MEDIA BRANDS: Issues of bias will move the crucial battle for undecided Americans off the national stage

As Election Day grows near, it appears the most important reputation issue for media outlets will be that of political bias.

As Election Day grows near, it appears the most important reputation issue for media outlets will be that of political bias.

The question of whether particular reporters, publications, or broadcasts lean toward one candidate or political party isn?t a new one, but its return to the center of public discourse on the media marks a change of pace from the comparatively straightforward scandals of accuracy ? think Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley ? that have plagued the industry over the past year. If the furor following the release of Outfoxed, the new documentary that purports to detail Fox News Channel?s Republican biases, is any indication, then how the candidates are covered will be as pressing an issue as what they?re saying and doing.

It?s pretty easy to see that whole debate getting wrapped up in national media players like Fox News, or, on the other side of the political spectrum, The New York Times, long a whipping boy for conservatives. But that may turn out to be a big waste of time, especially if, in the effort to tap into that small but crucial clutch of undecided voters, the Bush and Kerry campaigns take a bottom-up approach to media and use more grassroots strategies to reach those who haven?t made up their minds.

That?s what Tom Galvin, a former political reporter and now VP for public affairs at Verisign, says they should do. ?I?d scrupulously avoid the national outlets,? he says. ?There are few undecided voters, and national media outlets are not a proven way to communicate to that population.?

A lot of this goes back to trust, and not just trust in the newspapers and TV news broadcasts. ?Voters? trust in institutions has been going down since the mid-?90s, and among those institutions are media outlets,? Galvin says. ?They just don?t trust them. They think they?re ideological or bent on scandal.?

If that?s the case, then it?s hard to imagine something like Outfoxed having any real political impact. Conventional wisdom on Fox is that it has a strong conservative slant. The new documentary?s claim to news is that it ties the network?s content specifically to Republican boosterism. It backs this up with Fox footage as well as leaked memos portraying top-down directives to take what most would agree is a Bush-friendly take on the war in Iraq.

The release of the documentary was marked by a massive PR effort of the kind that liberal activists MoveOn.org have gotten extremely good at. But in contrast to the organization?s support of Howard Dean or its antiwar work, this effort lacks a real political relevancy. After all, the election is not being fought on Fox News or other outlets with strong ideological associations.

?At the end of the day, undecided and Independent voters are looking for avenues where they can get unbiased information,? says Galvin, who is not joking when he adds he?s still waiting for a reality show to come out of a presidential campaign.

A webcam in Kerry?s war room? Now, that would be unvarnished reporting.

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