Media Muddle

Commentary: Center Field

Some forms of media bias I can appreciate. For example, someone at The Washington Post got carried away in the August 21 issue with color photos of Jamaican sprinting champion Usain Bolt, which grace the front page, the cover of the sports section, and two inside pages. A straight co-worker of mine reacted to a sumptuous crotch-and-abs shot inside the sports section by laughing and saying, ”Now that one is just gratuitous pandering.” Thank goodness for that.

A lot of media bias falls into this eyes-of-the-beholder category. Subjective judgments inevitably feed decisions on which stories to run, what to emphasize, what angle to take, whom to quote. It is more problematic when journalists, perhaps due to excessive chumminess with the political establishment, develop a herd instinct and ignore stories that conflict with prevailing narratives.

George Mason University’s Center for Media and Public Affairs contradicted one such narrative last month when it reported that ”Barack Obama is getting more negative coverage than John McCain on TV network evening news shows….” Since the end of the primaries, coverage of Obama has been 72% negative, while McCain’s coverage has been 57% negative. So the fact that Obama has been the subject of 50% more stories has not helped him.

Most cable news shows, instead of looking for truly diverse viewpoints, merely ”balance” Republican flacks with Democratic flacks. At least this year has seen more diversity among the talking heads. With the rise of Obama, numerous African-American analysts have gotten airtime. And last week, MSNBC announced it is giving Air America Radio host and lesbian activist Rachel Maddow her own show. The 35-year-old former Rhodes Scholar is sharp, witty, and battles quite capably with the likes of Pat Buchanan.

It is the job of journalists not just to present dueling talking points but to dig beneath them. Something initially impressive can be more troubling upon closer inspection. A recent example is the Olympic opening ceremonies, in which hundreds of arrayed boxes were raised and lowered to create an elaborate animated display. At the end, it was revealed that the boxes were manually operated when their operators emerged from underneath. It turns out that the operators had to wear adult diapers in order to remain in place for several hours — a reminder that mass synchronization is easier in a highly regimented society where 72-year-olds are imprisoned for seeking permits to protest in a designated protest area.

Ex-prisoner McCain has benefited from a narrative portraying him as a steely former POW ready to defend our country in a dangerous world. This ignores his more comfortable post-POW lifestyle, as well as evidence that the Iraq war he championed has made us less safe. Meanwhile, over 12,000 servicemembers have been forced out of the military under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that McCain supports, even as personnel shortages have led to stop-loss orders preventing soldiers from leaving when their tours end.

Mockery by some gay Republicans about the supposed naiveté of gay Obama supporters conceals the real differences between the candidates. While admittedly short of divinity, Obama is better than McCain on a wide range of gay issues including hate crimes, military service, partnership rights, adoption, immigration, employment protections, the Ryan White CARE Act, comprehensive sex education, and state constitutional amendments. McCain, to his credit, opposes the Federal Marriage Amendment on states’ rights grounds, and was instrumental in overturning a law mandating the discharge of HIV-positive servicemembers, but otherwise has a terrible record on gay issues.

Today, August 28, the son of a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother will accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for President on the 45th anniversary of the day a black preacher said from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, ”I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Whatever political narratives you embrace, this is a night for cheering that our contentious republic has taken this signal step toward redeeming its greatest historical sin.

It is well to recall that the leaders of the civil rights movement frequently fought among themselves, just as we do now. Democracy is a messier spectacle than the one produced a few days ago by a totalitarian state. So God bless America, warts and all.

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist whose work has appeared on Salon.com and the Independent Gay Forum (www.indegayforum.org). He can be reached at rrosendall@starpower.net.

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