"Media Matters"; by Jamison Foser

››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Following last month's release of "If It's Sunday, It's Conservative," a comprehensive study of guests on the three major Sunday shows over the last nine years, Media Matters for America unveiled this week an analysis of guests on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews for the first two months of 2006 -- the first in a series of studies of the guest lists of cable news programs.

This Week:

Matthews's Hardball lineup short on southpaws

Media declare port deal controversy over; continue to ignore years of Democratic efforts to secure America's ports

Media McCain mania

Time for the Times to "take a stand"

Cowardly Bill O'Reilly on insanity and "serious debate"

Matthews's Hardball lineup short on southpaws

Following last month's release of "If It's Sunday, It's Conservative," a comprehensive study of guests on the three major Sunday shows over the last nine years, Media Matters for America unveiled this week an analysis of guests on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews for the first two months of 2006 -- the first in a series of studies of the guest lists of cable news programs.

Media Matters found that, like the Sunday shows, Hardball features Republicans and conservatives significantly more often than Democrats and progressives:

Media Matters tallied all guests who appeared on Hardball during the first two months of 2006 and coded them based on party affiliation and ideology. (A list of the guests is here.) The data reflected in these charts show that the number of Republican/conservative guests has been significantly higher than the number of Democratic/progressive guests. In January, Republicans/conservatives led Democrats/progressives 55 to 38 -- a difference of 59 percent to 41 percent. By February, that advantage had increased: Republican/conservatives outnumbered Democrats/progressives 55 to 34, or 62 percent to 38 percent.

[...]

In addition, conservative journalists and pundits outnumbered progressive journalists and pundits by a considerable margin. While most journalists/pundits were neutral reporters or consistently presented a centrist point of view, the data show that those who spoke from an ideological perspective were conservative far more often than progressive. Conservatives in this category outnumbered progressives 42 to 13 -- a ratio of more than 3-to-1.

[...]

Hardball panels frequently demonstrate an ideological imbalance; when they do, that imbalance usually tilts to the right. While the majority of panels were balanced, the number of right-tilted panels was significantly greater than the number of left-tilted panels, at a ratio of nearly 3-to-1. During January and February, 22 panels tilted right, while only eight panels tilted left. This can largely be attributed to the presence of frequent panelists -- and conservative MSNBC hosts -- Tucker Carlson of The Situation with Tucker Carlson and former Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-FL) of Scarborough Country. Both MSNBC hosts are given prominence on Hardball's journalist panels without a progressive to counter with an opposing point of view.

Guest lists don't tell the whole story about Hardball, of course. Conservative media critics argue, as Media Matters has noted, that Matthews himself is a liberal:

For example, in January 2006, Don Irvine, chairman of the conservative Accuracy in Media, described Matthews as "[o]ne member of the liberal media"; in April 2005, L. Brent Bozell III, founder and president of the conservative Media Research Center, suggested that Matthews rename Hardball to Cuddles with Chris for the show's "liberal or radical guests."

Are Bozell and Irvine correct? Is Matthews a "liberal"? We don't know, but he sure doesn't act like one. His gushing praise of President Bush ("Sometimes it glimmers with this man, our president, that kind of sunny nobility") and vicious lies about Democrats helped convince Media Matters to name him 2005's Misinformer of the Year.

And those conservative guests Matthews features so often on Hardball -- how does he treat them? Here are a few examples:

Matthews to White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy: "See how much we get done when you come over here? Isn't this great? ... I wish we had you every night. It's great to have you, Trent, deputy press secretary to the president of the United States."

Matthews to House Republican Leader John Boehner: "I am very much proud of anybody who takes on a job like you have taken on. It's so great. ... We'll be right back with House Majority Leader John Boehner. You can see this man's greatness."

Matthews to New York Republican Senate candidate KT McFarland: "You're a delightful candidate, you'll probably do very well in this uphill battle as the underdog."

Matthews on Sen. John McCain (R-AZ): "We'll get the straight talk from Senator McCain himself in just a moment, but one of the lessons here might be: Don't mess with John McCain."

Vaughn Ververs, editor of CBS News' Public Eye weblog, responded to Media Matters' analysis of Hardball guests, arguing -- as he did after our Sunday show report -- that the ideological leanings and partisan affiliations of guests is irrelevant; that what matters is what the guests "actually had to say."

