"Media Matters"; by Jamison Foser


July 23, 2004

Welcome to the first edition of "Media Matters," MMFA's new weekly commentary on conservative misinformation in the media. "Media Matters" will summarize and discuss recent examples of conservative misinformation in the media; place them in a broader context; identify emerging themes and storylines; and explain why it matters.

In this edition:

  • Media Matters for America at the Democratic National Convention
  • Media typecasting of candidates leads to double standard on "flip-flops"
  • Anatomy of a smear: Berger story quickly devolved into rumor, innuendo, and spin
  • "The Right-Wing Squares" Internet ad campaign exposes absurdity of "angry liberal" story line
  • Spinning the Spanish bombing: how the media misleads Americans about Al Qaeda's efforts to influence elections
  • Outfoxed soars to top of charts; documentary exposes FOX News Channel's dishonest practices, but network keeps spreading lies anyway

Media Matters for America at the Democratic National Convention Next week, MMFA will focus heavily on conservative misinformation surrounding the Democratic National Convention. Check in all next week for new items correcting the record and setting it straight.

But we won't be able to do it all by ourselves. With the increase in media coverage of issues and politics next week (and the inevitable accompanying increase in conservative misinformation in the media), we'll need your help. If you'd like to volunteer to monitor some of the media we won't have the resources to focus on, check out our new dedicated discussion forum: http://mediamatters.org/comments/latest/200407200002

Media typecasting of candidates leads to double standard on "flip-flops"

Once again, the story lines that members of the media use as a framework for their reports are having a massive -- and rarely noticed -- distorting effect on coverage of presidential politics.

In March 2000, Washington Post ombudsman E. R. Shipp wrote that the Post "seems to have assigned [roles] to the actors in this unfolding political drama. ... Gore is the guy in search of an identity; Bradley is the Zen-like intellectual in search of a political strategy; McCain is the war hero who speaks off the cuff and is, thus, a 'maverick'; and Bush is a lightweight with a famous name, and has the blessings of the party establishment and lots of money in his war chest. As a result of this approach, some candidates are whipping boys; others seem to get a free pass."

This typecasting wasn't unique to the Post. As Paul Waldman (co-author, with Kathleen Hall Jamieson, of The Press Effect, which illustrates the media's tendency to shoehorn news reports into preexisting story lines) wrote in 2003, "Reporters decided before the 2000 campaign began that Gore was dishonest, and while he occasionally gave them support for this impression, he was also skewered for lies he never told."

Likewise, this year, Senator John Kerry is being skewered for flips he never flopped. As Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) recently noted, "The Bush campaign has been remarkably successful at getting the press to buy the notion that John Kerry is a flip-flopper. ... But reporters have been much less quick to look at various Bush reversals of policy through the same lens."

For example, The New York Times recently reported that Bush has tried to "finesse" the same-sex marriage issue, endorsing a constitutional ban under "election-year pressure from his social conservative base," while being "careful to modulate his message to avoid alienating moderate voters." But the Times didn't portray Bush as someone trying to take all sides of the issue. Nor did the Times present Bush as someone who has "flip-flopped" on gay marriage -- despite the fact, unmentioned by the Times, that Bush said in 2000 that the issue should be left to the states. Instead, the Times presented Bush's maneuvering as a canny political move that may have "insulated" him from the amendment's defeat in the Senate.

Incredibly, the Times even suggested that the issue "provided an opportunity for the White House to maneuver Senator John Kerry into a position where it could again accuse him of taking both sides of an issue, the central theme in its effort to portray Mr. Kerry as so lacking in conviction that he would be an unreliable leader" -- despite the fact that the Times offered no reason to believe that Kerry has changed his position on the issue or has taken both sides.

To recap: Bush has flip-flopped on gay marriage; Bush has "modulated" his message depending on what audience he's speaking to -- and The New York Times presented this as an opportunity for Bush to paint John Kerry as lacking in conviction, because that fit in with the story line the media has chosen for this campaign.

These story lines have an effect: CNN reported on July 22 that 52 percent of Americans think Bush "does not change position on issues for political reasons"; only 30 percent said the same of Kerry. Given the double standard the media has used in reporting on the candidates, these results shouldn't be surprising.

CJR noted another media story line double standard this week: "A search of the political coverage over the past few months reveals a press prone to needlessly introduce Senators Kerry and Edwards and Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, as millionaires or billionaires, without similar labels for President Bush or Vice President Cheney."

