The Right's "bias" charade

››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

At the end of the 1992 presidential campaign, there was a flurry of news reports about the possibility that the media had favored Bill Clinton over incumbent George H.W. Bush, and that the media's coverage of the race helped Clinton win.

At the end of the 1992 presidential campaign, there was a flurry of news reports about the possibility that the media had favored Bill Clinton over incumbent George H.W. Bush, and that the media's coverage of the race helped Clinton win.

Such complaints might seem a little odd, given the media's relentless focus during that campaign on Clinton's alleged relationship with Gennifer Flowers, his youthful marijuana use, and his purported "draft-dodging."

Still, complaints from conservatives about the media's coverage of the 1992 campaign worked to their benefit by complimenting their campaign to undermine Clinton's "legitimacy" as president. And they caused reporters, always sensitive to (typically bogus) charges of biased reporting, to bend over backwards to disprove their critics -- an instinct that, no doubt, contributed to the absolutely brutal media coverage Clinton received almost immediately upon his election.

How brutal? How quickly? The Los Angeles Times explained in a 1993 look back at the earliest days of the Clinton presidency:

Twelve days after President Clinton took office -- with only 1,448 days left in his term -- Sam Donaldson of ABC News was on a weekend talk show, saying, "This week we can talk about, 'Is the presidency over?' "

That same day, a Page 1 story in the Los Angeles Times warned, "The President must tighten his grip or risk disaster."

Later that week, a Page 1 story in the New York Times said, "The President desperately needs a victory, as soon as possible."

And that was barely six months in to Clinton's first term. Sure, by then reporters had suggested Clinton's presidency was over before it reached the end of its second week and inaccurately obsessed over his Air Force One haircut. But they were just getting started; the wall-to-wall coverage of Whitewater and countless other trumped-up faux scandals was still to come.

But no matter how hostile, how relentlessly negative, how scandal-obsessed the media were in their coverage of Clinton, conservatives kept right on going with their complaints of liberal bias. On October 26, 1996, The New York Times reported:

Sounding like a crusader, Bob Dole implored his audiences today to "rise up" against the nation's news organizations, which he said were protecting the Clinton Administration ...

"We've got to stop the liberal bias in this country," he declared ... "Don't read that stuff! Don't watch television! You make up your mind! Don't let them make up your mind for you!"

[...]

At another point he asked: "When do the American people rise up and say, 'Forget the media in America! We're going to make up our minds! You're not going to make up our minds!' This is about saving our country!"

Singling out The New York Times for the second straight day, Mr. Dole went on: "We are not going to let the media steal this election. We're going to win this election. The country belongs to the people, not The New York Times."

[...]

Mr. Dole's complaints against the news media -- reminiscent of those by President George Bush in the waning days of his losing 1992 campaign -- are greeted with wild cheers. Mr. Dole said today that President Clinton would be losing the election if he was not "getting propped up by the media."

A Nexis search yields 539 hits for "Clinton and Whitewater" in the The New York Times between January 1 and October 26, 1996 -- nearly two per day. And that focus hardly let up as the campaign reached the home stretch; there are 42 hits for "Clinton and Whitewater" in the Times from October 1-26. Nor was the Times alone in hammering away at Whitewater during the fall campaign: Expanding the search to all news organizations yields 2,412 hits for the month of October alone.

And that's to say nothing of the relentless media focus on Democratic fundraising controversies. Or the various other Clinton "scandals," most of which turned out to exist only in the fevered imaginations of the news media. Or the fact that the news media, having obsessed for years about Clinton's infidelity, buried a story about an alleged Dole affair that his campaign aides considered a "mortal threat" threat to his candidacy.

Let's stop there for a second: Just weeks after The Washington Post, which had reported on allegations of infidelity on Clinton's part, spiked a story about an alleged Dole affair, Bob Dole was running around accusing the media of being in the tank for Clinton. That's awfully reckless behavior -- if Dole actually believed the media were against him. Sincere or not, Dole's complaints ring hollow; I can't think of a presidential candidate whose alleged "scandals" received more election-year coverage than Clinton's in 1996. Such coverage isn't the whole story, of course, but it's awfully hard to justify claims that the media were in the tank for Clinton when they were running so many reports about Whitewater and other such nonsense.

But Dole's wasn't the most absurd conservative claim of media bias during the Clinton years. For that, we have to look to the pro: Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center. On February 9, 1998, the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran an interview with Bozell in which he complained that the media weren't devoting enough coverage to the Monica Lewinsky story.

