Like a dog that's been beat too much

News coverage of ACORN -- and of conservative complaints about that coverage -- demonstrates that when the right says, “Jump,” the media say, “How high?” Then they apologize for not jumping sooner.

A new study by professors at Occidental College and the University of Northern Iowa examines the media's coverage of ACORN, finding that during last year's presidential campaign and again this year, the “mainstream” media has rushed to repeat a barrage of false claims by Republicans and conservatives about the organization without first checking to see if the claims are true.

The study makes a number of important points and is worth reading all the way through. Among them:

  • "[O]pinion entrepreneurs (primarily business and conservative groups and individuals) set the story in motion as early as 2006, the conservative echo chamber orchestrated its anti-ACORN campaign in 2008, the McCain-Palin campaign picked it up, and the mainstream media reported its allegations without investigating their truth or falsity."
  • “Although ACORN is involved in many community activities around the country, including efforts to improve housing, wages, access to credit, and public education, the dominant story frame about ACORN was 'voter fraud.' ... The news media stories about ACORN were overwhelmingly negative, reporting allegations by Republicans and conservatives. ... The mainstream news media failed to fact-check persistent allegations of ”voter fraud" despite the existence of easily available countervailing evidence. The media also failed to distinguish allegations of voter registration problems from allegations of actual voting irregularities. They also failed to distinguish between allegations of wrongdoing and actual wrongdoing."
  • “The attacks on ACORN originated with business groups and political groups that opposed ACORN's organizing work around living wages, predatory lending, and registration of low-income and minority voters. ... Most of the news media coverage about ACORN carried one-sided frames, repeating the conservative and Republican criticisms of the group without seeking to verify them or provide ACORN or its supporters with a reasonable opportunity to respond to the allegations.”
  • “Our analysis of the narrative framing of the ACORN stories demonstrates that -- despite long-standing charges from conservatives that the news media are determinedly liberal and ignore conservative ideas -- the news media agenda is easily permeated by a persistent media campaign, even when there is little or no truth to the story. In the instance of the 2008 presidential election, the conservative echo chamber's allegations about ACORN, mostly unfounded, became one of the news media's major stories of the campaign.”

As the study notes, the media firestorm surrounding ACORN had an effect: “82% of the respondents in an October 2008 national survey reported they had heard about ACORN.”

Not that it stopped when the presidential campaign ended. This spring, news reports were filled with ludicrous claims that Democrats were steering billions of dollars in stimulus money to ACORN.

That's just flat-out crazy (or -- take your pick -- a dishonorable lie), and yet it still didn't dampen the media's enthusiasm for the right's assault on ACORN.

From September 14-20, ACORN was the sixth-biggest news story in the country. Why? Because some conservatives circulated videos of a handful of low-level ACORN employees behaving badly. (A “shocking” number, according to Slate's Jack Shafer. How many? He doesn't say. Out of how many total employees? He doesn't say. But it's shocking!)

And it isn't just ACORN. The media have been taking their cues from the far right all year. When conservatives talked about “death panels,” the mainstream media talked about “death panels.” (Sure, they occasionally tried to debunk the false claim, but they did an embarrassingly poor job of it.) When conservatives wanted to talk about "tea parties" protesting ... well, something ... the media talked about tea parties. (And gave them far more prominent play than they gave larger anti-war protests.) When conservatives wanted to talk about President Obama's birth certificate, that's what the media talked about. Don't even get me started on the “czar” nonsense or the media's desperate efforts to draw Obama into the Rod Blagojovech scandal.

And those are just the sideshow stories. When they've covered more substantive issues, they've often adopted conservative framing. A government-run health insurance option, for example, is routinely portrayed as “expensive” -- with no mention of the fact that according to the Congressional Budget Office, inclusion of such a plan makes health reform less expensive. Tax cuts are portrayed as stimulative, even though -- according to economist Mark Zandi, a former adviser to John McCain -- they are less stimulative than government spending.

Now, it isn't exactly breaking news that the media amplify right-wing propaganda, or that major news organizations -- which are, after all, owned by massive corporations -- tend to adopt conservative framing.

