What Liberal Bias? Part One: Divisive comments by conservatives escape scrutiny given to comments by progressives
Media Matters for America tallied media coverage of four recent controversial statements, two by Republicans and two by Democrats, and found that the comments by Democrats received far more media scrutiny and criticism.
In the five days after Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) referenced Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany while criticizing Republican senators, his comments were reported extensively by major media outlets, including Fox News, CNN, MNSBC, the Associated Press, Roll Call, and ABC -- 19 media reports in all. In the five days after Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said, "We don't do Lincoln Day dinners in South Carolina. It's nothing personal, but it takes awhile to get over things," the media virtually ignored his remarks. Graham's statement was mentioned by CNN, Roll Call, the National Journal's CongressDaily newsletter, and the Frontrunner, which excerpted the Roll Call mention. That's it: four mentions.
When Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, reacted to President Bush's proposed 2006 budget and its planned cuts to urban development programs by mentioning the damage done to American cities by terrorist attacks, his comments set off a firestorm in the media. The day after his comment brought coverage in the Washington Post, Fox News (on two separate programs), CNN (five separate programs), and the Associated Press. In the eight days after O'Malley's comment, 25 major news reports addressed the matter.
But when Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels -- formerly President Bush's director of the Office of Management and Budget -- invoked the specter of acts of terrorism in describing Democratic state representatives, his comments were greeted by a collective yawn by the nation's leading news outlets. Daniels's statement that "Indiana's drive for growth and reform was car-bombed yesterday by the Indiana House minority" was covered in 15 news reports in the eight days after he made the comment. However, it was completely ignored by cable and broadcast television news; the only outlets that covered it were the Associated Press and local newspapers in Indiana and Kentucky.
While the media has largely ignored these divisive comments by prominent conservatives, conservatives in the media continue to make highly questionable comments of their own, largely without consequence.
MSNBC host Joe Scarborough wrote on his blog this week:
That American opinion leaders may have been siding with Arab terrorists may seem like startling news to many in Middle America, but nothing new to those of us who have been studying the way the press and the Democratic Party has been operating over the past three years.
[O]ver the past few years, it has been clear that while most Democrats are not openly cheering for the terrorists killing our troops, neither were they in America's corner.
Scarborough explicitly said Democrats and the press have been "siding with Arab terrorists"; that Democrats are not on America's side; and suggested that some of them are "openly cheering" for terrorists to kill American troops.
And yet this baseless, reckless, and divisive hate speech goes uncriticized. Imagine the outcry if the host of a nightly news and analysis program noted that Tim McVeigh was a Republican, as was Ted Bundy, and concluded that Republicans side with anti-American terrorists -- but hey, most of them are not serial killers. He or she would be -- rightly -- denounced as irresponsible and divisive.
Yet Joe Scarborough can publicly claim that Democrats and reporters side with terrorists -- but hey, most of them aren't "openly cheering" about it!
In ironic twist, Rush Limbaugh this week claimed that "off the wall" comments on MSNBC's Hardball explain why "nobody is watching" that show: "Scarborough has probably got the highest number they've got on that network." Of course, Hardball has significantly higher ratings than Scarborough Country, and -- as we've seen -- Scarborough takes a back seat to no one when it comes to "off the wall" comments.
Meanwhile, Sinclair Broadcast Group vice president Mark Hyman used his nightly commentary segment, "The Point," to smear Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, grossly misrepresenting Dean's comments to suggest that he is a racist and to compare him to the Ku Klux Klan.
Dean, during a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, said that the Republican National Committee could only get "this many people of color in a single room ... if they had the hotel staff in here." Though perhaps hyperbolic, Dean was obviously noting the Republicans' lack of popularity among people of color. But in Mark Hyman's mind, that turned into Dean claiming that "[b]lacks are only capable of service industry jobs" -- something Dean clearly didn't say, suggest, or imply. While Hyman said this was one of Dean's "core beliefs," video clips appeared on screen -- one depicting Klansman, another showing African Americans working retail jobs.
At least one right-wing figure has drawn recent criticism for divisive comments, though, as more than 20 members of the U.S. House of Representatives criticized the "latest ethnic slurs" by "conservative gadfly" Ann Coulter. But while the members of Congress, led by Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) objected to Coulter's reference to journalist Helen Thomas as an "old Arab," some of Coulter's right-wing colleagues embraced it, as Media Matters noted:
Conservative news website WorldNetDaily.com, which publishes right-wing pundit Ann Coulter's weekly syndicated column, has revised its version of Coulter's February 23 column to include her original description of Hearst Newspapers columnist Helen Thomas as an "old Arab." WorldNetDaily promoted the revision on its March 9 front page as "Coulter's original, unsanitized column."