(Bob Somerby has spent years detailing the "scripts" that define the media's coverage of politics and policy on his website, www.dailyhowler.com, which is one of the best sources of information about how these "scripts" influenced the 2000 election -- and continue to shape politics and public policy today.)

Anatomy of a smear: Berger story quickly devolved into rumor, innuendo, and spin

This week's news that the FBI is investigating former national security adviser Sandy Berger led to an avalanche of conservative misinformation in the media, as initial, carefully worded and sourced reports gave way to wild allegations, rumor, and innuendo.

Three basic facts are important to remember about the Berger allegations: Nobody has accused him, on the record, of stuffing documents in his socks or down his pants; the documents he is accused of taking were copies, not originals, and -- most importantly -- the 9-11 Commission has said it had access to all documents.

But you wouldn't know those things from the way many in the media have covered the story. In media coverage monitored by Media Matters for America, unresolved issues still under investigation metastasized into a portrait of a man who had supposedly stolen original secret documents to withhold them from the investigative authorities by covertly sticking them in his pants and socks -- with only a smattering of "sources," unnamed government and law enforcement officials, and sheer assertion to back any of it up. The net effect was to seemingly convict Berger in the media before the investigation has run its course and the facts are known.

"The Right-Wing Squares" Internet ad campaign exposes absurdity of "angry liberal" story line

With conservative spinners and pundits promoting the storyline that liberals are "angry" and full of "hate" and "wild-eyed" -- aided by a credulous press corps -- Media Matters for America launched an Internet ad campaign this week to combat this misinformation. "The Right-Wing Squares" Flash animation ad uses actual audio of right-wing commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Bill O'Reilly at their most angry and hateful -- coupled with humorous cartoon caricatures -- to remind people that conservatives, not liberals, are guilty of vitriolic hate speech.

To help promote our Flash ad, MMFA is having a contest: Sign up for an MMFA account, then get your own "Right-Wing Squares" link that you can put in an e-mail, post on your blog, or shout from the rooftops. We'll keep track of how many people watch "The Right-Wing Squares" via your link. The top 50 participants will get a new, special edition, fair and balanced item of apparel, hot off the presses! Watch the ad -- and sign up to win a T-shirt -- here: http://mediamatters.org/static/right-wing-squares.html

The contrast in media coverage of controversial remarks by comics Whoopi Goldberg and Dennis Miller illustrates how pervasive the "mean, angry liberal" story line has become. More than a week after Goldberg made comments at a July 8 fundraiser for Senator John Kerry, the cable news networks continued to devote significant primetime attention to the controversy around her remarks. But Miller's comments at a rally for President George W. Bush, in which he suggested a homosexual relationship between Kerry and Senator John Edwards, got relatively little attention. Media Matters for America reviewed FOX News Channel, MSNBC, and CNN primetime coverage between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. (ET) on July 15 and found that the three cables addressed Whoopi Goldberg's remark a total of 19 times. In contrast, Dennis Miller's comments were addressed only twice; CNN Crossfire co-host Paul Begala called it "an interesting example of the double standard in the media."

Continuing the double standard, on July 21, USA Today ran an article titled "Celebrities declare own war -- on Bush" that asserted "Bush-bashing is turning into an en vogue celebrity sport. But unsolicited anti-Bush rhetoric, which appears to be spinning out of control, is alienating both Republicans and Democrats." USA Today didn't mention Miller's anti-Kerry rhetoric, or vitriolic Kerry-bashing from such right-wing figures as Rush Limbaugh. As Salon.com's Eric Boehlert wrote, "Tip for USA Today; just because the RNC claims Bush-hating celebrities are out of control, that doesn't make it so. Let alone news."

Spinning the Spanish bombing: how the media misleads Americans about Al Qaeda's efforts to influence elections

Much of the media has fallen, and fallen hard, for two conservative talking points concerning Al Qaeda and the November elections.

First, many news organizations and pundits have accepted as fact the notion that Al Qaeda was successful in influencing the Spanish elections in March. To cite just two of many examples, Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said on FOX News Channel that the bombings "had the effect they desired, which was to throw out the [pro-Bush, pro-Iraq War] incumbent party"; Newsweek's Michael Isikoff wrote of "the success of March's Madrid railway bombings in influencing the Spanish elections."

