Is the Mainstream Press Unbiased?

She tried to make a joke of it. At the debate in Cleveland last week, Hillary Clinton brought up a "Saturday Night Live" skit about journalists fawning over Barack Obama at a mock debate. "Maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow," said Clinton. Humor is often a substitute for anger, and if Clinton wasn't all that funny, maybe it is because she is sore at the press for seeming to go easier on her opponent. She has a point, but the truth about the media and the campaign cannot be caricatured simply as the deification of Obama and the hounding of Clinton.

The pols and the people invest the press with great power. Conspiracies abound. Right-wing talk-show hosts love to go on about the liberal media establishment. Lefty commentators accuse the press of rolling over for George W. Bush before the invasion of Iraq. Politicians of all stripes accuse the press of being unfair, even cruel. Sometimes we are. On the day Vice President George H.W. Bush announced for the presidency in October 1987, he watched as his 28-year-old daughter, Doro, wept when she picked up NEWSWEEK's cover story that week, picturing Bush driving his speedboat under the cover line FIGHTING THE 'WIMP FACTOR.' Bush was, understandably, furious. The phrase "wimp factor" came from Bush's own pollster, and we said he was fighting it, but we nevertheless left the impression that we were calling the vice president a wimp. In the end, the story had little impact because voters already understood that Bush, a World War II hero, was plenty tough. He was elected president the next year.

Certainly, there are editors and publishers who would like to be kingmakers, or just kings. From William Randolph Hearst to Henry Luce to Rupert Murdoch, press barons have sought to leave their personal stamp, if not change the course of history. But for the vast majority of media, the reality is much more mundane; the press's impact on elections, as well as most other human events, is murky.

The mainstream media (the "MSM" the bloggers love to rail against) are prejudiced, but not ideologically. The press's real bias is for conflict. Editors, even ones who marched in antiwar demonstrations during the Vietnam era, have a weakness for war, the ultimate conflict. Inveterate gossips and snoops, journalists also share a yen for scandal, preferably sexual. But mostly they are looking for narratives that reveal something of character. It is the human drama that most compels our attention.

Politicians have long known how to go over the heads of the press to the public. Had the voting franchise been restricted to reporters, neither Richard Nixon nor Ronald Reagan would have been elected president. Much of the Fourth Estate regarded Nixon as a thinly packaged autocrat, Reagan as a dumb nuclear cowboy. Both presidents were re-elected in landslides. Old media's political power, such as it was, has been weakened further by new media. The fund-raising power and viral reach of the Internet are far more crucial to the fortunes of a presidential candidate than sitting around eating cookies with The Washington Post's editorial board.

The need to sell newspapers or win over advertisers is real and getting more pressing in an age of declining financial fortunes, but such pressures almost never affect news decisions. (If they did, there would be less political or foreign coverage, which is plentiful and is the subject of many of the criticisms leveled at the MSM. Trust us, advertisers are not eager to underwrite coverage of wars, often for fear of being associated with controversial topics.) Anyone visiting the morning meetings of the editors at most newsmagazines, major newspapers or news networks would hear a discussion of what's new, what's interesting and what's important—not what's going to make money for the publisher or owner.

A recurring rap against the press is that it lacks objectivity. The criticism is fair, in the sense that it is almost impossible to be completely objective. Subjectivity always creeps into the choices made by reporters and editors on what to include or what to emphasize in a story. News people are all too human, and sometimes they are not even aware of their biases. But on the whole, the mainstream press does try, with imperfect results, to be fair. The big news organizations are not at all relaxed about getting it wrong. Big mistakes—fraud, plagiarism, outright deceit—can kill careers.

Much of the suspicion of press bias comes from two assumptions that are commonplace, if contradictory. The first is that reporters are out to get their subjects. The second is that the press is too close to its subjects—in the parlance of journalists, "in the tank." The press has been guilty of both sins at various times. Examining the way the pendulum swings between these poles—between fawning and negativity—is a useful way of understanding how the press operates. Rare is the reporter who can be both an insider and outsider (Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991, comes to mind). Public officials tend to dislike journalists, but are forced to deal with them. As Lyndon Johnson once said, he would rather have someone "inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in."

