The Washington Times

I find it very difficult to score debates, for the simple reason that I tend to respond favorably to a candidate articulating a position with which I agree – and, perhaps more viscerally, to respond unfavorably to a candidate taking a position with which I disagree, or one unfairly (in my judgment) attacking a position I favor. This tendency is probably no more unusual among political commentators than it is among other members of a debate audience. But it is rarely acknowledged, and it may help explain why the Republican candidate is so rarely judged the clear-cut winner in a debate.

It is hardly news that most people covering politics favor Democratic positions on issues, hence the Republican complaints about liberal media bias. News people vociferously deny that this affects their coverage. They check their opinions at the door, they say, and strive to be fair, accurate and impartial – to present the story that’s there, straight.

The question is what is “there.” I think, for example, that it would require nearly-superhuman detachment for someone to master the details of George W. Bush’s proposal for a $1.3 trillion tax cut, to master the arguments in favor of it and the arguments against it, and then to reach no judgment on the question of whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea. And I think that to the minds of media people, the judgments inevitably reached in this way are of a piece with the legitimate discretion they exercise in the name of “news judgment” about what is and what isn’t a story.

Thus “liberal bias” isn’t really the intrusion of opinion as such; it is the manifestation of certain conclusions about the world of facts in which the liberal interpretation is deemed to have the better of the argument against the conservative interpretation. And were there more conservatives in the media, “conservative bias” would probably operate in much the same way.

Indeed, there are some interesting radical attacks on our media culture for its essential conservatism. This argument is generally framed in terms of the supposed effect corporate ownership of media outlets has on coverage of news. I find this structural analysis unpersuasive, because it entirely ignores how reporters and editors understand themselves, portraying them instead as the tools of hidden puppet masters. But it is true that the media culture is no more left-leaning than the mainstream Democratic Party.

Occasionally, pollsters measure partisan perceptions of media bias. The results are fairly consistent: Majorities of Democrats think their issues and candidates are treated fairly (not with undue favor, mind, but fairly); majorities of Republicans think theirs are not treated fairly. Naturally, Democrats do not think it constitutes undue favor when issues are described in ways consistent with their outlook. This is the natural order of things and is fair as such. But Republicans have no difficulty understanding that the world is not being described in a manner consistent with their point of view. Such polls precisely reflect the reality of media culture.

My debate-scoring problem is this: If I’m conservative and I think George W. Bush did well and that Al Gore did badly, is that because Mr. Bush did well and Mr. Gore did badly, or because I agreed with more of what Mr. Bush said than Mr. Gore? To compensate for this problem, which is the essential problem of writing about politics, here are two general principles: First, if you think a position with which you disagree is fundamentally unreasonable, you should think about it again. Because it is not regarded as unreasonable by those who take it, and the first duty is to understand their positions the way they understand them. Second, if your analysis comports with your wishes, do the analysis again. If it still comports with your wishes, repeat the first step.

Therefore, unsurprisingly, one quickly arrives at another problem: the possibility of overcorrection. I thought I saw a draw between Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush, with a slight edge to Mr. Gore for his superior handling of foreign policy matters, where Mr. Bush was weaker than he should have been. While I dislike Mr. Gore’s penchant for policy argument by anecdote (not, to be sure, that he invented it) and while I wished Mr. Gore would knock off the heavy sighing as Mr. Bush spoke, it never occurred to me how important these elements of the debate were.

In retrospect, the evening was very bad for Mr. Gore, as polls showed through the weekend. Argument by anecdote invites scrutiny of the particulars, and Mr. Gore’s didn’t hold up well. It’s not so much that what he said was wrong as that there was enough missing to invite a reassessment of his stories. And the sighing and eye-rolling? My reaction to it, which I ascribed to my distaste at the implied ridicule of Mr. Bush’s arguments – as if the GOP positions were nothing but absurd or pathetic – turned out to be neither unusual nor confined to conservatives.

In the immediate aftermath, most analysts seemed to give Mr. Gore the edge. Why wasn’t Mr. Gore’s egregious behavior more of a story at the time? It took a little while for commentators to come around to the view that he could indeed have behaved so badly – in much the same way it took me a while to get past my own sense that my reaction was just visceral.

Republicans may not be pronounced the winners of debates very often, but sometimes they win just the same.