In his “Happy Warrior” column in the April 21 National Review, Jonah Goldberg reports on how “Press Shows Bias.” In this case, it’s the case of California state Sen. Leland Yee, whose remarkable attempts to smuggle guns and even missile-launchers went mostly ignored in the national media.
The most notable omitter was CNN, which tweeted it covers state officials “just about never.” (On April 11, CNN anchor Jake Tapper proved the exception to the rule: “This week, Yee pleaded not guilty to charges that are stunning in their reach and, if true, hypocrisy.” A full report by Jason Carroll followed.) Goldberg’s column mocked the old cliche of covering “man bites dog” stories:
CNN’s actual explanation was that they cover state senators “just about never.” Which is just about a lie. They covered then–state senator Wendy Davis’s pro-abortion filibuster as if the fate of the republic depended on it. They covered Sandra Fluke’s ill-fated state-senate run. The website Weasel Zippers reports that CNN had even favorably reported on Leland Yee numerous times, particularly when he was eager to ban violent video games. In other words, the geniuses at CNN are not only lying about their standards, but they actually think Yee became less newsworthy when he was charged with bribery, attempted gun-running, and collusion with the Chinese gangster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow.
The real point of the phrase “man bites dog” is to suggest that journalists have a bias toward surprising news, even if it’s merely anecdotal. But these days, that’s often at best a half-truth, which is often the most effective kind of whole lie. When it comes to politics, what ignites the press isn’t surprise, but confirmation. The great herd stampedes when it hears what it expects to hear.
Surprises get squashed or squelched, which is why it has become a parlor game to see how long it takes wire stories about corrupt politicians to mention their party affiliation. If they are Republicans, it’s in the lede. If they’re Democrats, it’s usually about ten paragraphs down, if anywhere at all.
That’s why actual dog-bites-man stories make it to the front pages, while man-bites-dog stories are negligible filler. When a Republican candidate does or says something awful, it’s a newsworthy dog-bites-man story because the press believes it is their duty to report on the true, feral nature of conservatives: “Rabid Republicans Claim Another Victim.” When a Democrat does or says something awful, it’s a curiosity, an anecdote, at best suitable for a squib in the back pages: “Local Puppy Learns to Play the Piano.”