A front-page story in the July 24 New York Times (“For Public, Obama Didn’t Fill in Health Blanks”) describes how Craig Brown, a 36-year old father of four, got increasingly agitated as he watched President Obama’s July 22 press conference on health care. Brown and his wife said that Obama and the Democrats “had not convinced them of the need for radical change,” that they were not convinced the system was broken, but that even it was, they were “not sure the government is the solution.” But in highlighting the Browns, the Times selected one of the nation’s least representative families. The Browns were among only 4% of African-Americans who voted for John McCain over Barack Obama, and using them to assess public attitudes toward health reform is like interviewing Clarence Thomas to get the nation’s pulse on civil rights. The Times has been almost consistently anti-reform in its news coverage of health care reform, and cable and network television news coverage has been even worse. Despite the November election results and high ratings generated by Obama’s election and inauguration, the traditional media’s longstanding opposition to progressive change continues.

The blogosphere is now filled with stories of strong media bias against President Obama’s health care reform. In fact, even skeptical progressives seem surprised that a traditional media that was so excited about the Obama presidency has now turned so strongly against “The Change We Need.”

I am also a little surprised, mostly by the obviousness of the media’s agenda. When McCain supporters disproportionately represent public attitudes, and the media gives fifteen times the coverage to a negative CBO report on a draft health plan than it does to its positive report on the final version, then the traditional media’s hostile agenda is transparent.

There are two chief reasons for this.

The Audience for News

Younger voters, and those of color, strongly backed Obama, but these are not the primary viewers of cable news or subscribers to daily newspapers. This group remains disproportionately white and male, the demographic most likely to vote Republican.

CNN is desperately courting this demographic, which is why it has noticeably veered rightward since Obama took office. Much of CNN’s coverage is little different from FOX News, and is clearly designed to win slightly more moderate Republicans away from Rupert Murdoch’s network.

Many CNN viewers want to see coverage of Tea Parties, and hear Lou Dobbs bash immigrants on a nearly daily basis. The recent contretemps over Dobbs’ promotion of the Obama “birthing” issue somewhat ignored the fact that Dobbs draws great ratings in his prime-time spot, winning CNN viewers who would otherwise be watching FOX.

Newspapers also serve a disproportionately conservative demographic.

It’s hard to find a progressive activist under 30 who subscribes to a daily newspaper. Meanwhile, the industry has left much of the potentially growing Latino market to the Spanish-language media. This has left newspapers writing for a much more affluent and politically conservative audience than the general public, and these readers want a product that questions and undermines, rather than facilitates, progressive change.

As the traditional news industry continues to lose viewers, listeners, and subscribers, producers and editors fear that appearing to support progressive policies will turn their customers exodus into a stampede. Even the more progressive MSNBC gives ample air time to the right-wing Pat Buchanan, when there is no left equivalent of Buchanan to be found anywhere on CNN.

So a major reason the media slants coverage against Obama’s progressive reforms is to satisfy its audience. And while the electorate is getting younger and less white, the shrinking offline news audience is moving in the reverse direction.

Corporate Media Ownership

It has been decades since Noam Chomsky described the traditional media as implementing its corporate owners’ political agenda. Under this view, Obama’s success at securing newspaper endorsements reflected corporate America’s desperate desire to save capitalism, rather than as an endorsement of universal health care, immigration reform, EFCA or strong climate-change measures.

This notion that Obama’s victory was not a vote for progressive change has now become a media staple. For example, consider the July 22 New York Times comments of Mickey Edwards, a longtime Republican Congressmember and one of the founders of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Edwards claims he voted for Obama in 2008, and the media has anointed him as a politically “neutral” pundit in assessing the President. Edwards told the Times:

“A lot of people supported Obama because they wanted to repudiate the Bush administration. I was one of those people who supported him for reasons other than the policies he is proposing. He seemed more thoughtful, more contemplative — I felt he had the right temperament to be president. But I think his health care proposal goes beyond what the public at the moment is ready to accept.”

So in a story that defines the health care debate as a “defining moment” for Obama, the nation’s most prestigious newspaper allows a longtime right-wing conservative Republican to “define” what Obama’s victory really meant.

Contrast this with the media’s response to George W. Bush claiming a “mandate” after winning the 2004 election much more narrowly than Obama won in 2008. The traditional media all agreed with Bush’s assessment, and none claimed that he won due to his “temperament,” rather than his ideology.

Similarly, there was no media chorus questioning whether Bush voters really backed the President’s agenda of investing billions more in Iraq, neglecting health care and the environment, or the other features of his platform. Its only when progressives win that the victory is ascribed to something other than issues.

In fact, one is hard-pressed to find a traditional news story that reminded people that we had an election in 2008 where the candidates publicly split on universal health care, and the pro-health care side won handily. Not just in the presidential race, but in the Senate and Congressional contests.

Jim DeMint was Right

South Carolina Republican Senator James Demint has taken a lot of heat by saying that health care could be Obama’s “Waterloo,” and that stopping progressive change here will prevent it elsewhere. But Demint was simply openly expressing what is heard in editorial offices, and among the corporate owners of traditional media.

Stopping health care reform enables corporate America to begin reversing the 2008 election. And these media owners know that it’s not what said in editorials that counts, but the slanted news coverage that shapes readers views because they perceive it as “objective.”

As a representative of the California Labor Federation told me in discussing newspaper coverage of the Employee Free Choice Act, “why would we expect the corporations that own newspapers to cover EFCA in a way that could anger their largest advertisers? Of course they will slant the news against union’s interests.”

Fortunately, the Internet will not allow the traditional media to again derail the nation’s hopes for progressive change. No wonder the Obama Administration is openly courting bloggers to tell the truth about health care -- they know that the traditional media has too much financial interest in bucking progressive change to ever change.

Randy Shaw discusses activist strategies for combating media bias in The Activist’s Handbook.