Given that most observers would likely agree that the Lewinsky saga involved the longest, most intense media feeding frenzy in modern American history, Bozell's claim should be self-evidently fraudulent.

On the off chance that it isn't: On February 9, the day the Bozell interview ran, there were 529 news reports mentioning "Clinton" and "Lewinsky," according to a search of the Nexis database. Those 529 hits include 59 television transcripts, eight hits in the New York Times folder, and 11 for USA Today. In just one day. And that was a typical day, not an unusual one.

Still, Bozell told the Star Tribune, apparently with a straight face, that the media had "stopped" covering the story -- "as they always do." Five hundred news reports a day, and Bozell thought the media had stopped covering the story. This is up-is-down, black-is-white, the-moon-is-made-of-green-cheese stuff. And it is typical of conservative media criticism.

Why do they make such absurd claims? Because it is clear that it works. (If, unlike many journalists, you understand what the goal is.)

Which brings us to 2008.

John McCain's campaign, and its conservative allies, have spent much of the year attacking the news media. No surprise there; that's what conservatives do, even conservatives who have been the beneficiaries of a decade of glowing, fawning coverage from swooning reporters.

McCain and his allies were attacking the media back in the Spring, when reporters were obsessively scrutinizing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- and openly acknowledging that they weren't giving McCain similar scrutiny. They attacked the media in late summer, when the media were breathlessly touting the "authenticity" of a Sarah Palin speech that was filled with falsehoods. And they have attacked the media throughout the fall, even as it has become clear that the scrutiny reporters promised back in the spring that they would eventually give McCain isn't coming. It isn't a coincidence that scrutiny never came: it is, in part, an obvious and intended result of the attacks McCain and his allies have been leveling on the media all year.

But if, as the polls suggest, Barack Obama is elected next Tuesday, those attacks will have ultimately proven unsuccessful, right? Wrong.

First, that's a silly way to assess whether a strategy has "worked"; a candidate can derive benefit from a strategy without winning.

Second, it ignores the long-term goals of the attacks: to delegitimize an Obama presidency in the eyes of many Americans, and to browbeat journalists into covering an Obama administration much more critically than they otherwise would.

Whether those goals are met depends in part on whether journalists take the attacks seriously, or recognize them as the predictable continuation of a right-wing work-the-refs strategy that is so fraudulent it even involved claiming the media were devoting insufficient attention to Monica Lewinsky. And it depends in part on whether progressives push back on the bogus narrative that the media handed Obama the election, or simply ignore it.

Unfortunately, the conservative complaints got some superficial support from a recent study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) that claimed that John McCain has received much more "negative" coverage than Barack Obama during the campaign.

The PEJ study quickly got significant attention from the establishment media and blogs.

But while the study lends rhetorical support to the conservatives' arguments, it is nearly useless as an actual assessment of how the media covered the campaign.

First off, it is worth noting this little nugget about the study's methodology, buried at the end of the PEJ report: "Talk radio stories ... were not included in this campaign study of tone." PEJ offers no justification for the exclusion of talk radio. Not a word. In what surely must be a coincidence, talk radio skews further to the right than any other medium.

Now, here's PEJ's description of how it assesses whether a news report is "positive" or "negative":

To examine tone, the Project takes a particularly cautious and conservative approach. Unlike some researchers, we examine not just whether assertions in stories are positive or negative, but also whether they are inherently neutral. This, we believe, provides a much clearer and fairer sense of the tone of coverage than ignoring those balanced or mixed evaluations. Second, we do not simply tally up all the evaluative assertions in stories and compile them into a single pile to measure. Journalists and audiences think about press coverage in stories or segments. They ask themselves, is this story positive or negative or neutral? Hence the Project measures coverage by story, and for a story to be deemed as having a negative or positive tone, it must be clearly so, not a close call: for example, the negative assertions in a story must outweigh positive assertions by a margin of at least 1.5 to 1 for that story to be deemed negative.

OK ... anyone want to guess what that means in practical terms?

Unfortunately, the few actual examples of "positive" and "negative" coverage PEJ offers do little to clarify its methodology, and less to inspire confidence. For example, PEJ notes:

Some of that positive coverage was related to evidence that the financial crisis was aiding Obama. "Recent economic woes have given Democrat Barack Obama a clear lead over Republican John McCain," declared a story posted on AOL News on Sept. 24, citing a 9-point lead for Obama in a new Washington Post/ABC News poll.

