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Conservative or Liberal, Media Pundits Don't Have as Much Power as You Think

Talking Heads May be Watched by Millions, but They Can't Sway an Election

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Conservative or Liberal, Media Pundits Don't Have as Much Power as You Think

Rush Limbaugh has millions of listeners, but he couldn't sway the election for Mitt Romney

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

For years, conservatives have railed against what they see as the left-wing bias of the mainstream media, while liberals have done much the same when it comes to right-wing talk radio and Fox News.

The fear on both sides seems to be that an overarching bias will misinform news consumers and lead them down a path to political purgatory. Liberals seem convinced that Rush Limbaugh's rants have the power to torpedo Democratic initiatives in Congress or even sway an election. Conservatives claim that an institutionalized left-wing bent in the "lamestream" media has deluded millions.

But is this really the case? After all, a steady stream of anti-Obama vitriol from Fox News pundits didn't cost the president the election. Likewise, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow clearly didn't have the juice to give Democrats control of the House of Representatives.

This isn't to say that big-time media pundits don't have a lot of weight to throw around. Limbaugh has millions of listeners and Fox News routinely clobbers the other cable news networks in the ratings.

On the other hand, many of the nation's most powerful and respected news outlets, including the likes of the New York Times, maintain what many argue is a liberal bent.

So what does this all mean? I'd venture a couple of ideas. First, in an increasingly fragmented news universe the media doesn't have as much influence over how people vote as it might have once had. Karl Rove might have been convinced Fox News had the power to deliver a Romney victory, but we all saw how that turned out. And hardcore Fox News watchers were never going to vote for Obama anyway.

Second, the competing voices in the end balance each other out. In other words, if you have Maddow speaking to you in one ear and Limbaugh coming at you in the other, the result might be a position that tacks somewhere to the middle.

My third point is journalistic: The pundits on both sides offer up opinions, not facts. And opinions, even when shouted from a cable news show, don't pack the punch that cold, hard facts do.

In a piece I did a few years about the battle between the White House and Fox News, I wrote this:

Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity aren't investigative reporters; they're commentators, the TV equivalent of op-ed writers. They talk tough, but in the end that's all it is: Talk. Fox doesn't land many real punches because, at least in prime time, it traffics in opinions, not facts. Schoolyard taunts may sting, but they don't draw blood.

The same point holds true, I believe, on either side of the ideological spectrum.

As for the recent election, a report by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism found that from the political conventions to the eve of the final presidential debate, Obama and Mitt Romney both received more negative than positive news coverage. Obama had a slight edge, but that evaporated when the debates began and coverage shifted in Romney's favor.

However, a follow-up survey found that Obama enjoyed a surge of positive coverage in the final days before the election. But, contrary to popular opinion, much of that "was tied to Obama's strategic position, including improving opinion polls and electoral math, rather than directly to positive assessments of Obama's response to Superstorm Sandy," the researchers wrote.

All in all, from the conventions to election eve, 20 percent of stories about Obama were favorable compared with 29 percent that were unfavorable. For Romney, 15 percent of stories were favorable while 37 percent were unfavorable.

Other findings? Hurricane Sandy dominated the news but not campaign coverage, and Fox News and MSNBC grew more shrill and partisan as the election drew closer. Meanwhile, on social media, Romney had a good run on Twitter in the days before the election while Obama got a boost on the blogs. Facebook remained mostly unchanged.

In sum, Obama seemed to get a bit more favorable coverage than Romney. But, the researchers add, "much has changed in four years as the candidate of hope and change became an incumbent presiding over a sluggish economy. The media's coverage of the late stages of Obama's 2012 campaign was considerably less flattering than it was in 2008 when he was running against Sen. John McCain. Conversely, Romney has not experienced as much negative coverage as his predecessor did four years ago."

In the free marketplace of ideas there are many voices clamoring to be heard. But what I take away from the Pew survey is that, in the end, who comes out on top as far as favorable media coverage is pretty much a wash.

So the next time you start to start to fret about the undue influence of Fox News, or feel an urge to rail against the liberal media elite, take a deep breath. They probably don't have as much power as you - or they - might think.

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