Welcome, Englishmen

This is an essay about American history. It is not an essay about American presidential politics.

Or is it?

Unquestionably, though, it is a true story about the Pilgrims who sailed to the New World on the Mayflower, and who developed a tiny and struggling community within a hostile wilderness. Shortly after they landed, they began to confront the brutal realities of death, disease, starvation, frigid weather, and a hostile relationship with the surrounding Native American tribes.

One day, as several Pilgrims stood chatting on their village hill, they spotted an Indian warrior on the next hill. Immediately, they called their tiny community to arms and fell into a defensive position, braced for an attack.

So what did that Native American warrior do? He strode briskly down his hill. Then he crossed the small valley. Then he climbed the Pilgrim’s hill and walked right up to the little group of settlers, crouching behind their muskets.

They all paused for a moment and stared at each other. The Pilgrims were terrified that they had come face-to-face with a savage warrior, leading a catastrophic invasion. And then the Native American threw open his arms, smiled broadly, and clearly proclaimed:

Welcome, Englishmen!

The moment was captured in two different Pilgrim memoirs, and it changed the course of American history. The warrior, a man named Samoset, helped launch an era of friendly relations that extended through the First Thanksgiving and resulted in the birth of the American nation.

It was a beautiful moment, wasn’t it? Now imagine, if you will, that he hadn’t proclaimed Welcome, Englishmen. Imagine, instead, that he had gestured to the dark and threatening forest and snarled:

There you will find death, destruction and weakness. You will be helpless to die at the hands of savage killers. Your men, women and children will be viciously mowed down. And I alone can fix it for you. I am your voice.

Would the Pilgrims have listened to him? Perhaps briefly. After all, a message like that does tend to grab one’s attention, doesn’t it? But in the long run, it’s hard to believe that such a frightening message would have generated the goodwill that carried the Pilgrims through their catastrophic early years.

Ever since Samoset’s moment of first contact, Americans have learned that a bold, brash, outspoken, and aggressive attitude is a common trait of an effective leader. And yet, as the Indian warrior demonstrated to the Pilgrims, such audacity is only proven effective when paired with an attitude that exudes optimism, goodwill, cheerfulness, and generosity.

This was an essay about American history. It was not an essay about American presidential politics.

Or was it?

Media Bias In Presidential Politics

It’s easy to identify blatant media bias, isn’t it? Whenever some self-styled Democratic or Republican “strategist” on MSNBC or Fox News launches into a diatribe against the opposing party’s leaders, we’re able to recognize the source of the commentary, and to apply a health degree of skepticism to the critical opinions.

But sometimes media bias is so subtle, and so deeply immersed within the statements of experienced and credible senior journalists, that it’s impossible to recognize without the benefit of a DVR recorder and a rewind button. Consider, for instance, the very first question that Neil Cavuto asked the Republican presidential candidates at last week’s televised debate.

Cavuto is the senior vice president, managing editor and anchor for both FOX News Channel and FOX Business Network. He might indeed be the most experienced, and most respected, business news journalist in the United States. And yet this is what he asked the candidates, at the 4 minutes and 48 seconds (4:48) mark of the Part 1 video clip that FOX Business posted on YouTube:

We are not even two weeks into this stock trading year but … investors have already lost $1.6 trillion in market value. That makes it the worst start to a new year ever. Many worry that things can get even worse … that banks and financial stocks are particularly vulnerable. If this escalates like it did, back when Barack Obama first assumed the presidency, what actions would you take … ?

So what is wrong with Mr. Cavuto’s question? What makes it biased, albeit in a very subtle manner?

According to Wikipedia’s entry for the United States bear market of 2007–09, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) dropped from 14,164 on October 9, 2007 to 7,949 on January 20, 2009, the date that President Obama took office. It continued dropping after January 20, bottoming out at 6,507 on March 9, 2009.

Thus, the DJIA dropped 54% in 17 months, with almost all of the months (i.e. 15 of the 17 months) occurring during President Bush’s presidency. Furthermore, more than four fifths of the total drop of the DJIA occurred during President Bush’s tenure, i.e. during the 15 months prior to President Obama’s inauguration.

So, with this in mind, was it reasonable for Mr. Cavuto to refer to the market crash of 2007 / 09 as something that occurred back when Barack Obama first assumed the presidency? Would it have been more appropriate to say that it occurred mostly during the final 15 months of President Bush’s presidency?

To be fair to Mr. Cavuto, I have no way of knowing what was on his mind when he asked his question. But as an independent voter with no affiliation to any political party, I believe that I’m reasonably positioned to identify examples of subtle media bias without being influenced by such biases myself.

With that in mind, I can only assume that the Republican presidential candidates at the debate preferred to associate Democratic President Obama (and not Republican President Bush) with the 2007 / 09 market crash. And thus I can’t help but wonder whether Mr. Cavuto instinctively played into their hands by phrasing his question in this manner.

Likewise, I can’t help but wonder whether an MSNBC commentator, moderating a debate of Democratic Presidential hopefuls, would have similarly accommodated the candidates by asking about the market crash that occurred back when President Bush was in his final year of office. In other words, I wonder whether such media bias is ingrained on both sides of the political spectrum.

Am I correct? Is this, in fact, a subtle example of media bias? And if it is such an example, can it influence the political leanings of television viewers?

That final question might be the most important one of all. Although a single isolated incident of bias might be immaterial, a pervasive culture of bias might wield a pernicious impact on the judgments of American voters.