That's what counts as "positive" coverage of Obama? A fairly straightforward report that a poll finds Obama in a "clear lead" over McCain? And, it seems, much of Obama's "positive" coverage consisted of reports like that:

The data clearly point in this direction for some of the explanation. Of those stories that focused mostly on polls, a clear majority (57%) were positive for Obama, while less than a quarter (23%) were negative. Similarly, stories about the electoral map, swing states and campaign strategy were even more favorable (77% positive vs. 6% negative). These represent the most positive element of Obama's coverage.

So, if a candidate is winning, and the polls show that, and the media report that the polls show the candidate winning, that counts as "positive" coverage. Well, OK, it's true that such a story is "positive," but it tells us nearly nothing about the media.

Examples of "negative" coverage of McCain similarly fail to illuminate. Here's the first:

On Sept. 24, he announced he was suspending campaigning to return to Washington to work on a rescue bill and advocated delaying the first debate, scheduled two days away in Oxford Mississippi. ... [S]ome of the coverage depicted McCain's decision-making in an unflattering light, such as a Sept. 26 CNN.com piece stating that "some fellow lawmakers said McCain hadn't contributed much to the financial debate, and senior campaign advisors told CNN they believed it was politically crucial that McCain show up in Oxford, Mississippi."

Actually, that's the only example of negative coverage of McCain. As Bob Somerby noted, "According to Pew, McCain has been hit with a bunch of 'negative stories' in the six weeks under review ... But what do these 'negative stories' look like? In the age of the simple electronic link, it's incredible that Pew provides no examples."

To PEJ's credit, it says only that coverage of the candidates is "positive" or "negative," not "favorable" or "unfavorable" or that coverage is "biased" in favor of a given candidate. As a literal matter, describing news reports such as the CNN.com example as "negative" is defensible, though it doesn't really tell us much.

But many people interpret those descriptions as evidence of "bias" -- as PEJ must know they will do. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, for example:

Critics, including many conservatives, say the media have been too easy on Obama, and bias cannot be discounted as a factor. A study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that from the end of the conventions through the debates, McCain's coverage was more than three times as negative than Obama's.

Such interpretations are simply not defensible. PEJ's explanation of its methodology suggests that a purely factual news report about McCain trailing in the polls constitutes a "negative" report -- as would a report debunking a McCain lie. Again, such a report could defensibly be described as "negative" for McCain, but interpreting that as evidence of media bias is absurd. Debunking a lie isn't "bias," it's what journalists should be doing every day.

PEJ made no effort to assess things that actually could give some indication of whether media coverage has been unfair - whether news reports were more likely to uncritically report false claims from one candidate, or whether similar controversies surrounding each candidate received disparate coverage, for example. (Media Matters has documented several such examples of double standards that have benefited McCain.)

PEJ did offer this intriguing statement:

Much of the increased attention for McCain derived from actions by the senator himself, actions that, in the end, generated mostly negative assessments. In many ways, the arc of the media narrative during this phase of the 2008 general election might be best described as a drama in which John McCain has acted and Barack Obama has reacted.

That seems to support my observation that the media have covered precisely what McCain wants them to cover:

The truth is that when John McCain says "jump," the media still ask, "How high?" Think about this: When was the last time McCain or his campaign has wanted the news media to focus on something, and they have refused? From "lipstick on a pig" to Bill Ayers, the media have scampered after whatever mud McCain has flung, like a puppy dog chasing a stick thrown by its master. Sure, sometimes they have pointed out that McCain is lying -- and that's tremendous progress for a profession that has spent a decade flatly asserting McCain's honesty. But -- as I've explained in the past -- even as they've debunked McCain's claims, they've too often privileged the lie by allowing those claims to drive their coverage.

Unfortunately, PEJ did not explain its assertion that "the media narrative ... might be best described as a drama in which John McCain has acted and Barack Obama has reacted." Examining that idea more fully could have actually told us something useful about whether the media have favored one candidate or the other, in effect, if not intentionally.

PEJ's analysis may have only limited academic value. But there's nothing academic about the need to rebut its flawed conclusions. If the media themselves perceive that Barack Obama benefited from favorable media coverage -- as is suggested by their uncritical citation of the PEJ study -- that perception could have ominous implications for the coverage he will receive if he becomes president.

As a 1993 Christian Science Monitor op-ed by a University of California-Irvine professor noted:

[H]ow the media treat a new president may have less to do with personality, personnel, perks, or pessimism than it does with how the media treated that president as a candidate. Treatment of a new president may be inversely related to their coverage of the president as a candidate for office. The easier the media's treatment of a presidential candidate during the campaign, the harsher will be their treatment once the candidate has become president. Conversely, harsher treatment of a presidential candidate during the campaign may precipitate a much longer media honeymoon for a new president.

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