Why the conservative media echo chamber effect isn’t as bad critics say

A loyal Republican friend of mine said to me in earnest after Fox News called Ohio for the President that she couldn’t understand why, for the last month, she’d been told Mitt Romney would win the election.

In order to understand this frustration, we need to add context from the entirety of the race. Most Republicans, conservatives, and disenchanted Obama voters watched the Republican primary closely, trying to handicap the outcome and determine who, if anyone, had the intestinal fortitude, the intelligence, and the likability to beat Barack Obama.

And after watching the mouth-breathing knuckle-draggers continue to lead in the polls, it became pretty clear Romney would prevail. Thoughtful conservatives like Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan never entered the race and popular moderates like Chris Christie and Rob Portman also opted out. Jon Huntsman, perhaps the only moderate candidate in the primary, was curb-stomped by 9-9-9, poor kids as janitors, and rich white milk toast a couple times over.

While I touted the laurels of Mitt Romney, I never truly believed them. I was trying to convince myself and you. And here’s where the rubber meets the road.

Conor Friedersdorf, who I admire as a writer, penned a stinging criticism of the conservative media for their echo-chamber coverage of the election.

His point was that conservative media spent so much time criticizing the mainstream media, it was misleading its base because the mainstream media got it right this time.

Now, there are a host of things wrong with his assessment, including his categorization of The Atlantic as “mainstream media,” but the most obvious is that to some extent, it’s the conservative media’s job to offer opposition to the mainstream.

Whether intentional or unintentional (and we know which one it is) the mainstream media has always been an accomplice to the sham of an Obama presidency. If you need a reminder, Fox News gave you one today.  Underreporting the state of the economy, essentially blacking out the Benghazi cover-up – which won’t last long with guys like Darrell Issa in the Hosue – spending four years not asking Obama the tough questions, followed up with a patty cake game over his campaign.

Of course Obama is going to win when he has the networks in his back pocket and his liberal attack dogs on MSNBC, Mother Jones, the Daily Kos and others.

But the issue is more specific in this case because the point Friedersdorf attempted to make is congruent with the criticism of my Republican friend: the conservative media got it so wrong.

There are a number of reasons this happened. The first and most important is that the media engages both internally, and by a result of its own actions, externally, in confirmation bias.

You read the information that confirms what you already believe to be true. Conservative media create content that is congruent with what they already believe to be true. Liberal media does the same, and unfortunately the mainstream media does as well.

So when Gallup and Rasmussen have polls that are counter-cultural in the political media, the conservatives will tout them.

After all, Gallup is the gold standard of political polling and Rasmussen nailed 2008 and 2010 despite a conservative tilt. The reality was, Gallup and Rasmussen missed badly on the way they felt the electorate would look.

I detailed the argument right before the election. And if the electorate had looked like Rasmussen and Gallup predicted it would, Romney wins in a landslide.

It didn’t, so he didn’t.

Respected political analysts like Michael Barone admitted as much.

But the “I told you so” game from the mainstream media is front-running and Monday morning quarterbacking. Sports analogy. No one really knew what the electorate would look like until they showed up on election day.

Just because Nate Silver and the Daily Kos poll was right, doesn’t meant that conservative pundits were wrong to point to Gallup and Rasmussen as evidence of the strength of their side.

Political punditry and predicting is much like the business bloviating and prognosticating about sports. There will always be bias because you’re a fan. You have skin in the game. There’s no such thing as an unbiased political pundit or sports pundit. To a lesser extent, that’s the case with journalists as well.

Two years ago when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and a host of NBA superstars were free agents, there were rumors flying everywhere. People in Chicago were sure Wade and James was going to be Bulls, while people in New Jersey were sure they would want to be part of what is now the Brooklyn Nets.

They were wrong, but that doesn’t mean when they said it, they didn’t believe and that you shouldn’t have also believed it. They were wrong but an a posteiori judgement is silly because at the time, it may have made sense based on the knowledge on hand.

A progressive friend of mine who works on the Obama campaign told me Obama had it. I told her, she had to say that, but she reminded me that Nate Silver and most polls had it for Obama.

She was right, but I wasn’t wrong in any important way to believe that my side would turn out. I wasn’t wrong to believe that I was on the right side of history and look at the polls which most supported my theory. It was Gallup and Rasmussen against ‘everyone else’ and given how comfortable conservatives are picking against mainstream group-think, it is understandable why they went along with the theory their candidate could.

The mainstream media and the liberal media were right because their model worked, but more because their bias was underscored by what happened. Their side won.

In 1980, the mainstream got it wrong and Ronald Reagan rolled to an election victory, despite many media elites believing Carter had it in the bag.

This is how confirmation bias works. The mainstream media got it right, to some measure, out of luck. Their bias turned out to be the right one, not so much their information.

It came down to one simple idea: if the liberal model was right Obama would win, if the conservative model was right, Romney would.

That’s all. The liberal model was right and Obama won, but the conservatives can’t be blamed for believing that a model that favored their side would turn out to be reality. They just happened to be wrong.

In order to truly test the media system, we need a conservative candidate in a major race to win and see how coverage from Mother Jones et al compares with NBC and ABC. We know what Hot Air and Fox News will say. My guess is a losing liberal will be treated the same by Daily Kos as Romney was by Rush Limbaugh and the ilk.

That’s why you have partisan media.

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