A Tale of Two Studies
Two new studies released this week examine the news media, in quite different ways and with vastly different efficacy. The Center for American Progress and Free Press teamed up to release The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio, and MSNBC posted a report about political contributions made by journalists.
Conservative media critics, eager as always to discuss what is in the hearts and minds of journalists rather than what is actually in newspapers and on television, have seized on MSNBC's list of 144 journalists who "made campaign contributions from 2004 through the first quarter of 2007."
Matt Drudge hyped the article with his lead headline: "THE GREAT DIVIDE: REPORTERS GIVE DEMS MONEY OVER REPUBLICANS 9 TO 1!" On Fox & Friends, hosts Steve Doocy and Gretchen Carlson agreed that the study shows a "media bias in the country" and that it also showed there isn't one at Fox News:
DOOCY: And so what it comes down to ultimately is, you think there's a media bias in the country? Just look at the statistics from the FEC itself. And people -- reporters gave to Democrats nine times more often than the reporters would give to the GOP.
CARLSON: Yeah, but you know what I got out of the story, Steve? Was that actually coming home right here to Fox News Channel, I liked the fact that they did this report and showed that people who work here at Fox gave to Democrats. Because so often, we are accused of only being a Republican or conservative news channel.
DOOCY: It just goes to show you.
CARLSON: Fair and balanced.
DOOCY: Absolutely. Fair and balanced.
Any study that Fox News uses to demonstrate that it is "fair and balanced" probably has a flaw or two.
For starters, MSNBC found fewer than 150 journalists who have made political contributions. There were more than 116,000 working journalists in America as of 2002. The 144 who made contributions not only constitute a tiny fraction of American journalists, they cannot be considered a representative sample of the whole. Indeed, we know that they are un-representative of all journalists: They made reported campaign contributions, and their colleagues did not.
Furthermore, 144 journalists may be a tiny number, but it is also a grossly inflated one. As Matthew Yglesias noted:
This effort at ginning up controversy by revealing political contributions made by employees of media organizations seems fundamentally misguided. For one thing, no effort is being made to see if the people named have any ability to impact coverage of national politics. They have, for example, a former copy editor here at The Atlantic on their list, but what nefarious influence is she supposed to have had on the magazine's coverage?
Indeed, if you look at MSNBC's list, you won't find Tim Russert or Bob Woodward or Maureen Dowd. You won't see many contributions from reporters for CNN or The New York Times or The Washington Post or ABC News. But you will find sports copy editors for the New Hampshire Union Leader and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a sports statistician for The Boston Globe, sports columnists for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and a sports editor for the San Jose Mercury News. Who dares even to imagine the liberal claptrap that must seep into coverage of the Fort Worth Flyers basketball games?
Yglesias also noted that, while Democrats may have enjoyed the occasional $250 contribution from a few copy editors, the media sector funnels far more money to Republicans via PACs:
I can tell you that in 2006, GE's PAC gave $807,282 to Republicans and just $474,118 to Democrats. In 2004 there was a similar division of funds, in 2002 "only" 60 percent of it went to the GOP. Indeed, as you can see here essentially every PAC in the media sector backed the GOP over the Democrats.
But the real problem with drawing conclusions about the media based on MSNBC's list is that it tells us next to nothing about the content of the news we read and watch and listen to.
Even if you believe that a contribution from a sports copy editor to a congressional candidate proves that more journalists are liberals than conservatives, it doesn't follow that news reports reflect a liberal bias. Indeed, as longtime journalist and Building Red America author Tom Edsall has explained, decades of attacks from conservatives have had the effect of turning even journalists who may personally be liberals into "unwilling, and often unknowing" conduits for conservative misinformation:
The conservative movement has been very effective attacking the media (broadcast and print) for its liberal biases. The refusal of the media to disclose and discuss the ideological leanings of reporters and editors, and the broader claim of objectivity, has made the press overly anxious, and inclined to lean over backwards not to offend critics from the right. In many respects, the campaign against the media has been more than a victory: it has turned the press into an unwilling, and often unknowing, ally of the right.
Every day, Media Matters documents examples of news reports that contain flaws that advance a conservative agenda or undermine progressive causes. In most cases, we neither know nor care whether the reporters, editors, and producers involved are conservatives, liberals, anarchists, or royalists. We focus on specific flaws in the content of their reports, not on trying to ascertain their intent.
The reason for this approach was recently illustrated when MSNBC's Chris Matthews hosted a Republican presidential debate. Pointing to Matthews' long-ago work on behalf of Democratic politicians, conservative media critics and others suggested that Matthews might not give the Republicans a fair shake or that Matthews' moderating of a Republican debate was the equivalent of a Fox News personality hosting a Democratic debate.