There was a time, in the years of the early cold war, when the press was too cozy with high government officials. The great Washington columnist Walter Lippmann would visit the Oval Office to give the president his thoughts for a speech. Then Lippmann would write a column praising the speech. Reporters favored with leaks from J. Edgar Hoover's FBI were known as "F.O.B.s"—Friends of Bureau. They never reported that Hoover was blackmailing politicians and bugging civil-rights leaders. At fancy Georgetown dinner parties, CIA officials hobnobbed with columnist Joseph Alsop, knowing that their secrets—coup plots, black ops—were safe with their social peer and fellow patriot.

Then came Vietnam and Watergate and a golden age for muckraking. President Johnson lied to the press so often that the "credibility gap" was born. Uncovering Nixon's misdeeds made movie heroes out of two young Washington Post city-desk reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Suddenly it was cool to become a journalist, cooler still to be an investigative journalist. Newspapers began cranking out multipart series that were unreadable and often proved little (while insinuating a lot), but won the occasional prize. A giant scandal machine took over Washington, exposing wrongdoing and keeping politicians honest, but also frightening them from public service or punishing them for peccadilloes. The nadir may have been the Gary Condit–intern scandal in the spring and summer of 2001, during which the national press corps spent weeks hounding an obscure congressman for a murder he did not commit—though he did admit to an affair (according to later news reports) and, at first, allowed his staff to deny it.

After 9/11, the scandal machine shut down—for a time. Journalists were dealing again with questions of war and peace, and it seemed, for the moment at least, that the profession was ennobled by crisis. Then came Iraq. Some big-time journalists (a) were scared that Al Qaeda would attack their homes, New York and Washington, and (b) bought into the idea, albeit with misgivings, that toppling Saddam Hussein would make the country safer.

Burned by the WMD fiasco, most news organizations took up the cudgels again. Defying a personal plea from President Bush, The New York Times exposed extensive electronic eavesdropping on citizens in the war on terror. While controversial, the decision to reveal the eavesdropping program was in the public interest. Much more questionable was the Times's later decision to publicize how intelligence officials tapped into a bank clearinghouse in Europe to follow terrorist money. The article gave terrorists all the warning they needed to avoid such money transfers, while the spying program had been authorized by Congress. The Times's justification for such a damaging revelation was that the paper was guarding against a potential abuse of power.

There is a tendency among politicians to blame all their woes on the press. Certainly Hillary Clinton feels aggrieved, though part of the problem with Clinton's critique is that her life in politics is so much longer and more controversial than Obama's that there is simply more to examine: it is the rare presidential contender, for instance, who is married to a buckraking former president who lobs grenades at the first plausible African-American candidate. (Jay Carson, a Clinton spokesman, says: "Campaigns are supposed to be a test, and the press is to some extent the people who administer that test … There's certainly one candidate who's had their record scrubbed in the Democratic Party.") Al Gore was bitter that the traveling press corps fell for George W. Bush's fraternity-brother charm during the 2000 race, and has since lamented that the press lacks the capacity to understand and explain technical concepts, like health care or global warming. Yet Gore himself was able to go around and over the press, to use the airwaves and the Internet, to issue his timely jeremiads and win a Nobel Prize—and an Oscar for "An Inconvenient Truth."

It is true that reporters are susceptible to flash and charm; like most cynics, they are romantics in disguise. JFK and the early Bill Clinton were bound to get better press than insecure Richard Nixon or earnest Al Gore (who for some reason hides a raucous sense of humor). Right now, Obama and John McCain are popular with reporters. But if the usual laws of press physics apply, the media will turn on both men before Election Day. The blogs and the talk-show hosts will rant. The voters will take it all in (or not). And then make up their own minds.