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Obama vs. Romney: Can media bias stand in converged public sphere?

By Uchenna Ekwo

All too often political and media pundits trump up charges of media bias against one politician or another. We are often reminded of the evils and treachery of the mainstream media or what Sarah Palin calls the lame stream media. There is a chorus of criticism against the media especially among the conservative wing of our polity. For example, Mona Charen of the conservative-leaning National believes that if Governor Mitt Romney loses the presidential election, “it won’t be hard to figure out why”. According to Chareen, Romney has faced “perhaps the most corrupt and tendentious coverage in presidential history,” with the mainstream media doing everything in its power to ensure that its darling, Barak Obama is re-elected.
Every “gaffe” Romney has made has been blown out of proportion, while Obama’s many mistakes, horrible economic record, and mishandling of the attacks in Libya have been all but ignored by a media system that has compromised its principles. Congressman Paul Ryan, the Republican vice Presidential candidate echoed similar sentiment recently when he appeared on Chris Wallace Fox Sunday Show on Fox News Network. Hear him: “Most people in the mainstream media are left of center and therefore, they want a very left-of-center president”.
The allegations of media bias in the age of a converged media system will indeed remain a racket for incompetence. Today, the social media notably Face book and Twitter have provided unprecedented platforms to report issues and events such as political campaigns. There is so much media fragmentation to the extent that any interested citizen is a journalist. The first presidential debate between Obama and Romney attracted 10.3 million tweets thereby making it the most tweeted political campaign in history. Imagine the impact of a single tweet from Jack Welch, the former Chairman of GE who queried the latest jobless rate of 7.8%. In his tweet, Welch says: “Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can’t debate so change numbers”. The tweet got the attention of all media networks and newspapers and thereby setting the agenda for the news cycle.
In a sense therefore, Sarah Palin’s pejorative reference to the so called mainstream media as the lame stream media is perhaps an apt description of the potency of the traditional media ecology today. The traditional media is indeed lame and crippled. There is an undue arrogation of power to the traditional media – radio, television, newspapers, and magazines reminiscent of the early days of the mass media. In the beginning, media effects were conceptualized in a stimulus-response fashion. The perception was that of an atomized society that is likely to react in a predictable fashion. The bullet effects theory as it was then called, posits that the media has instant effect on audiences but successive communication scholars through series of seminal studies proved that the media did not possess the level of influence arrogated to it. Media influence, if at all, was determined by a “nexus of mediating factors”.
Due to the weak evidence of media effects on society, researchers shifted focus to effects of society on the media, especially on how the masses make use of the media.
Going back to allegations of media bias against conservatives in the United States, two questions stand out: could it be that journalists who belong to the so called mainstream media hold meetings every now and then to decide on the next conservative victim of the media fangs? Do we have a monolithic media?
David Carr in the New York Times provided a more succinct response. “Each week, we in the mainstream media gather together in “dark chambers” to discuss how best to put our “collective liberal thumb on scale” for President Obama. In the real world, such conspiracy theories make less sense than ever: Only 33 per cent of the people get their news solely from traditional sources such as TV, public radio, and newspapers. So how can anyone claim there’s a “mainstream” media at all?
Across the new media landscape, there is a “growing hegemony of conservative voices”: Rush Limbaugh with over 20 million listeners, and host of others like him that dominate talk radio, Fox News Network, The Wall Street Journal, hundreds of conservative blogs, and websites.
By any stretch, the army of conservative media commanded by Rush Limbaugh is enough to counter balance any perception of hostility by the so called mainstream media.
The continued whining about media bias has reached embarrassing proportions. If indeed the bias exists, then victims of such bias should show an interest in repositioning themselves if they care so much about what the media reports or not report. I found it courageous of Paul Ryan to acknowledge that he is used to media bias and therefore does not worry about it. I think this is a better approach than blaming the media even where there are instances of ineptitude, sloppiness, and self-inflicted wounds.
For example, there is no way the media would not have focused on Romney’s “47%” comment. It is news worthy. Obama or any politician would have received similar media treatment.
The danger in orchestrating media bias in the current political campaigns is that it is likely to foster a jaded view of the political system. Opinion polls conducted by different media organizations are also cast as not credible because of the allegation that the media deliberately skew the outcome to favor Obama. In fact, Rush Limbaugh in one of his programs called the polls a voter suppression tool meant to dampen the morale of members of the Republican Party.
The consequence of all these machinations is the likelihood that the eventual winner in the presidential contest will lack legitimacy before the eyes of the population.
The American media has remained a good midwife of the country’s democracy for two centuries but it will be a sad chapter in America’s democracy if the media should contribute to its decline.
The good news, however, is that journalism has shifted from the control of professionals to practitioners in the transformed public sphere where social media, mobile devices, and the Internet have revolutionized information sharing.
Dr. Uchenna Ekwo contributed this article with additional reporting from The Week