Game Theory and Media Bias

Posted: Jan 05, 2006 3:47 PM

Democrats like Senator Harry Reid understand—and manipulate—the bias of the mainstream media. They realize it is their most powerful political weapon, and they wield it with masterful skill. Democrats control the news cycle, because they apply an advanced level of game theory as they use the press to gain an edge over their political opponents.

In 2005, Thomas Schelling received the Nobel Prize in economics. Schelling won the award because of the way he applied the principles of game theory to help manage the U.S. nuclear standoff with the Soviets. Reid has demonstrated his mastery of this discipline by soundly trouncing the Republicans in the press.

People who understand game theory will contemplate the other player’s likely move and incorporate it into a more complex strategy. Poker is an apt analogy. At the surface, the strategy of poker is to bet if you have the best hand. At a deeper level, a good move can be made that violates surface strategy by bluffing. At an expert level, players intensely watch their opponents, so they know who to bluff, who not to bluff, when to bluff and when not to bluff. A strategy of the game is developed that looks nothing like beginning strategy, because it relies more on the behavior of the other players than the fundamentals of the game.

It used to be that the press would report the happenings of politics. Somewhere along the line, the process became perverted, and politicians began playing to the press and engaging in behavior that was motivated solely because of the prospect of media coverage. The tail wagged the dog, and politicians learned they could manipulate the press. Today, the message of politics is delivered through a liberally biased prism. Not only do Reid and the Democrats make moves designed to get media coverage, they take full advantage of the premise that the people reporting the news are predisposed to liberal ideology. 

Reid knows that President Bush did not mislead the public, lie or “cherry pick” intelligence as he made his case to go to war in Iraq. Reid remembers the first debate in 2002 was about whether the president had the authority to go to war. He must appreciate the solid political move President Bush made as he slapped the issue back to the Democrats and forced Congress to authorize the war. It was an uncomfortable vote for Democrats in an election year. Reid is aware that he and the rest of his party included many reasons in the 2002 resolution authorizing the war that had nothing to do with nuclear weapons. They included these reasons to provide themselves political cover with their base, but now say they were tricked into voting for the war, because President Bush gave them faulty intelligence about nuclear weapons. 

With his understanding of game theory, Senator Reid is confident the mainstream media is not inclined to report the facts objectively. There is no doubt in his mind that liberal reporters and editors will give him cover as he lies and rewrites history. He won’t be exposed for telling his big lie that President Bush lied.

Harry Reid is smart enough to know the indictments of Scooter Libby were about obstruction of justice and nothing more. Libby may have been attempting to influence the news cycle, but his actions had nothing to do with the dissemination of intelligence leading up to the war. On the deepest level, Reid understands that fact. He is also acutely aware of how he took advantage of the opportunity to misconstrue the indictment and use it as a platform to promote his erroneous claim about President Bush. 

Senator Reid wasn’t pleased when the news cycle started to move away from pre-war intelligence and indictments. It looked as if the news was heading in a direction that would favor President Bush. In a masterful moment of applying game theory, the Minority Leader shut down the Senate. Ostensibly, his reason was the need for answers about pre-war intelligence, but since he already knew the answers, the real reason Reid made the move was to control the news cycle and bring back a political liability for Republicans. 

Partly because of the ineptitude of Senator Frist, Senator Reid’s ploy worked. Frist made a spectacle of himself by launching into an angry tirade regarding Reid’s move. Perhaps if Frist could have disengaged himself, he would have realized that Reid’s behavior had nothing to do with the Senate and everything to do with making headlines. Frist did not understand the game and played right into Reid’s hand. The media loved it. Democrats loved it. Republicans lost ground.

When Congressman Jack Murtha grabbed the news cycle, House Republicans made the best game theory move of the year for their side of the isle. On the same day Murtha’s position was printed in almost every newspaper in the country, Republicans forced the House to vote on the congressman’s proposal. Everyone knew the vote wasn’t about Murtha’s proposed resolution. Republicans forced their opponents to vote on that day’s news coverage. Democrats lost that one. 

The disingenuous behavior of the House Republicans gave them one media victory compared with dozens of victories scored by Reid and the Democrats last year. Some will argue that Republicans should not stoop to using devious tactics like the ones the Democrats do. Some (including me) will spend time and effort whining about how unfairly media bias affects conservative ideology. But, facts are facts, and the situation is what it is. The choice for Republicans is to get their heads in the game and use every tactic they can to fight the Democrats, or take the high road and lose at the ballot box.