But Ververs not only seems to wildly overestimate the frequency with which Republican and conservative guests take progressive positions, he also ignores a key point: The significance of television news guest lists isn't just about which positions get articulated. It's also about which politicians, advocates, and leaders benefit from the exposure a national news program provides. The fact that John McCain has appeared on the Sunday shows 124 times in the last nine years -- 50 percent more often than anybody else -- doesn't just mean that his conservative views have been expressed 124 times. It also means that he has been given a platform from which he can appeal to voters; he has been elevated as a national leader.

People often complain that they're sick of the Republicans and conservatives who have blundered and lied their way into an unpopular war, record deficits, and a growing health care crisis -- but that they don't see viable progressive or Democratic leaders emerging to offer an alternative. But that is, in part, because progressive leaders aren't given the platform that McCain is given. Surely Joe Conason and David Corn have as many interesting and important things to say as John Fund and Bill Kristol -- but they aren't on television as much.

Aside from quadrennial national political conventions, shows like Meet the Press and Hardball and Face the Nation are where emerging leaders are seen by the most viewers. It's where they have the greatest chance to win support for their ideas, their agendas, their candidacies. When those shows book significantly more Republicans and conservatives than Democrats and progressives, it has an obvious effect on policy, on politics, and on elections -- an effect that isn't offset by the fact that, every once in a while, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) may criticize President Bush.

Media declare port deal controversy over; continue to ignore years of Democratic efforts to secure America's ports

Now that Dubai Ports World (DPW) will apparently not take control over operations at U.S. ports, the media have been quick to declare the controversy over, announcing that Republicans have averted a political disaster by "standing against the port deal." The Washington Post assessed the political fallout:

But it's not clear whether Democrats will be able to turn that issue to their benefit in the fall. Republicans on Capitol Hill were every bit as vocal as their opponents in standing against the port deal, making it harder to draw a clear distinction come campaign time. By turning against Bush, some GOP strategists believe Republican leaders may have saved themselves a worse fate.

But the Post's assessment ignores the fact that there are many more questions about the security at America's ports -- questions that don't go away just because DPW is out of the picture. Congressional Democrats and others have argued for years that the Bush administration and congressional Republicans have failed to secure the ports and have proposed their own remedies.

Yet The Washington Post and NBC's Tim Russert ("They have now taken care of the port deal") flatly declare the matter over.

Even more incredibly, a New York Post editorial asked: "Now let's see whether those same pols who were fulminating over foreign ownership -- Chuck Schumer? Hillary Clinton? -- show the same concern over the reality of what passes for port security." But Sens. Schumer and Clinton have already shown "concern over the reality of what passes for port security," and they will continue to do so. It is President Bush and congressional Republicans -- along with The Washington Post and Russert -- who don't show such concern.

Which brings us back to our point about why Vaughn Ververs is wrong. Republican and conservative guests on shows like Hardball and Face the Nation may well have been critical of the port deal or of President Bush's handling of it. According to Ververs, that -- not their party or ideology -- is what matters. But unless those guests also criticized years of neglect by Bush and congressional Republicans on the broader issue of securing our ports, viewers weren't given the full picture. Unless those guests also endorsed Democratic efforts to fix port security, viewers weren't really treated to a comprehensive discussion. They saw Republicans arguing with Republicans about whether or not to transfer control of ports to a company owned by the government of Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates -- but they didn't see Democrats talking about their efforts to secure increased funding to secure our ports. Isn't it obvious that there's a problem with that?

Media McCain mania

We recently described the "relentlessly positive, often-sycophantic" way the media cover Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), focusing on media lavishing praise and attention on him. But McCain benefits from unique media coverage in another way: While most politicians can expect news organizations to play up their most controversial actions and statements, reporters typically look the other way when something embarrassing to McCain comes along.

The classic example of this behavior is the lack of coverage given to a "joke" McCain told in 1998 in which he called the president's teenage daughter "ugly" and implied that Janet Reno -- the only woman ever to serve as Attorney General of the United States -- was, in fact, a man. As David Corn explained at Salon.com:

McCain's lapse in judgment -- admittedly, not as big a lapse as having a sexual relationship with an intern -- may be a significant clue into aspects of his "character," and thus relevant to the voting public. But many voters have been spared this insight, thanks to the censors in the press. ... [T]he joke revealed more than a mean streak in a man who would be president. It also exposed how the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times play favorites when reporting the foibles of our leading politicians.

Maureen Dowd, writing in The New York Times, added of McCain: "He is so revered by the press that his disgusting jape was largely nudged under the rug. 'It's like a return to the Kennedy era,' said one magazine editor. 'He makes a gaffe, and we look the other way.'"

