Friday, 30 September 2011

Parsing Liberal Media Bias

To hear the conventional wisdom these days on the subject, you would think that pervasive liberal bias in the news media is corrosive to our democracy -- excuse me, our republic -- and so ubiquitous as to be self-evident. Despite this common sense fact, I have had a hard time since I first started consuming large quantities of high-potency political journalism finding this so-called liberal bias.

I've noticed bizarre ideological blind spots in the media to be sure, but most of these blind spots seemed to line up nicely with a "corporate bias" if any simple description is accurate. On top of that, within my lifetime I've seen Fox News emerge as the most unapologetically biased and fact-light media outlet outside of Berlusconi's Italy.

Indeed, virtually every example of media bias I've ever encountered, with the exception of explicitly ideologically outlets like National Review or the Nation has trended in a bland way towards protecting and benefiting the United States' economic and political elite at the expense of everyone else. A large contingent of conservatives would probably agree with me about that, but for some absurd reason, it has always been far easier to convince the right that the elite who rule this country are a bunch of pointy-headed liberal academic types.

In my experience, academic types are ineffectual enough that they have a hard time controlling the discourse on campus, let alone in the national political arena. Liberals tend to be a soft-hearted lot, and while collegiate lefties - especially that small but ferocious segment of the left I'd call "hard liners" - can be a little strident, they are nothing compared to the ghastly, irradiated menagerie that comprises the Campus Republicans (campus lefties versus campus righties is an interesting topic, and one worthy of its own entry or series of entries, but Thomas Frank has a valuable and interesting introduction to the recent history of CRs here ).

Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when I happened upon the following article, penned by Mr. Robert Gehrke,  in the Salt Lake Tribune. Not only is the article an example of media bias, it's an example of liberal media bias, that most rare and exotic of biases. The headline shouts "Lobbyists want keys to the gym and valet parking Capitol," and right out of the gate, my reflex reaction is exactly what Gehrke wants, which is to say my blood pressure rose ten points and my Evil Politics Finder buried the needle in the red. Quoth the Tribune:

A group of well-connected lobbyists are seeking some changes at the Utah Capitol, including potentially adding valet parking and gaining access to a fitness center on the Hill...During the legislative session, the parking lots around the Capitol are flooded with cars and there is little in the way of on-street parking. Hart said that last session she saw an elderly woman hiking downhill in the winter to get to the building. 
Valet parking is one of the ways to solve that, Hart said. Others include finding empty reserved spots that interns could use to ease congestion or selling reserved passes. 
“It wasn’t just for us. We weren’t necessarily looking for any privilege orspecial treatment. We all fight for the same spots,” Hart said. “If there was going to be a valet service that was offered, it was going to be offered for everybody. Not just us." 
But Jenn Gonnelly, the co-legislative director for the Utah League of Women Voters, said the valet idea would add cost for those who would use it and take up other spaces available to those who wouldn’t. 
“It takes a public, free parking space and makes it a pay-for-play parking space, even if it’s just a few dollars,” she said. “We have a hard enough time engaging our audience to come to the Capitol and see what’s going on there. We don’t want anything in the way of that.”...
The lobbyist association also asked repeatedly about getting access to workout facilities at the Capitol, the records show. 
But a review in August by an attorney with the state’s division of Risk Management said there were problems with any such proposal. Specifically, he said, because the lobbyists aren’t state workers, they wouldn’t be covered by the state’s workers compensation insurance if they were injured. 
In addition, there would be no legal way to grant lobbyists access to the gym, but close it to the public. 
“There is no legal basis to say a lobbyist could use it but not a protester or any other citizen with business at the Capitol,” wrote attorney Morris Haggerty. 
If lobbyists were allowed to use the gym, said Gonnelly, it could give them special access to legislators while they run on a treadmill or use the workout room.

Okay, hang on. Let's take this a little slower and parse things a bit.

Now, first off, Utah is an unbelievably corrupt state. From last year's revelations regarding Utah Department of Transportation contracts to the "revolving door" of ex-legislators lobbying their former associates for private gain, Utah is a Republican Visible Man, a textbook example of what happens when one-party rule of a state meshes seamlessly with political/cultural hegemony and the concentration of economic power. 

Right out of the gate you can assume that if it's an allegation of nefarious behavior on the part of a lobbyist, there's a better than 50/50 chance that it's true, then. Gehrke's villain in this story is one that is a familiar boogeyman to many liberals (myself included): greedy, powerful, anti-egalitarian lobbyists representing a spectrum of moneyed elites as mercenaries on capitol hill. 

And what do these jackals want? Why, they want valet parking and gym access. It isn't enough that they already have a sweet "five star lobbyist lounge" - I should say a "new" five star lobbyist lounge, as I haven't heard too many complaints about the Alta Club lately - now they practically want to treat taxpayers like bathroom attendants at some swanky getaway! The nerve!

As terrible as the lobbyist/legislature situation in Utah is, the further into the article you read, the more it becomes apparent that this is really much ado about nothing. About the worst thing that the lobbyists in this case - and let me repeat that, this single example - can be held accountable for is extreme tone-deafness on their part in how a request like this was likely to be viewed by the public.

Gehrke's editors should have tacked "and everyone else" onto the end of their headline, and Gehrke himself should have added "and the public" onto his introductory paragraph. This article transmits a strong implication - without openly alleging - that the lobbyists were seeking valet parking and gym access for themselves. While this might be technically true, the implication that they wanted these perks for legislators and lobbyists alone is not supportable.

In fact, you have to read to the very end of the article to learn that there is "no legal way" that such access could be limited to the lobbyists themselves. In effect, lobbyists are doing this on behalf of everyone who spends time at the Capitol, lobbyists, protesters and concerned citizens alike (although the tacky assertion on the part of Lobbyist In Chief Jodi Hart that the little old lady walking to the Legislature in the snow would somehow benefit from these changes is a prime example of why everybody who isn't a legislator hates lobbyists).

Once I realized that I had the genuine article - a Tribune article that was unfairly hard on lobbyists and elites while unfairly uncritical of citizens interests (represented in this case by Jenn Gonnelly from the League of Women Voters) - I wondered if I was missing something. I looked up Robert Gehrke and found his miniature biography at the Tribune:

Robert Gehrke covers state government and politics since returning to Utah in June 2007. Gehrke, who has a wide stance, spent half his 10-year journalism career in the nation's capital, first for the Associated Press, then The Tribune.

Ha ha ho ho, a wide stance, GET IT? Jokes about gay cruising in the men's room are the "Al Gore invented the internet" or "Obama uses a teleprompter" of the left: a tired, fact-free nugget of infotainment encapsulated in a tired old one-liner worn smooth by age and repetition. 

Look - there are myriad reasons to regard the Utah lobbying industry with awe and horror. We don't need to tack frivolous garbage like this onto the list of charges just to bulk it up - they've been given plenty of rope by the laissez-faire ethics rules in Salt Lake City and have hung themselves in numerous and creative ways. Gehrke should keep that in mind before deciding what is news regarding lobbyists and/or conflicts of interest and what is not.

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