Coulter's reference to "that old Arab Helen Thomas" appears in the version of the column that Coulter posted on her personal website, but her distributor, Universal Press Syndicate, sent out an edited version to its client publications, which referred to Thomas instead as "that dyspeptic, old Helen Thomas."
What Liberal Bias? Part Two: CBS News
With the end of the Dan Rather era at CBS, the usual suspects have been predictably vocal in emphasizing the network's place at the center of the "Left Wing Media."
Which leads us to wonder if they are watching the same network we are. Consider:
- Rather's temporary replacement, Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer, is an old friend of President Bush; in 2000, Schieffer described a Bush-Gore debate in which Bush had flatly lied about the issues as a win for Bush because "He seemed to have as much of a grasp of the issues [as Gore]." And in 2004, as Bob Somerby has noted, even the pundits on Fox News acknowledged that John Kerry won 2004's first presidential debate -- but not presidential pal Schieffer.
- Right off the bat, in his first broadcast, Schieffer introduced a segment about Chile's privatized Social Security system that downplayed the serious problems the system caused. While acknowledging that some critics say the program has flaws, CBS' Trish Regan concluded: "Still, most people who consistently contribute to their accounts, like Hector Espinoza, says the system works." In January, The New York Times explained that problems with Chile's system are far deeper than the CBS report indicates, noting "now that the first generation of workers to depend on the new system is beginning to retire, Chileans are finding that it is falling far short of what was originally advertised."
- Last month, Schieffer downplayed the costs of Bush's plan to privatize Social Security, claiming that "critics" say the plan would cost trillions of dollars and would do nothing to extend the solvency of the program. In fact, that isn't just something "critics" say -- it's the truth; the Bush administration itself has admitted as much.
- Earlier this week, CBS glossed over criticism of John R. Bolton, Bush's nominee for United Nations ambassador. While NBC and ABC both detailed Bolton's history of attacks on the U.N., Dan Rather didn't; instead he just read a quote from Bolton that day.
- On March 6, 60 Minutes reporter Scott Pelley misleadingly blamed the Clinton administration for President Bush's controversial practice of transferring suspected terrorists from where they are captured to other countries, including nations known for torturing prisoners, while bypassing formal extradition procedures. Pelley didn't mention that the Bush administration greatly increased the number of these transfers and eased restrictions the Clinton administration had put in place.
- In December, Rather introduced a segment on Social Security by correspondent John Roberts that suggested Social Security would be unable to pay any benefits by 2042; in fact, even the most pessimistic forecast indicates that the system will be able to pay 75 percent of scheduled benefits in 2042.
- In late September, CBS postponed a prepared report questioning one of the Bush administration's rationales for invading Iraq until after the election; a CBS spokesperson acknowledged that the network didn't want to air the report before Election Day. Presumably coincidentally, the head of Viacom, which owns CBS, endorsed Bush for re-election at about the same time, saying "the election of a Republican administration is a better deal" for Viacom "because the Republican administration has stood for many things we believe in, deregulation and so on."
- A recent Media Matters for America review of three months of CBS Evening News broadcasts found that the program featured Republicans and conservatives far more often than Democrats and progressives -- nearly 30 percent more often, in fact. Political segments on the CBS Evening News featured 65 clips of Democratic officials or commentators representing progressive organizations and 83 clips of Republican officials or commentators representing conservative organizations. These figures do not include clips of President Bush, which were featured on 40 Evening News episodes.
- Gene Lyons and Bob Somerby remind us that recent claims that CBS treated Bill Clinton "like a friendly witness" while president but treats Republicans "with hostility" aren't true. Lyons and Somerby note one of many examples: a 1998 60 Minutes package featuring Kathleen Willey's baseless allegations against Clinton. As Lyons explained: "Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr investigated star witness Kathleen Willey's allegations against Bill Clinton to a fare-thee-well before concluding what any halfway skeptical reporter would have suspected from the first: that she was an unreliable, self-dramatizing person with a habit of embroidering her own history."
Examples abound -- and yet everybody "knows" CBS is plagued by "liberal bias."
