Media bias and the worst president ever

BY JARED GOLDBERG: IF NOT NOW
When?
Published May 14, 2006

A recent article in Rolling Stone magazine (The worst president in history?) debated whether George W. Bush really is America's worst president ever. Alluding to a survey that polled 415 historians, the article found - not surprisingly - more than half of the historians said Bush was among the worst. Many compared him not to his father or Ronald Reagan but to Herbert Hoover, Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan - presidents whose administrations were enamored in scandal.

Angela Cesere

One historian, who viewed Bush more favorably than the others, attributed Bush's high disapproval among his colleagues not to an alternative evaluation of his policies, but rather a bias that dominates the entire discipline. It's a convenient excuse used by people on both sides of the political spectrum to attribute ideas that differ from their own to bias.

During the height of the Six Day War of 1967, which pitted Israel against Egypt, Jordan and Syria, the University became a political battleground for students campaigning for either Israel or the Arab states. Just like today, students took their arguments from the Diag to the pages of the Daily. When the staff printed an article sympathetic to Israel, students on the opposite side protested, calling the paper a propaganda piece for Israel. Likewise, when an article appeared which criticized the Israeli position, pro-Israel students hurled similar accusations.

The childish back-and-forth allegations led one student to an interesting conclusion. Joel Hencken, an alum from the class of 1969, wrote in the Daily on June 17, 1967: "There is a great propensity for indignantly calling 'objective' what we agree with and 'biased' what we do not agree with."

It is easy to write off opposing ideas as bias - that way, we don't have to answer legitimate points that our opponents make. Criticisms that normally would raise eyebrows and cause us to think are dismissed outright. But this behavior - as handy and self-congratulatory as it is - is dangerously counterproductive.

The Daily has often been accused of bias in its 116-year history. In 1952, a U.N. delegate from the Soviet Union made a direct reference to the paper, labeling the Daily as a mouthpiece for the American war machine. In 1989, when the editorial board wrote questionable anti-Israel editorials, large protests were held against the paper by the Jewish community of southeastern Michigan. Several years ago, many student groups took offense to errors made by the staff, attributing them to the lack of minorities on the staff and accused the paper of racism and racial bias, culminating in a massive boycott.

And, of course, everyone remembers last fall's cartoon fiasco. In November, a cartoon was published that grossly oversimplified affirmative action, depicting a single white student being told that all of his classmates will have the benefit of affirmative action in admission to the University except him.

Despite a full column by then-Editor in Chief Jason Pesick arguing the rationale behind the decision to publish the cartoon, the result once again was charges of bias leveled by various student groups, and even a renewed threat of a boycott.

This is not to say that any media outlet is absolutely accurate in its reporting. The media's failure to question the Iraq war before it began stands out as one of the most egregious errors in recent memory. Thus, while the Daily is not perfect, neither is the BBC, which is often noted for its impartiality. On May 2, the BBC published a report stating that even though the news agency is committed to being fair, it has often failed - specifically in the Arab-Israeli conflict - to provide "a full and fair account."

Whether or not President Bush can be accurately called the worst American president in history is difficult to determine. But he certainly is a poster boy for the "bias" excuse. Whereas past presidents have tolerated media criticism of their administrations, it seems Bush has decided the only reason he is scrutinized so vehemently is media bias against him.

But there is a huge difference between occasionally incomplete coverage and bias. To live in a bubble where everyone you communicate with agrees with you is neither democracy nor a viable component of liberal society. If we rely on the media to report only items we agree with, we can never be truly informed - we can only live an illusion.

Goldberg can be reached at jaredgo@umich.edu.