Do facts have a bias?

It’s primary season. As a student of politics, I love it. It’s exciting and interesting and oh so messy. But there is one thing about it that frustrates me endlessly: the media’s lack of punch.

Journalists are supposed to be objective and keep their biases out of their work as much as possible. Lately, though, this has been taken to such an extreme that the media — the fourth estate and supposedly responsible for holding the powerful accountable — have turned toothless, for fear that someone will accuse them of bias or carrying out hit jobs. One of the biggest lessons that still resonates with me from J School came from my adviser. The gist is, “There’s a difference between being fair and being equal.”

There might be a segment on a news program called, “The Earth: Round or Flat?” In a fair model, a person who believes the earth is flat would never be given a platform or would be soundly shut down, because it’s a fact that the earth is not flat. In an equal model, one person who believes that the earth is round would debate a person who believes that the earth is flat. They’d yell at each other for 45 seconds, the anchor would sit impotently by and then sign off without settling the matter, leaving it open-ended and allowing the audience to believe that maybe there really is something to this flat-earth business.

In a recent debate, Mitt Romney made an error and mentioned something about John Adams authoring the Constitution. The moderator didn’t address this, nor did anyone else after the fact that I saw. The Constitution was largely authored by James Madison. I give Romney the benefit of the doubt and assume he made a harmless error, but that the moderator or another candidate didn’t correct it right then — either out of apathy, ignorance or fear of reprisal — is troubling.

That’s an example about a historical event in American history. What if the issue pertains to job growth, defense spending, abortion or health-care reform? A serious flaw in the debates is that the moderators always seem to ask questions with a hypothetical tilt. “What would you do about this?” I’d much rather see a fact-based question that forces the candidates to defend a position they’ve already taken. “You’ve said that X has been decreasing, but this data from Non-Partisan Research Body shows that X has actually been increasing. Do you care to explain your position, or provide a source for your data?”

Even better, have a squad of fact-checkers working during the debate and challenge assertions that candidates make during the debate. These days, fact-checking occurs after the debate is over, if it happens at all. Assuming that people even tune into the debates, I doubt that many of them stick around to see CNN or Fox or MSNBC or ABC go over and fact-check something that was said two or three hours ago or even two or three days ago. If there’s a question of veracity, bring it up then and have the candidates defend it then. 

Much of the disinformation peddled during elections — not just primaries, but general elections too — is aided and abetted by journalists’ unwillingness to take the gloves off and do their jobs. Will they make enemies this way? Sure. But it seems like too many political journalists these days are more interested in schmoozing and gossip and buddying up with candidates than they are in actually examining and evaluating their campaign platforms. As my dad said when I embarked on my (high school, haha) journalism career: “If you’re not pissing anybody off, you’re not doing your job.”


Sizing up Republican candidates

In case you haven’t heard, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana announced that he won’t run for president in 2012.

During my time at The Indianapolis Star, I edited and wrote display copy for many, many stories about Daniels’ administration. Even though I disagree with Daniels politically (especially with his decision to deny funding to Planned Parenthood), I came away thinking he was a fundamentally decent man. In particular, I remember his timely and compassionate response to victims of the terrible flooding during the summer of 2008. I think the Republican field is diminished for not having him in it.

I’m following the Republican nomination contest fairly closely, if only to see who will eventually triumph. I think the upcoming primaries will offer keen insight into the mindset of the party. Will the monied establishment get its candidate in the form of Mitt Romney  or even Tim Pawlenty? Or will the grassroots social conservatives get their man (or woman) with Ron Paul or Michele Bachmann?

Several major names have already dropped out. Donald Trump’s publicity stunt ran out of gas, Mike Huckabee ostensibly thought he’d get more out of staying with Fox News and Daniels, from the looks of it, just didn’t want the headache.

So who’s left?

Romney is probably the closest thing to a front-runner. He has the money, the experience and the name recognition. What will tank him is his healthcare initiative in Massachusetts, which he oversaw while he was governor and which looks suspiciously like the dreaded “Obamacare.” He could lure independents to his side in the general election, especially if the economy keeps flagging. His biggest hurdle will be getting out of the primaries.

Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, is inoffensive at face value. And that’s his problem: There is virtually nothing interesting, outstanding or noteworthy about him. He’s practically a cipher. I’m getting sleepy just writing about him.

Then there’s ex-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Spotty personal life (and Tiffany’s habit) aside, Gingrich seems to be a legend in his own mind. Still living in, apparently, 1995, it doesn’t occur to him that he’s overcooked to the tune of about 15 years. His gaffe regarding Paul Ryan’s budget infuriated many in his party and showed that he’s out of touch with the overall agenda.

Ron Paul, a Texas representative, is a libertarian favorite and kind of a little-engine-that-could. But while he gets grassroots support, he alienates the establishment. Not to mention that for every reasonable platform he has, there are two or three more that are just crazy.

Michele Bachmann, a congresswoman from Minnesota, has a pretty enthusiastic social conservative base. If the Tea Party contingent really shows up in the primaries, I dare say she could have a fighting chance. Until she gets to the general, that is, where her ideology on social policy and reputation for bizarre comments will send independents and probably even some moderate Republicans running for the hills.

Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania was booted out of the Senate in 2006 and is basically a slightly more composed male version of Bachmann. Pass.

Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, is running a sort of stunt campaign. It’s an amusing sideshow, but that’s it.

Finally we have Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah and until recently President Obama’s ambassador to China. He’s kind of taken on the darkhorse mantle. He’s experienced, smart and not crazy. However, he just doesn’t seem to be getting much steam, and he’d have to explain why he went to work for Obama. He may, in the end, not be bombastic enough to stand out, and will probably have to compete with Romney for similar donors and voting demographics.

(I’m aware that I did not mention arah-Say alin-Pay, mostly because I don’t think she’s running.)

If I were a Republican voter, I’d be a little dismayed by this field. Candidates who’d bore the base would have a chance with independents, and those with red-meat support will alienate moderates. The thinking now is that some sort of savior will swoop in at the last minute and dazzle everyone (think Bill Clinton in 1991-92), but I have no idea who it would be. The economy looks like it’s on the mend, unemployment is ever-so-slowly dropping and Obama’s security credentials are rock-solid after the death of Osama bin Laden. Any successful Republican candidate would have to weather the, pardon the expression, freak show of the primaries and emerge unscathed enough to challenge Obama’s popularity and immense fundraising network. It’s a daunting task, and I can’t help but think that the sanest ones are those who have already bowed out.

What say you? In a year, who will be left?