The standard rap on the media is that we are hopeless ideologues, our work corrupted by blatant bias. Problem is, no one can agree what kind of bias. The Right sees a liberal tilt on the networks and in the big newspapers. The Left sees a conservative tilt among the pundits and all over talk radio.
This noisy argument overlooks the most deeply held media bias of all, the one that knows no ideology and colors what we do every day: our bias for political scandal. This bias has been around for as long as there have been journalists, but it's been rampant in the 30 years since Watergate, the Ur-story that gave the modern media a professional paradigm and a reason to get up in the morning. The ultimate success in our business is to get the story that brings down an American president. Everything else takes a backseat.
The bias has been on florid display for the last few weeks. The what-did-Bush-know story, with its stunning news about intelligence failures before 9/11, gave us a taste of the old scandal hooch. We were lurching around wasted on the stuff for several lovely days, until polls came in showing the public wasn't exactly sharing our enthusiasm for this emerging scandal.
But this story isn't over yet, and while it's still around, it's worth pausing to note its essential features. Our most passionate bias finds expression in several different behaviors, and to understand the news, you have to know how to spot them.
The story broke with a May 15 report on the CBS Evening News that, in a White House intelligence briefing last August, a little over a month before September 11, President Bush learned that terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden might be plotting hijackings. This was an authentic stunner, and all the major outlets played it appropriately large.
The conservative New York Post took the story to a whole new level the next morning with two large words on its front page: "BUSH KNEW." It was an outrageous stretch, given that the paper had no evidence to support the clear implication: that Bush knew beforehand what was coming on 9/11.
It was also a telling moment in scandal bias. First, it showed that scandal trumps ideology. True, liberal outlets were slow in warming up to some of the Clinton scandal stories, especially those rooted in the Paula Jones case. And in the Reagan years, conservative outlets were leery of Iran-Contra. But when the stakes are really high—and they couldn't be higher than right now—a lot of media people are happy to put aside political leanings to go after the big prize. That Bush should take his toughest media hit so far from one of the most conservative papers tells you all you need to know about the primacy of scandal in media culture. (And when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., took to the Senate floor to tout the Post's story, the whole scandal universe came together in cosmic oneness.)
Second, as the Post headline makes clear, the tone and style of scandal coverage varies greatly. Any journalist worthy of the title is more or less aching for scandal to break out every day, but we play the game in vastly different ways. Marshall McLuhan, the patron saint of media analysis, wrote in terms of "hot" and "cool" media. Hot media are those that overwhelm the senses, leaving little room for the audience to participate or reach its own conclusions. Cool media are the opposite: less explosive and didactic, with more room for audience participation.
McLuhan was a philosopher, not a grubby journalist. But for our purposes, let's say the New York Post is a hot scandal outlet. The quintessential cool outlet might be The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, which introduced the same story last week not with an accusation, but with a demure question from anchor Margaret Warner: "What did the White House do, or not do, about a pre-9/11 hijacking threat?"
"Hot" and "cool" are relative terms. The Washington Post is cool in relation to, say, CNBC's Hardball. But next to the wire stories one finds on Yahoo, or a small-city newspaper far removed from Washington, The Post is very hot.
Because scandal has a mixed reputation with the public—most people want the truth but are skeptical of journalistic motives—media outlets typically wind up doing a mix of hot and cold. A stunning headline one day, a muted one the next. The most interesting case this week was in the newsweeklies. Both Newsweek and Time ran sensational covers about the scandal, with hot images and headlines. (The cooler U.S. News had a cover on teens and sex, with 9/11 in a narrow strip across the top.) Newsweek's cover was the hottest, with an image of the World Trade Center in flames and the headline "WHAT BUSH KNEW," which is just a notch or two cooler than the New York Post's. Time gave us New York City in ominous crepuscular light, with the headline "WHILE AMERICA SLEPT," and below in smaller type, "What Bush Knew Before 9/11."
But inside, both magazines' stories disavowed their own cover heat. "The question is not so much what the president knew and when he knew it," said Newsweek. "The question is whether the administration was really paying much attention." And Time: "The most important question isn't what Bush (or anyone else) knew before September 11; it is what the administration and Congress have and have not done to fix a broken system."
One story, served up at two different temperatures. You know which one journalists prefer.