When prospecting the media for signs of bias, don’t forget to read the obituary pages, where reputations go to get taxidermied.
Because most deaths follow the actuarial tables, newspapers bake and freeze ahead of time the obituaries of the famous and aging, defrosting and garnishing them with final details for serving when death finally claims the subject. Last week, the aged obituaries of former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), who died at 88, were published. Though they might not teem with bias, they illustrate the media crush on Republicans who make deals with Democrats.
If Baker’s obits were theater reviews, you’d have to say he earned raves for being, as the New York Times Page One headline put it, the “‘Great Conciliator’ of the Senate.” The bias on display in the premeditated Times obituary, as well as obits in the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, is not for left or right. Instead, it swings prejudicial in favor of a politician who kept legislation moving.
The press disdains inaction because of the difficulty of writing about nothing. Without overtly editorializing, the Baker obituaries smile on his traffic cop-like skills at preventing Washington gridlock, his ability to use his personal skills to sluice bills through committee, build compromises, collect and trade votes and get bills passed. As long as Baker was around, there was something to write about.
To his list of legislative wins, the obits cite Baker’s support of environmental legislation, civil rights and fair-housing bills, and the relinquishing of the Panama Canal. He also supported the Equal Rights Amendment, another liberal initiative. Yet Baker was no Democratic Party flunky: He opposed school busing and, as Senate majority leader from 1981 to 1985, backed cuts in food stamps and other entitlements, as well as President Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts and military build-up.