Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Discerning Media Bias—or Over-Discerning It?

A mini-storm has erupted in news circles over an item by my colleague Seth Mandel here about Norah O’Donnell of CBS News and whether, in questioning Jay Carney about the debt-ceiling deal, she revealed a bias when she said to him, “We got nothing.” ABC’s Jake Tapper and my friend Steve Hayes of the Weekly Standard have both taken us to task for misrepresenting the exchange, because despite some coughing and simultaneous talking by Carney, O’Donnell used the words “Democrats are saying” before she said “we got nothing.” We have amended the item to take account of the attribution.

Seth explains why he believes the item stands in his updated version. As the editor who suggested it and approved it in the first place, I think it’s proper for me to explain why I think it stands as well.

Tapper and Hayes say O’Donnell was taking an adversarial tone, that this is what the White House press corps does, that it was totally appropriate, and that it was “scurrilous” (Tapper’s word) to suggest otherwise. These are reporters I respect and like, and they have a point about style—that baiting is a way of trying to get news out of a flak. But what Seth perceived and what I perceive in O’Donnell’s words (discernible in the 45 seconds before she said the words that we made controversial) is the revelation—through tone and comportment—of her own view. This is something to which I, as a conservative member of the media and watcher of media for three decades now, have long since been hypersensitive. The raised eyebrow, the cynical half-glance, the ironic turn of phrase, some inappropriate anger—these are all behavioral cues that reveal a supposedly objective reporter’s true feelings and in which they unconsciously express their ideological fealties.

Hayes, who is himself a conservative, did not see that in O’Donnell’s questioning. So obviously the opinion is debatable. By definition, the hypersensitive can maybe be oversensitive. And the debate was obviously complicated by the fact that we opened ourselves up to fair criticism in our original item because we did not feature the qualifying quote, which was and is very difficult to hear. It’s up to you to judge whether Seth and I are right that O’Donnell inadvertently added a note of emotional urgency to the point she was making that came out of unguarded personal conviction.