Although this claim has been prevalent in news reports since the election occurred in March, there isn't any reason to believe the bombings themselves had much of an effect on the Spanish elections. Contrary to what many claim, the swing in voter sentiment after the bombing simply wasn't very large: According to the European edition of TIME magazine, pre-bombing polling indicated the race was "a dead heat." (Curiously, the U.S. edition of TIME suggested otherwise, reporting on March 15, "It's certainly true that before last Thursday's horrific train bombings ... the conservative Popular Party ... had looked set to coast home by a 5 to 8 percent margin.")

It isn't clear what TIME was basing that claim on; not only is it contradicted by the European edition of the magazine, it is contradicted by a March 14 report in The Observer, which noted that polls nearly a week before the bombings showed the Socialists down by "between three to five points. ... But, the same polls said, the ruling party would struggle to keep its absolute majority and might have to govern with the support of regional parties."

Whatever gains the Socialists made after the bombing were arguably the result of the widespread belief that the Populist Party had engaged in a cover-up in continuing to blame Basque terrorists for the attack even after news broke of an Al Qaeda connection. (The ruling party sought to stave off the inevitable conclusion that the attack was Al Qaeda's retaliation for the prime minister's support of the war in Iraq, which 90 percent of Spaniards opposed.)

Why does this matter? Because many in the media would have you believe that Al Qaeda, emboldened by its supposed success in Spain, will try to exert a similar influence over the U.S. elections. Worse, they make the baseless suggestion that Al Qaeda would prefer a Kerry victory.

The suggestion comes from right-wing pundits and media figures like Oliver North, who claimed that "every terrorist is hoping John Kerry gets elected"; and from Dick Morris, who wrote, "Al Qaeda and the Ba'ath Party want to defeat Bush." But the notion isn't limited to the conservative media; The New York Times reported, "New York is regarded as a higher risk than Boston by counterterrorism officials because President Bush is a Republican and because of consistent intelligence." And CNN's Kelli Arena claimed, "There is some speculation that Al Qaeda believes it has a better chance of winning in Iraq if John Kerry is in the White House." Arena didn't indicate the source of this "speculation," presenting it as a credible, mainstream notion, rather than the baseless assertions of right-wing partisans.

Neither Arena nor The New York Times nor many other media outlets that repeated this speculation bothered to note the minor detail that Al Qaeda itself, according to a March Reuters article, "said it supported U.S. President George W. Bush in his reelection campaign, and would prefer him to win in November rather than the Democratic candidate John Kerry."

The facts are clear: Al Qaeda didn't have much of an impact on the Spanish elections and can't be said, with any certainty, to prefer a Kerry victory in the United States; when the media reports otherwise, they're simply falling for right-wing spin.

For more, see http://mediamatters.org/items/200407150007

Outfoxed soars to top of charts; documentary exposes FOX's dishonest practices, but network keeps spreading lies anyway

Outfoxed, Robert Greenwald's new documentary about the FOX News Channel, has soared to the top of Amazon.com's sales lists -- but that hasn't stopped FOX from spreading conservative misinformation at every opportunity. In recent weeks, FOX News Channel host Bill O'Reilly has lied about his French boycott, made misleading claims about gay marriage, and distorted a Senate Intelligence Committee report; FOX contributor Michael Barone claimed that Democrats are "rooting against America"; and FOX identified a guest who is a prominent conservative activist as a "suburban stay-at-home mom," without disclosing her many ties to right-wing groups.

While FOX News Channel continues to push right-wing misinformation, a growing number of concerned organizations and citizens are fighting back and exposing FOX for what it is: partisan spin, not news.

  • MoveOn.org and Common Cause sponsored more than 3,000 Outfoxed-watching parties and has filed an FTC complaint against FOX
  • The Center for American Progress has extensive coverage of FOX and Outfoxed
  • Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is circulating a letter to FOX News Channel owner Rupert Murdoch noting FOX's "deliberate bias in favor of ... the Republican Party's policies and ideology."
  • Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting's (FAIR) new special report, "Still Failing the 'Fair & Balanced' Test," details FOX's rightward tilt.
  • MMFA continues to monitor FOX News Channel every day, exposing and correcting the network's misinformation -- and now has the invaluable help of our volunteer media monitors.
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