Media Bias In Presidential Politics

It’s easy to identify blatant media bias, isn’t it? Whenever some self-styled Democratic or Republican “strategist” on MSNBC or Fox News launches into a diatribe against the opposing party’s leaders, we’re able to recognize the source of the commentary, and to apply a health degree of skepticism to the critical opinions.

But sometimes media bias is so subtle, and so deeply immersed within the statements of experienced and credible senior journalists, that it’s impossible to recognize without the benefit of a DVR recorder and a rewind button. Consider, for instance, the very first question that Neil Cavuto asked the Republican presidential candidates at last week’s televised debate.

Cavuto is the senior vice president, managing editor and anchor for both FOX News Channel and FOX Business Network. He might indeed be the most experienced, and most respected, business news journalist in the United States. And yet this is what he asked the candidates, at the 4 minutes and 48 seconds (4:48) mark of the Part 1 video clip that FOX Business posted on YouTube:

We are not even two weeks into this stock trading year but … investors have already lost $1.6 trillion in market value. That makes it the worst start to a new year ever. Many worry that things can get even worse … that banks and financial stocks are particularly vulnerable. If this escalates like it did, back when Barack Obama first assumed the presidency, what actions would you take … ?

So what is wrong with Mr. Cavuto’s question? What makes it biased, albeit in a very subtle manner?

According to Wikipedia’s entry for the United States bear market of 2007–09, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) dropped from 14,164 on October 9, 2007 to 7,949 on January 20, 2009, the date that President Obama took office. It continued dropping after January 20, bottoming out at 6,507 on March 9, 2009.

Thus, the DJIA dropped 54% in 17 months, with almost all of the months (i.e. 15 of the 17 months) occurring during President Bush’s presidency. Furthermore, more than four fifths of the total drop of the DJIA occurred during President Bush’s tenure, i.e. during the 15 months prior to President Obama’s inauguration.

So, with this in mind, was it reasonable for Mr. Cavuto to refer to the market crash of 2007 / 09 as something that occurred back when Barack Obama first assumed the presidency? Would it have been more appropriate to say that it occurred mostly during the final 15 months of President Bush’s presidency?

To be fair to Mr. Cavuto, I have no way of knowing what was on his mind when he asked his question. But as an independent voter with no affiliation to any political party, I believe that I’m reasonably positioned to identify examples of subtle media bias without being influenced by such biases myself.

With that in mind, I can only assume that the Republican presidential candidates at the debate preferred to associate Democratic President Obama (and not Republican President Bush) with the 2007 / 09 market crash. And thus I can’t help but wonder whether Mr. Cavuto instinctively played into their hands by phrasing his question in this manner.

Likewise, I can’t help but wonder whether an MSNBC commentator, moderating a debate of Democratic Presidential hopefuls, would have similarly accommodated the candidates by asking about the market crash that occurred back when President Bush was in his final year of office. In other words, I wonder whether such media bias is ingrained on both sides of the political spectrum.

Am I correct? Is this, in fact, a subtle example of media bias? And if it is such an example, can it influence the political leanings of television viewers?

That final question might be the most important one of all. Although a single isolated incident of bias might be immaterial, a pervasive culture of bias might wield a pernicious impact on the judgments of American voters.