Of course, McCain's "joke" was of little import, aside from what it reveals about his character, his temperament, and his mean streak. But the media look the other way about matters that may tell us more about McCain: whether he's as "clean" as he and his unofficial flaks in the media want us to think he is, and what his positions are on important issues.

Take, for example, the article Reuters ran about a forthcoming Vanity Fair article in which former Republican lobbyist and admitted felon Jack Abramoff disclosed that he "worked closely with many top Republicans, despite their claims to the contrary." The Vanity Fair article includes this passage:

"Mr. Abramoff flatters himself," Mark Salter, McCain's administrative assistant, tells [Vanity Fair contributing editor David] Margolick. "Senator McCain was unaware of his existence until he read initial press accounts of Abramoff's abuses, and had never laid eyes on him until he appeared before the committee."

Abramoff says, "As best I can remember, when I met with him, he didn't have his eyes shut. I'm surprised that Senator McCain has joined the chorus of amnesiacs."

The Reuters article about the Vanity Fair piece began: "Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff said in the latest issue of Vanity Fair magazine that he worked closely with many top Republicans, despite their claims to the contrary."

Yet Reuters didn't mention John McCain at all, focusing instead on comparatively insignificant Republicans like Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) and Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman. The Vanity Fair passage about McCain perfectly fit the premise of the Reuters article -- it shows Abramoff contradicting McCain's claim, through a spokesman, that he had never met Abramoff. If Abramoff is telling the truth, we've learned two things: McCain has ties to one of the most corrupt lobbyists ever to walk the earth, and he's lying about it. McCain is among the most famous Republicans in America, and a leading contender for the party's 2008 presidential nomination.

Yet Reuters omitted any mention of him from its article. Does anyone believe, even for a moment, that any other political figure of McCain's stature -- say, Hillary Clinton or John Kerry -- would have been the recipient of this kind of favorable treatment?

Another example: On MSNBC, Chris Matthews whitewashed McCain's controversial position on the recently passed South Dakota abortion ban. Matthews told viewers that "President Bush and John McCain, two leaders of the Republican Party, keep saying it isn't the time to make changes in the law" to outlaw abortion. If true, that would put McCain squarely in step with most Americans. But it isn't true. McCain, through a spokesman, has said that he would have signed the South Dakota law, as Media Matters explained:

On the March 7 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, Matthews stated that "President Bush and John McCain, two leaders of the Republican party, keep saying it isn't the time to make changes in the law" to outlaw abortion. In making the assertion about McCain, Matthews ignored a statement by a McCain spokesman, quoted by The National Journal's weblog The Hotline (subscription required), that if McCain were the South Dakota governor, he " 'would have signed the [South Dakota] legislation, but would also take the appropriate steps under state law -- in whatever state -- to ensure that the exceptions of rape, incest or life of the mother were included.' " While McCain's spokesman's statement is inconclusive in that it contains two assertions that, without more detail, make little sense together (the spokesman did not say that McCain would sign only if he secured the desired amendments, merely that he would sign -- and he would seek to amend -- the bill) McCain did take a position on a highly controversial and restrictive bill that was different from what Matthews claimed McCain "keep[s] saying."

Time for the Times to "take a stand"

We've argued repeatedly that newspaper editorials -- like those The New York Times has frequently run -- calling on Congress to conduct oversight of the Bush administration are largely pointless: the Republicans who control Congress have shown over and over again that they simply won't do it. Sure, from time to time, they'll pretend -- but they always stop far short of actual oversight.

This week, our friends at Think Progress detail the extent to which Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) has covered up Bush administration failures on "the most important intelligence issues facing Americans."

It couldn't have come at a better time, as Intelligence Committee Republicans this week predictably decided against investigating the Bush administration's warrantless domestic spying operation, deciding instead to simply change the law to make warantless wiretapping legal.

After months of critical comments about the legality of the program and the need for an investigation, Republican Sens. Hagel (R-NE) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) fell in line with Vice President Dick Cheney when it mattered, scuttling the investigation the Times and others have been urging. Snowe even had the audacity to claim, "We are reasserting Congressional responsibility and oversight. ... We have to get the facts in order to weigh in." Keep in mind: Snowe said this as she and her fellow Republicans were killing a thorough investigation.

The New York Times reacted with predictable, though pointless, outrage in a March 9 editorial:

The Senate panel has become so paralyzingly partisan that it could not even manage to do its basic job this week and look into President Bush's warrantless spying on Americans' international e-mail and phone calls. Senator Pat Roberts, the chairman, said Tuesday that there would be no investigation.

Imagine that: Pat Roberts said there would be no investigation. Who could possibly have predicted that? How about the Times itself, which asked in a February 17 editorial: "Is there any aspect of President Bush's miserable record on intelligence that Senator Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is not willing to excuse and help to cover up?"

