But the real problem with such lists isn’t the lack of partisan diversity; it’s the glaring lack of lies told to the public in the service of wielding government force. Only one of PolitiFact’s Top 10—Obama blaming 90 percent of the 2009−12 deficit increase on George W. Bush—involved an official lying about his own record. The rest all focused on the way that politicians (and their surrogates) characterized their competitors’ actions and words. This isn’t a check on the exercise of power; it’s a check on the exercise of rhetoric.
And when it comes to rhetoric that motivates journalists into action, nothing beats culturally divisive figures from the opposing political tribe. So it was that in May 2011, the respected Nieman Journalism Lab set the mediasphere abuzz with an academic study of more than 700 news articles and 20 network news segments from 2009 that addressed a single controversial claim from the ObamaCare debate. Was it the president’s oft-repeated whopper that he was nobly pushing the reform rock up the hill despite the concentrated efforts of health care “special interests”? Was it his promise that “if you like your health care plan, you will be able to keep your health care plan,” something that has turned out not to be true? Was it the way Obama and the Democrats brazenly gamed and misrepresented the Congressional Budget Office’s scoring of the bill, claiming it wouldn’t add “one dime” to the deficit?
No. The cause for reconsideration of the ObamaCare coverage was not the truth-busting claims made by a sitting president in the service of radically reshaping an important aspect of American life but rather the Facebook commentary of a former governor, Sarah Palin.
Here is the issue with media bias: It is not that journalists sit in some secret room and craft plans to overthrow their ideological opposition, Journolist notwithstanding. It is that a monoculture limits the range of issues to which the media applies skepticism. I am as guilty as anyone. Hypotheses and pronouncements that do not fit with my view of how the world works are met with much more skepticism, checking of sources, etc. The media is generally comfortable with a large and expansive role for government and seldom fact-checks the arguments for its expansion.
In fact, as I have written before, the media has an odd way of covering itself against charges of being insufficient skeptical about new legislation: They raise potential issues with it, but only after it passes.