Biased Sensationalism

By Bowman, James | New Criterion, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Biased Sensationalism


Bowman, James, New Criterion


Back in 1992, there was a British general election which pitted a still largely Thatcherite Conservative party now led by John Major against an unreconstructed Labour party led by Neil Kinnock--who had also been the Labour leader defeated by Mrs. Thatcher in 1987. Labour was widely expected to win. On election day, the country's biggest-selling tabloid newspaper, The Sun, which was and is owned by Rupert Murdoch, ran an anti-Labour article under the headline: "If Neil Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights" After the Tories unexpectedly won their fourth consecutive election that day, The Sun crowed: "It Was The Sun Wot Won It!" Whether or not this was true, the claim was widely believed, not least by the Labour Party itself which, first under John Smith and then under Tony Blair, proceeded to transform itself into "New Labour," to obtain the backing of The Sun and other Murdoch-owned papers against Mr. Major and to win the next election, in 1997, in a landslide. Since then the party has won two more elections and always taken good care to keep on the good side of The Sun and of Mr. Murdoch.

I only mention it because the frankness with which British newspapers proclaim their partisanship and openly campaign for one party over another comes as a breath of fresh air through the stifling hypocrisy and mendacity of American media politics--alas from too great a distance to stir things up here. This year, it seems to me that The Washington Post has at least as good a claim as The Sun's in 1992 to having influenced the outcome of an election. The delivery of the Senate into Democratic control after the recent congressional elections was effected on Thursday, November 9, when Republican Senator George Allen of neighboring Virginia conceded to his Democratic opponent, James Webb. The once popular Senator Allen, who was spoken of only months previously as a potential Republican presidential candidate, had lost by a mere eight thousand votes out of more than two million cast, and it seems to me obvious beyond the possibility of a doubt that Senator-elect Webb would not have had those eight thousand votes--nor, probably, a good many others besides--without the Post's weeks of steady criticism and scandal-mongering directed at Senator Allen.

Nor did the tenor of the newspaper's criticisms and insinuations against the senator have even the Sun's excuse of a sincere belief that his election would have had disastrous consequences for the country on account of the policies and legislative measures with which he could be identified. Instead of making or even attempting to make a political case against him--that would have been unseemly and out of keeping with the Post's self-conceit of "objectivity" and "independence"--the paper seized upon exiguous and unreliable evidence of defects in the senator's personal character. He had used the term "macaca" said by some to be a racial epithet, to describe a Webb campaign worker of Indian descent who had been making opposition research videos of him on the stump. For weeks thereafter, there was hardly a story about the Allen-Webb contest without a mention of "macaca" and the alleged "controversy" it had aroused--a controversy that took place, so far as I could tell, mainly in the pages of the Post itself and other media--even though no one was quite sure what the word meant.

Bizarrely, the paper even tried to make a scandal out of the revelation in mid-campaign that Senator Allen's mother--from whose exotic origins in Tunisia some have speculated the word "macaca" originated--was Jewish by birth. I never quite understood what was supposed to be scandalous about this, but the Post seemed to suggest that, since the senator had reacted with a certain petulance when his ancestry was brought up by a reporter at a time when he was attempting to answer questions about more substantive matters, he might conceivably and (it seems to me) by a very considerable stretch be supposed to have been ashamed of his ethnic Jewishness. …

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