Weekly Standard executive editor and FOX News Channel host and contributor Fred Barnes cited a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) to undercut the claim by Senator John Kerry that FOX had launched unwarranted attacks on him during the presidential campaign. In fact, CMPA studies bolster accusations that FOX attacked Kerry more aggressively than they did President George W. Bush.
In an Internet video message to supporters, Kerry thanked those who "countered the attacks from big news organizations such as FOX." On the November 19 edition of FOX's Special Report with Brit Hume, Barnes cited a CMPA survey of election coverage to ridicule Kerry for criticizing the channel.
BARNES: Now, the Center for Media and Public Affairs, an absolutely straight group, has been covering the coverage, particularly on television, of presidential candidates since 1998. And they found that John Kerry has gotten more favorable coverage -- got more favorable coverage than any presidential candidate ever. Ever! And so he -- he's complaining about FOX?
The truth is FOX was fair and balanced. FOX was a little tougher on Kerry than other networks. But to blame it on FOX and -- it just is ridiculous and mighty petty.
In fact, while CMPA studies have shown that the three major networks' nightly news broadcasts evaluated Kerry more positively than they did Bush, the same studies have also shown that on Special Report, evaluations of Bush were more positive than evaluations of Kerry by even wider margins.
In a November 1 press release that professed to summarize the results of CMPA's survey of nightly news coverage from Labor Day to Election Day, the center proclaimed that "John Kerry is getting the most favorable network news coverage of any presidential candidate in the past quarter century." As of November 22, however, CMPA had yet to release the full study to substantiate the claims from its press release. But an earlier CMPA study, which surveyed nightly news' election coverage from September 7 to October 1, may hint at the final results. That study found that evaluations of Kerry on ABC, CBS, and NBC's nightly news programs were 38 percent positive for Kerry and only 29 percent positive for Bush -- a nine-point discrepancy favoring Kerry. But the study also found that Special Report evaluations were 31 percent positive for Bush and only 21 percent positive for Kerry -- a ten-point discrepancy favoring Bush.
An earlier CMPA study, which analyzed coverage from June 1 through September 2 (but only analyzed Special Report starting on August 1), found an even more striking discrepancy. The networks' evaluations of Kerry were 61 percent positive compared with 41 percent positive for Bush -- a 20-percent discrepancy. But FOX evaluated Bush positively 45 percent of the time, and Kerry only 17 percent. CMPA observed: "Fox News Channel was about as negative towards Bush as the broadcast networks [55 percent vs. 59 percent], but Kerry's evaluations were negative by a five-to-one margin."
An examination of CMPA's funding sources also belies Barnes's claim that CMPA is "an absolutely straight group." Media Transparency, a website that tracks conservative foundations' financial contributions, reveals that conservative foundations provided CMPA with much of its funding (although Media Transparency has apparently not updated its dossier on CMPA since 2002). Contributing organizations include the Sarah Scaife Foundation; John M. Olin Foundation; the Smith Richardson Foundation; and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation All four foundations are known for funding conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Hudson Institute, and the Hoover Institution.
Following up on Barnes's comments, Roll Call executive editor and FOX News Channel contributor Morton M. Kondracke conceded that CMPA "does show that the commentary on FOX was more negative towards Kerry than it was towards Bush." Indeed, CMPA's September 7 to October 1 study found that on Special Report's "All-Star Panel," which regularly features Barnes and Kondracke, "panelists' comments favored Bush by 50% positive to only 13% positive toward Kerry."
But there is reason to doubt whether any of these figures should be interpreted as evidence of media bias favoring either side of the political spectrum: The study's methodology involves classifying individual statements on news programs as either positive or negative without regard to context, factual accuracy or newsworthiness. For example, a statement like "Continuing violence and instability in Iraq may make voters question Bush's decision to take the country to war" -- which is unfavorable to Bush but undeniably true -- might be counted as a negative evaluation of Bush. A statement such as, "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have poked holes in Kerry's credibility" might count equally as a negative evaluation of Kerry. But even though the latter statement is highly dubious, given that Swift Boat Veterans' charges against Kerry were widely discredited, CMPA's methodology does not distinguish it from the first. This methodological shortcoming means that a news outlet that repeats baseless smears against one candidate in order to balance out authentic reporting that happens to be unfavorable to another candidate might appear to be more "fair" than news outlets that report the news regardless of which candidate it favors.
Despite this weakness, other media figures have seized on CMPA's study results to prove that liberal bias pervades the media. On the November 5 edition of MSNBC's Scarborough Country, MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan said, "[A]ccording to a new study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, President Bush received twice as much negative press as John Kerry during the height of the presidential campaign. ... Overall, John Kerry received the most favorable news coverage of any presidential candidate in the last 25 years." On the November 6 edition of FOX News Channel's FOX News Watch, host Eric Burns noted, "According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, John Kerry got the most favorable coverage of any presidential candidate in the last quarter century." Media writer, author, and regular FOX News Watch panelist Neal Gabler responded, "That study has so many flaws in it that we would be here for a half an hour."