Debate over Bridgegate vs. IRS Coverage More About Sensationalism Than Media Bias

Concha: Debate Over Bridgegate vs. IRS Coverage More About Sensationalism Than Media Bias 

Media bias is a topic we hear much about working in the news business and the news-that-covers-the-news business alike. Bias obviously exists, and despite what one side or the other will claim, it is most definitely a two-way street against conservatives and liberals alike…just depends on your network or publication of choice.

But objectivity has become such a dirty word in 2014 not because journalists suddenly became activists and advocates. Instead, it’s the same rule that applies to the reason behind anything and everything in this world: Follow the money. And in television and print, money mostly comes in the form of ratings and advertising.

Back in 1996, Fox News was created—according to Roger Ailes—as a counter-balance to the mainstream media, which he concluded (and still does) ranged from left-of-center to hardcore liberal. The timing couldn’t have been better to create FNC, as the country was becoming as polarized as it gets (the 2000 election between Gore and Bush coming down to a few hundred disputed votes in Florida underscoring the point). So Fox takes a side, so to speak, which leads to MSNBC—a centrist network as recently as eight years ago—to go hard left after the success of a liberal Keith Olbermann became a blueprint moving forward for the network.

Which brings us to a present day debate: Why did—according to the conservative Media Research Center–ABC, CBS and NBC’s respective evening newscasts devote 17 times more coverage (34 minutes, 28 seconds total) to the Christie controversy in the first 24 hours after it broke than anything the IRS controversy (two minutes, eight seconds total) has received since July 1? The two are an obvious comparison to make since both involve political retribution and using the power of government to execute a hit on an opponent.

At first glance, the easy answer is to say a prominent Republican (Christie) was targeted by the major networks because of his standing in a hypothetical 2016 presidential election (the NJ governor led Hillary Clinton in a pre-Bridgegate CNN poll by two points). Ironically, some media members who support the party’s right flank (tea party) don’t seem to mind watching Christie’s 2016 chances be diminished as well.

But when analyzing deeper, this isn’t just about ideology, but star power and what rates. From a news perspective (particularly cable news), Christie is a perfect candidate to have front and center because of his presence (commands the screen), astounding success in a decidedly blue state, and because he doesn’t come across as a phony via brutal candor (See: compelling sound bites). Like him or loathe him, he generates emotion and debate, which is ultimately the goal of any producer when it comes to his/her audience.

The IRS, meanwhile, is a faceless entity. Sure…a woman named Lois Lerner—currently enjoying an involuntary paid vacation—was ultimately fingered as at least one person responsible for the IRS targeting right-wing groups (conservatives will also strongly argue that Lerner was directed to do so by the President in the same way the other side will insist that Christie was involved). But in the end, she’s just Lois Lerner, not a household name like Christie.

Is a blatant abuse of power by the IRS for political payback an important story, even arguably a more important story than Christie’s Toll-Gate? Of course. But in 2014, as we’ve seen time and again, important stories (possible war in Syria getting buried by Miley Cyrus twerking, for example) don’t necessarily result in extensive coverage. It’s more about infotainment and speculation now…all about giving the audience what those in charge of presenting the news thinks it wants.

Speaking of speculation, that’s also a big chunk of what news rundowns are built on today: Who will run in 2016? Who will win? These are questions that were asked across the dial less than 24 hours after President Obama defeated Mitt Romney in 2012. We’ve seen dozens of the same 2016 segments on each cable news network talking about an election—one that no major candidate has officially declared running in yet—that is still years away. And Christie and Hillary always rule that conversation. It’s no wonder President Obama feels like a lame duck—some in the media moved on before his hand hit the Bible to be sworn in for a second term.

To that end, Christie gets infinitely more play than even the IRS scandal at its peak because (A) He’s the top dog in the GOP (and according to a Washington Post ranking of GOP candidates out Monday morning, is still is the man to beat for the nomination) and (B) Speculation over presidential elections is the top choice as a cheap and easy fallback panel segment of producers on any slow news day. As a result, the coverage now has more to do with Christie’s future than any improper actions he may or may not have committed regarding traffic creation in Fort Lee. And on cue, a second controversy regarding Hurricane Sandy recovery TV ads has popped up (over a year later), giving the Christie-in-trouble-in-2016 narrative legs for another few more days.

So is there media bias?

In a news world that is based more on opinion and speculation than ever before, of course there is.

And it goes both ways depending on what you’re reading…who you’re watching.

But oftentimes it isn’t just about taking a side to advance or reduce a hypothetical candidate’s chances.

It’s about what’s sexier.

What sells.

Movies are built around big stars and being provocative.

News—more an infotainment model, less serious journalism—is now built the same way.

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>> Follow Joe Concha on Twitter @ConchaMedia

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