But what is stunning is that even as they run chasing after every story conservatives hype, the media apologize for not doing so more quickly. That's just what they've done the past week.

On Sunday, Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander devoted his column to conservative complaints that the paper had been too slow to cover ACORN. Alexander agreed with the complaints and suggested the “tardiness” was a result of liberal bias.

Alexander quoted Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism saying, “Complaints by conservatives are slower to be picked up by non-ideological media because there are not enough conservatives and too many liberals in most newsrooms. ... They just don't see the resonance of these issues. They don't hear about them as fast [and] they're not naturally watching as much.” And Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli worrying “that we are not well-enough informed about conservative issues. It's particularly a problem in a town so dominated by Democrats and the Democratic point of view.” And a Heritage Foundation vice president saying the media can no longer kill stories like ACORN. And, of course, Glenn Beck yelling about the media.

So whom did Alexander quote or paraphrase arguing that the media don't exhibit a liberal bias or that they have devoted too much attention to ACORN, or that -- as the new study released this month makes clear -- that they haven't bothered to fact-check the sensational right-wing claims about ACORN that they report? Nobody.

Alexander didn't offer so much as a hint that any other point of view about the media even exists. He treated it as a foregone conclusion that the Post and the rest of the media are a bunch of liberals and that the media need to do a better job of listening to conservatives.

That day, I posted a response to Alexander -- actually, more to the quotes from Rosenstiel and Brauchli -- on Media Matters' blog. I noted that the media's coverage of the Clintons, Al Gore, the 2000 presidential campaign, the run-up to the Iraq war -- the Post's coverage of which has been eviscerated by the paper's former ombudsman -- all undermine the myth of the liberal media.

The next day, Alexander posted a follow-up to his column on his blog. In it, Alexander again quoted Rosenstiel, this time speculating that increased mistrust of the media among Democrats is a result of them not wanting Obama to be criticized. (No mention of the possibility that Democrats increasingly distrust the media because the media gave us President Bush, the Iraq war, Whitewater, “Al Gore said he invented the Internet,” and assorted other stupidity.) And he quoted a former Knight-Ridder executive calling for journalists to be more responsive to claims of bias -- “especially from conservatives.” And a couple more people arguing that the media attract “social reformers” who tend to be liberal.

Alexander's conclusion reflected his headline (“Newsroom Diversity Should Include Ideology”):

News organizations, once led exclusively by white men, long ago embraced gender and race diversity. It was a matter of equality, of course. But it also was a matter of accuracy. With diversity, newsrooms became more attuned to the perspectives of women and the multicultural dimensions of the communities they served.

It's the same with ideology. News organizations like The Post are more accurate when they are exposed to the range of perspectives among their readers, both print and online.

Coming, as it does, at the end of a column and a blog post that combine to include not a single word reflecting a progressive media critique -- not so much as a hint that the media are not biased in favor of liberals -- that call for ideological diversity seems more like a punch line than a reasoned conclusion.

What else is missing? Content. Alexander spent a column and a blog post talking about the fact that conservatives say their views are neglected, speculating about the ideology of reporters, and quoting others likewise speculating. But there weren't really any actual examples of that bias playing out in news reports, aside from his agreement with Beck that the Post was slow to cover ACORN and Van Jones. And, there, Alexander ignores the seemingly essential question of whether conservative claims about ACORN have been reliable. (No. No, they have not.)

How can you write a full column and a long blog post about so-called “liberal bias” in the media without actually talking about the content of news reports? Without even addressing the media's coverage of the 2000 campaign, or the Bush administration's Iraq claims (pre- and post-invasion)? You can't -- not in any way that is even remotely meaningful.

But reporters have been kicked so hard by conservatives, and for so long, they tend to reflexively agree with whatever the right says about them.

And so, amazingly, they parrot the conservatives' claims of liberal bias, even while they disprove those claims by completely ignoring substantive media critiques from progressives -- and by skewing their coverage ever more to the right.