Though the Times' editorial board knew Sen. Roberts was "willing to excuse and help cover up" Bush administration misdeeds, it put its faith in him rather than calling for a special counsel to investigate what the Times said is presidential lawbreaking. That faith was, it turns out, misplaced.

The Times' March 9 editorial continued:

It's breathtakingly cynical. Faced with a president who is almost certainly breaking the law, the Senate sets up a panel to watch him do it and calls that control.

[...]

The Republicans' idea of supervision involves saying the White House should get a warrant for spying whenever possible. Currently a warrant is needed, period. And that's the right law. The White House has not offered a scrap of evidence that it interferes with antiterrorist operations. Mr. Bush simply decided the law did not apply to him.

It was no surprise that Mr. Roberts led this retreat. He's been blocking an investigation into the domestic spying operation for weeks, just as he has been stonewalling a promised investigation into how the White House hyped the intelligence on Iraq. But it was disappointing to see a principled Republican like Senator Olympia Snowe go along. The Democrats are not blameless, either. Too often, their positions seem like campaign tactics, and Senator John Rockefeller IV fumbled by not consulting Ms. Snowe, who is up for re-election and under intense White House pressure.

But the Republicans deserve the lion's share of the blame. It was Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney who hyped the intelligence on Iraq -- and the Senate Republicans who helped them evade accountability. And it was Mr. Bush who approved the warrantless wiretapping, which is part of Mr. Cheney's crusade to expand presidential powers. (Unlike the rest of us, Mr. Cheney thought the lesson of Watergate was that the president was not strong enough.)

Ms. Snowe said she would still support an investigation if the new panel uncovered more wrongdoing. But that's hardly likely to happen because the Republicans on the panel are Mr. Roberts, Orrin Hatch, Mike DeWine and Christopher Bond, who march in lock step with the White House.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is still looking into the wiretapping. That committee should have plenty of incentive to go forward -- its chairman, Senator Arlen Specter, was righteously angry when he received a letter in which Attorney General Alberto Gonzales implied that there was more warrantless spying we don't know about. Mr. Gonzales won't even say that Mr. Bush understands it is blatantly illegal to spy on communications within the United States without a warrant. Nevertheless, there's not much cause for hope: Mr. Specter has a sad habit of bowing to the right wing when the chips are down.

To recap: the Times said it was "no surprise that Mr. Roberts led this retreat." The editorial said the Times has little hope that the Senate Judiciary Committee will conduct a meaningful investigation because "Mr. Specter has a sad habit of bowing to the right wing when the chips are down." So, why did the Times put their faith in these political allies of the president? Why does it still refuse to call, as it has in the past, for an independent investigation?

The Times editorial concluded:

There are moments when leaders simply have to take a stand. It seems to us that one of them is when Americans are in danger of the kind of unchecked surveillance that they thought had died with J. Edgar Hoover, Watergate and spying on Vietnam protesters and civil rights leaders.

There are moments when newspapers simply have to take a stand, too.

At least the Times' editorial writers got the facts right; their colleagues in the news department missed badly in their attempt to explain the deal reached between Republican senators and the White House. As Media Matters explained:

A March 8 New York Times article by staff writers David D. Kirkpatrick and Scott Shane reported that the recent agreement between the White House and Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee concerning the Bush administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program "would reinforce the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court," which is often referred to as the FISA court. But far from reinforcing what many say should be the FISA court's authority over the program, the reported agreement, if it is introduced as legislation, would codify the program's status outside the reach of the court.

Cowardly Bill O'Reilly on insanity and "serious debate"

On the March 7 broadcast of The Radio Factor, host Bill O'Reilly explained why he'll never invite Rep. John P. Murtha (D-PA) to appear on the show:

[Y]ou know when Murtha says 'there was no terrorism in Iraq before' the war, I mean, that's just insane, with all due respect. And that's why John Murtha will never come on The Factor, because that statement eliminates him from any serious debate.

That's right: Bill O'Reilly thinks he's the guardian of "serious debate."

The day after declaring Murtha "insane," O'Reilly elaborated on his definition of sanity: "You know, in a sane world, every country would unite against Iran and blow it off the face of the earth. That would be the sane thing to do."

O'Reilly's attack on Murtha -- and refusal to invite Murtha to appear on his show -- reminds us of O'Reilly's definition of cowardice: "If you attack someone publicly, as these men did to me, you have an obligation to face the person you are smearing. If you don't, you are a coward."

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