had, it’s hard to imagine Elrich wouldn’t have won by a larger margin if residents had received more accurate information.

Moving forward, Montgomery County residents can feel confident that they’ll continue to get balance from Elrich. It would be nice if they could also expect balance from the paper of record.

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Filed under 2018 Elections, Media

Amen for Alternative Media

Media Establishment.pngThe May/June issue of Politico Magazine contains an article entitled “The Media Bubble Is Worse Than You Think.”  Its central argument is that media concentration in affluent “blue” areas (those that typically vote for Democrats) has led to ideological uniformity in newsrooms, and it cites the increased geographic concentration of writers who work for Internet media sources as evidence that this problem is threatening to get even worse.

Part of the article’s thesis, that “the national media just doesn’t get the nation it purportedly covers,” is undoubtedly true.  But the article is wrong to imply that an underrepresentation of Republicans is the problem.  The actual problem is the mainstream media’s overrepresentation of Establishment viewpoints – from both major political parties – and its marginalization of economic- and social-justice viewpoints.  And the age of Internet media, for all its flaws, is an improvement on what came before.

A quick look at the most ostensibly liberal mainstream media outlets is instructive in this regard.  In the world of newspapers, that’s The New York Times.  While they certainly do commission social-justice-minded op-eds, and while their editorial board often advocates on behalf of less-advantaged Americans, the paper gives more voice overall to privilege-defending viewpoints of those in power than to power-balancing ideas from those who seek to challenge the status quo.  The Times recently hired Bret Stephens, for example, who has previously written anti-Arab screeds and called the idea that racism and campus rape are systemic problems “imaginary” in the Wall Street Journal.  In his first Times column, Stephens revisited some of the climate-change skepticism he’s been peddling for years.

Stephens joined a cast of ten other Times columnists, several of whom appear to believe it’s a major problem that members of what they call the “speech-policing, debate-squelching, illiberal P.C. left” care more about “war victims in South Sudan” than the “scarcity of conservatives” in academia.  The only self-proclaimed liberal among this particular group of columnists seems to think that people are poor, at least in large part, because of their moral failings, and he once argued that “the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.”  And the most ostensibly progressive columnist at the paper spent a great deal of time taking illiberal and/or inaccurate potshots at Bernie Sanders and his supporters during the 2016 Democratic primary.  There isn’t a single Times columnist who “represent[s] the millions [of people] who hate war, support single-payer [health care,] or oppose capitalism,” as Sean McElwee recently noted.

The problem is perhaps even worse when it comes to cable news.  The most ostensibly liberal mainstream station, MSNBC, just hired a senior adviser from 2008’s McCain-Palin presidential campaign and may also bring on a Right-wing talking head who thinks there’s been “a lot to celebrate” from Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office.  One of the station’s longtime anchors voted for and vigorously defended George W. Bush during the mid-2000s, and MSNBC features several leading personalities and commentators who consistently attack the social-justice-minded wing of the Democratic Party, often with misleading reporting.  Even the network’s more social-justice-inclined broadcasters seem wary of straying too far from Democratic Party orthodoxy (note that those who do sometimes lose their jobs), and one of them, the station’s most-watched host, has focused more on conspiracy theories about Russia than on all other issues combined over the last couple of months.

Again, that’s the “liberal” media.  Other major media outlets occupy a space in which fomenting bigotry against a marginalized group of people is okay but tweeting opposition to refugee restrictions is grounds for suspension.  Politicians are encouraged to discuss terrorism and foreign enemies but allowed to ignore poverty, campaign finance reform, and existential threats to the planet.  The most-watched cable network (Fox News) and the editorial pages at the arguably most-circulated newspaper (The Wall Street Journal) are a repository for privilege-defending ideology and alternative facts.

It is for this reason that Politico’s analysis is off base.  The mainstream media’s ideological uniformity is less liberal and more Establishment, likely driven less by geographic clustering and more by corporate capture.  A small handful of companies own the vast majority of the media Americans consume.  If corporate America doesn’t find something acceptable – if it’s threatening to those in power – it often isn’t published or aired.

It is no surprise, then, that a study of media coverage of the 2016 election found that five different Republican candidates “each had more news coverage than Bernie Sanders during the invisible primary” in 2015 – despite the fact that “Sanders had [already] emerged as [Hillary] Clinton’s leading competitor” by that time.  The only vehemently anti-corporate candidate in the race was, according to another analysis that compared Google searches about candidates to the press they received, “being ignored by the mainstream media to a shocking degree.”  When mainstream media sources finally did begin to acknowledge Sanders’ existence, their coverage was often dismissive of his candidacy and/or misleading, and rarely issues-focused.

The liberalization of the news and editorial landscape that the Internet has helped usher in is thus a welcome development.  Some alternative media sources are terrible, of course, and social media, which has some real issues, surely sometimes facilitates the spread of falsehoods.  But what you’ll get from a Breitbart, Drudge Report, or Infowars isn’t all that far afield from what you’re likely to see on Fox, whereas the Internet also exposes people to some of the great alternative sources out there.  Democracy Now!, The Intercept, FAIR, Jacobin, The Young Turks, and The Benjamin Dixon Show, for example, provide a perspective that is very different from those commonly aired on MSNBC or given space in The New York Times.

Exposure to these alternative sources is greatest among young people, who are far more likely to use the Internet as a primary news source than are older individuals.  Interestingly, young people are also least likely to have voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election and most likely to have backed Sanders in the Democratic primary.  Young Republicans are less likely than their older counterparts to hold extreme and inaccurate views.

This matchup between social-justice-oriented voting patterns by age and media access by age may very well be a coincidence, or it may just reflect the general tendency of younger people to be more progressive than older people.  But it may also reflect that younger people no longer must rely on corporate-owned media for our information.  Instead of being subjected to a steady diet of the Establishment’s point of view, we can identify alternative sources we like, follow them, and engage in fact-checking ourselves.  Rather than being cause for consternation, that’s a development we should celebrate.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Media