Fox's bizarro news
Fox's Bill O'Reilly's relationship with the truth is apparently still on the rocks; this week he made the curious claim that "there isn't one conservative commentator on CNN. Not one. ... There's not one! ... No, there isn't any." To cite but the most obvious example, CNN Crossfire co-host Bob Novak has been one of the nation's most prominent conservative commentators since long before O'Reilly made the transition from "Peabody" award-"winning" Inside Edition host to "Misinformer of the Year" award-winning Fox News host.
Meanwhile, Fox News contributor Liz Trotta claimed "everybody" was watching Fox News on election night in November 2004 to support her assertion that liberal bias has caused the public to abandon network news. In fact, 8.1 million viewers watched Fox News on election night, compared to the 15.2 million who watched NBC, 13.2 million who watched ABC, and 9.5 million who watched CBS. If our math is right -- and we think it is -- that means considerably fewer people watched Fox than watched any of the networks.
And Sean Hannity ... well, as Media Matters explained, in discussing the effects drilling oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Hannity misled his viewers. A lot.
Death, taxes, and Social Security misinformation
Rapidly joining the list of life's great certainties is the fact that at any given moment, someone in the media is probably promoting -- either actively or passively -- misinformation about Social Security.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman offered The Village Voice's Jarrett Murphy one explanation of why this misinformation is so prevalent:
In recent weeks Krugman's column has focused heavily on the flaws in the president's Social Security proposal -- flaws the media have downplayed, he says, because the press seems "extremely hostile to Social Security as it is" and "really buys into the notion of a crisis."
This might be because Social Security is an issue that is clearly important but that few in the media really understand. To the press, "it became a badge," Krugman says. "You needed to learn about two paragraphs of stuff and then you could go on a panel and sound like a grave, serious person concerned about the problems of the United States."
Regardless of the reason, the result is clear: a never-ending stream of false, misleading and irrelevant claims about Social Security. Turn on Fox News or MSNBC, for example, and you'll see the false claim that partial privatization of Social Security will improve the solvency of the program. That isn't true, of course, as even the Bush administration has acknowledged, but that doesn't stop Fred Barnes and Ben Ginsberg from claiming it is -- and it doesn't stop Brit Hume and Chris Matthews from letting them get away with it.
Two recent items on the Columbia Journalism Review's CJR Daily blog are worth reading.
First, on reporters drawing "false equivalence" between true and false statements:
If [Washington Post reporter Mike] Allen is right -- and what's disturbing is that we think he is, at least to some degree -- journalists have become so intimidated by media bias warriors that they're now making a conscious decision to only hint at the conclusions their reporting leads them to, instead of explicitly stating them. Of course, according to Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center and his brethren, even those hints reflect left-wing bias. And sometimes they do. But more often, they represent efforts by boxed-in reporters to level with readers. Critics like Bozell seem to want false equivalence to reign supreme -- they want reporters to treat bullshitters the same as credible voices. To us, that's the greater threat to journalism -- not the media bias that right-wing partisans think they detect everywhere from the Post to the Dogpatch Weekly Trumpet.
Second, on that widely ridiculed "Inside the Blogs" segment during CNN's Inside Politics:
The segment fails on every conceivable level. From an informational standpoint, it's less than useless -- recycled punditry (there's a reason why no one does a segment devoted to reading from op-ed columns in major newspapers). On a more mundane level, it's headache-inducing. And on an aesthetic level, it's equal to TV put on by a seventh-grade civics class -- and the slow group at that.
Perhaps CNN is trying to bring blogs to a broader audience? Perhaps the network is trying to be hipper in order to attract younger viewers? Perhaps they're trying to get "Inside Politics" mentioned on the blogs themselves? Or perhaps they're just throwing stuff against the screen to see what sticks.
Let's hope this segment doesn't.
The report is terrific for all sorts of reasons. Substantively, it takes up a number of the issues covered in the important fall Boston Globe series on Republican congressional governance and extends the analysis through to the end of the 108th Congress. It turns out that, on matters like the percentage of bills allowed on the floor under open rules, factoring in data from the months of October through December only makes the GOP leadership look more autocratic. Stylistically, the staffers who wrote this thing had the bright idea of using statements made by then-Rules Committee ranking member David Dreier touting a 1993 GOP report on the Democrats' institutional tyranny as a kind of running leitmotif throughout the account. (Dreier, of course, now chairs the Rules Committee and has made it exponentially more ruthless than it ever was under the Dems' control.) Every new topic in the report is helpfully punctuated by impassioned Dreier quotes, circa-'93, making precisely the same arguments that Dems are making now. It's fun stuff.
Yet it has been greeted with deafening silence by the media.