Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Discord between conservatives, 'liberal media' on national spotlight

Conservative Republicans and the "liberal media" have long been antagonists. But the presidential campaign and the performance of moderators at Republican debates have thrust this matter into national prominence. We explore the perceptions and realities.

Even mainstream Republicans are convinced the national press is slanted against their party. Does such a prejudice exist in Utah?

Pignanelli: “The press does not have a responsibility to be fair — especially to politicians … they only need to provide both sides” — Jay Shelledy, former newspaper editor. 

The existence of a left-wing media conspiracy has evolved into ensconced GOP scripture, so any contrary declarations from me will be viewed as just heathen blasphemy. But I can play the victim card equal to any Republican because two major daily newspapers and alternative publications spent small fortunes of ink dissecting my political cadaver.

A partisan edge does not infect our local media. But what does occur proves the axiom that "politics abhors a vacuum." Major media outlets and other weeklies are fulfilling the role of an opposition political party to fill the void caused by shrinking Democrats. Most journalists view their mission as reporting the news and challenging the government — regardless of who is in power.

Although I still carry scars inflicted by various reporters, my firm is proud to represent the Utah Media Coalition and the Utah Press Association. These journalistic enterprises expend resources and efforts to defend open government and transparency. Our state is better for their presence.

Webb: Survey research consistently shows more reporters are liberal and vote for Democrats than are conservative and vote for Republicans. That’s probably true in Utah. However, we are lucky to have two major daily newspapers in the Salt Lake metro area, one leaning conservative and one leaning liberal. Both papers do a nice job with balance and perspective in their news columns, although their selection and placement of stories demonstrate their differences.

Their house editorials and columnist proclivities are markedly different, with the Salt Lake Tribune reflecting the liberal political makeup of Salt Lake City, while the Deseret News mirrors the more conservative nature of the rest of the state.

I think it’s great to have two papers with different perspectives. I need something to get enraged about as I eat my morning Cheerios. Tribune editorials often do the trick. Utah Republicans know they’re going to get beat up by a Tribune editorial or columnist periodically, but the electorate is conservative, so it doesn’t usually hurt them.

Is media bias just a figment of imagination or a true problem in American journalism?

Pignanelli: Republicans do a great job of providing nasty figures the press can easily disfigure (i.e., Richard NixonDick CheneyDonald Rumsfeld, etc.) Democratic wrongdoers tend to possess fun personalities that are difficult to attack and the lefty special organizations usually give them an undeserved pass — providing less fodder to the media. Usually, Republicans come across as meanies and Democrats as kindhearted folks. Remember, tearing down curmudgeons sells papers. Equally, journalistic attacks on happy conservative warriors well-liked even by political opponents (i.e. Ronald Reagan) rarely succeed.

So if Republicans want greater affinity with the media, they should smile and laugh more often.

Webb: Traditional news media aren’t any more or any less biased than in the past. The bigger story is the fragmentation and democratization of information services. Using the Internet and social media, anyone can be a writer, publisher or broadcaster. All sorts of upstart news operations exist, including many conservative operations, and a lot of them are more partisan, biased — and often inaccurate — than traditional media.

Conservatives love to bash the news media but, in reality, the conventional media have less clout and power than at any time in many decades. During the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson is said to have stated, “If you’ve lost Walter Cronkite, you’ve lost America.” Today, no broadcast journalist or print pundit has nearly that power.

Last week's Fox Business Network GOP presidential debate received accolades for fairness in structure and questions. Was this in reaction to the "media bias" allegations?

Pignanelli: Politicos are amused with the recent angst over media allegations against Dr. Ben Carson and other candidates, since we know such inquiries are fostered by opponents. Last week's debate was one of the finest in television history, and the Fox Business Network and Wall Street Journal developed their approach to avoid criticism suffered by CNBC. Thursday’s event should serve as a standard for all presidential discussions in the future. Americans are intelligent and insightful voters who crave policy deliberations and not pointless witch hunts.

Webb: I don’t have a problem with candidates being confronted with difficult questions. Whacking the news media has become a standard talking point for conservative candidates because they know conservative voters love it.

Ted Cruz was obviously playing to the far right when he blasted CNBC moderators for asking “gotcha” questions. One of the moderators should have responded, “OK, senator, you managed to roll out your talking point bashing the media, now put on your big-boy pants and answer the question.”