On Fox News, for example, Dick Morris said of Matthews, "[T]his former staffer to Tip O'Neill decided to gut Rudy Giuliani, because he's the one that can most likely beat the Republicans." (In context, it is clear that Morris misspoke and meant to say that Giuliani is the Republican most likely to defeat a Democrat in the general election.) Similarly, CNN Reliable Sources host Howard Kurtz asked, "Republicans were willing to participate in an MSNBC debate with a guy who used to work for Jimmy Carter and Tip O'Neill. Should Democrats be refusing to debate on Fox News?"
But while Matthews worked for Democrats Carter and O'Neill nearly 30 years ago, his on-air comments about Democrats and Republicans in recent years certainly don't reflect a liberal bias. Instead, Matthews routinely gushes over Republicans and trashes Democrats, as Media Matters has routinely demonstrated. And how did he handle the GOP debate itself? His first question was, "Mayor Giuliani, how do we get back to Ronald Reagan's morning in America?" Later, he again invoked Reagan to ask John McCain how he would "restore that kind of unity of purpose" Reagan purportedly brought to Americans. Eventually, Matthews got around to asking a group of Republican presidential candidates if they thought it would be a good thing if one of their Democratic opponents was elected president. And he asked them what taxes they'd like to cut -- without asking how they would compensate for the reduced revenue. As we explained at the time, this was in stark contrast to his colleague Brian Williams' handling of a Democratic debate, in which he asked the candidates how they would pay for their proposals -- but didn't bother asking for details of the proposals themselves. Taken as a whole, MSNBC's handling of the Democratic and Republican debates could hardly have gone better for the GOP. Yet some observers couldn't get over the fact that Chris Matthews worked for Jimmy Carter 30 years ago.
Looking at the content of news reports rather than at TV hosts' long-ago jobs, or at the political contributions of a few sports columnists and copy editors among the nation's 100,000 working journalists, reveals far more useful information about the media's coverage of politics and policy.
In addition to the daily examples of specific instances of conservative misinformation in news reports that we post on our website, several recent studies have painted a picture of a media playing field that tilts strongly to the right:
- Media Matters and the Campaign for America's Future released a study demonstrating that media figures routinely describe America as a conservative nation despite overwhelming public polling data to the contrary.
- Media coverage of religion and public policy greatly favors conservatives, according to Left Behind, a Media Matters study of the frequency with which news reports quote or mention religious leaders. Media Matters found that conservative religious leaders are quoted or mentioned in news stories nearly three times as often as are progressive religious leaders.
- Media Matters studies have shown that the Sunday political talk-show guest lists favor conservatives and Republicans over progressives and Democrats -- and that the disparity cannot be attributed to Republican control of the White House.
- And the new report by the Center for American Progress and Free Press found that "91 percent of the total weekday talk radio programming is conservative, and 9 percent is progressive." And that disparity isn't limited to small-town radio in areas that lean conservative: In the top 10 radio markets, "76 percent of the programming ... is conservative and 24 percent is progressive."
And what kind of rhetoric do those conservative radio talkers favor? This week alone:
- Conservative radio host Michael Graham, appearing on fellow conservative radio host Glenn Beck's CNN Headline News television show, said he would have liked to see the Clintons be murdered during their spoof of the final episode of The Sopranos. Graham has previously said of Hillary Clinton, "I wanted to bludgeon her with a tire iron." Beck, too, favors bloodthirsty rhetoric: He once fantasized on his radio show about "choking the life out" of Michael Moore, saying, "I'm wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it. No, I think I could." (This, incidentally, came before CNN decided to hire him. Talking about killing liberals doesn't get you kicked off the radio -- it gets you a television show on CNN.)
- Guest-hosting for Rush Limbaugh, Mark Belling described same-sex couples' decision to have children as "pure selfishness."
- Michael Savage claimed that the Massachusetts state legislature killed a proposed a referendum on banning same-sex marriage because the "gay mafia bought the votes ... like cheap tricks in a gay bathhouse." Last week, Savage said "I think it's child abuse" for a gay parent to raise a child. That was no slip of the tongue; Savage said the same thing in February: "I want to puke when I hear about a woman married to a woman raising children because, frankly, I think that it's child abuse to do that to children without their permission." And in March: "The idea of two women who are so-called married raising children, I think it's child abuse." In 2003, Savage told a caller, whom he described as a "sodomite," that he "should only get AIDS and die, you pig. How's that? Why don't you see if you can sue me, you pig. You got nothing better than to put me down, you piece of garbage. You have got nothing to do today, go eat a sausage and choke on it."
Michael Savage isn't on MSNBC's list of journalists who make political contributions. Neither is Rush Limbaugh, Mark Belling, Glenn Beck, or Michael Graham. But what if they did? Should we care more if they wrote $250 checks to the Republican National Committee than that they routinely use their radio shows to make hateful comments?
Of course not. It's the content of the news that matters, not the personal beliefs and preferences of journalists.