The idea that, regardless of what anyone thinks about the personal ideological leanings of reporters, the actual content of news reports tends to favor conservatives (in part because reporters over-respond to criticism from the right) isn't some new, obscure fringe theory I've concocted to respond to Beck's whining or the most recent round of the media beating themselves up for not getting Rush Limbaugh to like them. It's a widely held assessment of the news media. Books have been written about it. Likewise, the examples I've given, particularly coverage of the 2000 election and the Bush administration's Iraq claims, are widely recognized examples of media failures.

In fact, even if you limit yourself to current and former employees of The Washington Post, you can pretty easily find support for those positions:

Former Washington Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser:

The press responds to critics on the right by bending over backward not to look liberal. ... The cumulative effect is the opposite: They're tougher on Democrats.

Former Washington Post reporter Tom Edsall:

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. [emphasis added]

Former Washington Post ombudsman E.R. Shipp on the 2000 campaign:

There is something not quite satisfying about The Post's coverage of the quests of Bill Bradley, George W. Bush, Al Gore and John McCain to become our next president. ... readers react ... to roles that The Post seems to have assigned to the actors in this unfolding political drama. Gore is the guy in search of an identity; Bradley is the Zen-like intellectual in search of a political strategy; McCain is the war hero who speaks off the cuff and is, thus, a “maverick”; and Bush is a lightweight with a famous name, and has the blessings of the party establishment and lots of money in his war chest. As a result of this approach, some candidates are whipping boys; others seem to get a free pass. [emphasis added]

Former Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler on the Post's Iraq coverage:

The [Washington] Post ... displayed a pattern of missing or downplaying events that unfolded in public-events that might have played a role in public opinion during the run-up to the war.

Some examples: In the summer and fall of 2002, the paper failed to record promptly the doubts of then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey. When Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to George H.W. Bush, wrote a cautionary op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, it apparently didn't strike anyone at the Post as news.


The testimony of three retired four-star generals warning against an attack before the Senate Armed Services Committee was not covered at all. Speeches by Senator Ted Kennedy and Senator Robert Byrd that seem prescient today were not covered.


Here's a brief sampling of additional Post headlines that, rather stunningly, failed to make the front of the newspaper: “Observers: Evidence for War Lacking,” “U.N. Finds No Proof of Nuclear Program,” “Bin Laden-Hussein Link Hazy,” “U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms,” “Legality of War Is a Matter of Debate,” and “Bush Clings to Dubious Allegations About Iraq.” In short, it wasn't the case that important, challenging reporting wasn't done. It just wasn't highlighted. [emphasis added]

Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs on the media's coverage of Iraq:

[W]hat of [former Bush White House Press secretary Scott McClellan's] criticism of the so-called “liberal media” which you can read in greater detail here? Were we “complicit enablers” for the Bush administration in its march to war?

As a reporter who was part of the Washington Post's foreign policy team during the period 2002-2003, I have thought about this question a lot over the last five years. Many of my colleagues have dismissed McClellan's criticisms, insisting that they asked “all the right questions” during the run-up to the war, and it was hardly our fault if the administration failed to answer them honestly. I disagree. I think the American media -- and that includes me, personally -- failed to do its job properly during the run-up to the war.


As I saw it here at The Post, the media's failure went from top to bottom. Editors were reluctant to give front-page prominence to stories that challenged the administration's rationale for war, including one by Walter Pincus questioning the evidence about weapons of mass destruction that ended up on page A17. But reporters (including myself) often failed to display sufficient skepticism about the administration's claims. We should have pressed our editors harder to find a way of addressing the most important questions, even if it was very difficult to find dissenters within the administration.

I should make clear that I am not singling out The Post for special criticism. With a very few exceptions (the Washington bureau of Knight-Ridder comes to mind), the entire American media failed to aggressively challenge the administration's narrative. [emphasis added]

What more needs to happen before more journalists start taking seriously the possibility that the media do not demonstrate a liberal bias -- and that, instead, news reports frequently adopt conservative framing and assumptions?