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The media’s bias is the same bias politicians and voters have: narrative over social coordination

What will last longer, the next Presidential term or the precedents set by the Supreme Court today? Which do you think newspapers, blogs, opinion leaders and politicians will focus the most attention on?

People love to talk about media bias, and I think that the coverage of the Supreme Court’s very busy day reveal a strong media bias. The comments from politicians today also reveal a strong bias, and the posts in comments sections in newspapers and twitter feeds around the country show a bias too. The bias runs the same for all three groups. All three are addicted to narratives.

I might say something here that is going to disappoint you. Life is not A Game of Thrones.  Not only is your life not like that, but the lives of politicians in the “great game of politics” inside the Beltway are not really like those kinds of stories either. You see, almost all of the characters in Game of Thrones are narcissistic sociopaths in some form or another, they care for few people beyond themselves, and those people they only care about for their own ego-satisfaction.

You’d think, if you read how people talk about politics, that this was pretty accurate. Almost any headline on any major news organization is going to refer to the Supreme Court deciding a political dispute between Republicans and Democrats, which is not fair to the Court in the slightest. They have to resolve legal controversies the best they can given the constraints they work under, but it appears no one wants to read this. Having a Supreme Court, that, you know, does its job pretty well is boring. The election, who wins, who loses, that’s exciting and so that’s what everyone takes with and runs. The news media does this to sell copy. Politicians and interest groups do this to raise money.

Here’ the million dollar question: why should this work?  Presumably, your interest as an average American is not to believe that political institutions in good working order are in fact broken and the only way you can fix them is to go online and transfer your personal income to some person you don’t really know. So why does this play out all the time? And I do mean all the time.  Is there anyone running for an office who hasn’t said that this decision implies you should give them more money? Regardless of political party? Doesn’t that make all of their statements about this a little suspect?

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We keep falling for this because we have been trained to see these things in narrative. Of our agents of socialization: parents, peers, news, leaders, schools, etc.; the only one that offers reliable training in breaking this means of perceiving politics is education. And education is expensive, limited, and having the social sciences that train people to see this way (surprise!) squeezed to death so that fewer people can be trained to see politics more clearly.  I, perhaps foolishly, believe that we can do a better job breaking people out of viewing these decisions as narratives and see political disputes more as complex problems of social coordination.  That’s why I bother to write stuff like this here, for example.  And believe me, I know this: it’s not that politicians don’t understand the modern political science of understanding social coordination, it’s that they leverage the fact that they know it and you do not to gain privilege, power and money for themselves.  It’s time for you to know more about it too.

Here’s your first exercise: what will last longer, the next Presidential term or the precedents set by the Supreme Court today? What is going to last longer, the Affordable Care Act in its current form or the need to maintain a proper relationship of checks and balances between the branches of the federal government? What will be more important in ten years from now, which interest groups raised the most online money within the first 24 hours after the Court announced its decision, or the redefinition of the relationship between the Federal government and the states back towards state authority?

Step two: Which side of all of these either/or’s do you think newspapers, blogs, opinion leaders and politicians will spend the most time focusing their attention on, the former set or the latter? Clearly the more lasting, historically important elements of today’s ruling are exactly what everyone you normally talk politics with will not be talking about when it comes to today’s events. Doesn’t that seem wrong?

This post was written by Steven Maloney and originally published on Cows and Graveyards. Follow Steven on Twitter: @stevenmaloney.

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