“Media Matters”; by Jamison Foser

On December 8, CNN mentioned a new CBS-New York Times poll showing a slight increase in President Bush's approval ratings no fewer than seven times: on American Morning (three times); Your World Today; Live From ... ; The Situation Room; and Lou Dobbs Tonight.

This Week:

Bush approval increases within the margin of error; media overstates gains ... again

Coverage of Lieberman and Hagel comments illustrates imbalance in media coverage of intra-party debates

Media continues to ignore impeachment polling

The difference between Media Matters and conservative media critics

Bush approval increases within the margin of error; media overstates gains ... again

On December 8, CNN mentioned a new CBS-New York Times poll showing a slight increase in President Bush's approval ratings no fewer than seven times: on American Morning (three times); Your World Today; Live From ... ; The Situation Room; and Lou Dobbs Tonight.

During the December 8 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, Dobbs exclaimed:

[A] new opinion poll shows President Bush's approval rating has bounced back now from historic lows, and bounced back strongly. The main reason appears to be that voters are feeling more optimistic about the direction of the economy.

In fact, the CBS-New York Times poll showed a five-point increase in Bush's approval rating, all the way up to a still-anemic 40 percent. The increase is made even less impressive by the fact that the previous CBS-NYT poll was conducted more than a month ago, and (most importantly) by the fact that the increase was within the poll's margin of error. Still, CNN couldn't resist the effort to tout yet another purported Bush “rebound.” Nor could NBC's Today, where host Matt Lauer made the increase sound as dramatic as possible: “up 5 points from just last month”; neither he nor Chris Matthews acknowledged that the increase was within the margin of error.

As we noted a month ago, the media has been peddling the line that Bush is “bouncing back” for months. As we said at the time:

Should Bush's poll numbers eventually “rebound,” we fully expect that [Bill] Kristol, [Wolf] Blitzer, The Washington Times, et al, will say that they saw it coming all along -- and will pretend that their cheerleading had nothing to do with it.

Coverage of Lieberman and Hagel comments illustrates imbalance in media coverage of intra-party debates

On November 15, Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel (NE) delivered a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., in which he blasted a fellow Republican, President Bush, suggesting that Bush's attacks on those who disagree with him have been inconsistent with “what this country has stood for, for over 200 years”:

HAGEL: The Bush Administration must understand that each American has a right to question our policies in Iraq and should not be demonized for disagreeing with them. Suggesting that to challenge or criticize policy is undermining and hurting our troops is not democracy nor what this country has stood for, for over 200 years.

As Media Matters noted three days later:

Hagel, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, essentially said the president of the United States is violating the principles “this country has stood for for over 200 years” -- and The New York Times ignored it. They ignored it the day after the speech, and the next day, even as they ran an article repeating the very kinds of attacks by the Bush administration that Hagel denounced.

To The New York Times, apparently, a senior Republican senator criticizing the Republican president is not newsworthy -- but a Republican vice president criticizing Democrats is. The Grey Lady has seemingly abandoned the traditional notion that a man biting a dog is news -- but a dog biting a man is not.

The [Washington] Post did mention Hagel's comments in its article, but it bizarrely ignored his criticism of Bush, pretending instead that he simply defended Democrats...

Nearly a month later, the extent to which the media ignored Hagel's criticism of Bush is simply stunning. A search of the Nexis database finds only 47 news stories that have mentioned Hagel and variants on the word “demonize”; only 16 stories mention Hagel's suggestion that Bush's criticism of those who disagree with him is “not democracy nor what this country has stood for.”

That is a huge contrast to the wall-to-wall media coverage given Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman's (CT) recent criticism of fellow Democrats. In a December 6 speech to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, Lieberman said Democrats should not criticize Bush:

It is time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be Commander-in-Chief for three more critical years, and that in matters of war we undermine Presidential credibility at our nation's peril.

In both cases, a senior, high-profile senator criticized members of his own party. One might, therefore, think their comments would garner similar attention. If anything, Hagel's comments could be expected to receive wider media coverage; he was, after all, essentially saying that the president of the United States was engaging in anti-democratic and un-American behavior.

But, while only a handful of news stories have even mentioned Hagel's criticism in the nearly month-long period since his speech, Lieberman's criticism of Democrats has been treated as one of the primary news stories of the week. The New York Times and Associated Press, both of which ignored Hagel's criticism of Bush, have covered Lieberman's comments.

Most striking, however, has been how much coverage CNN gave Lieberman -- and how little it gave Hagel. Hagel's criticism of Bush was mentioned five times on CNN in the seven days after his speech, and none since. Lieberman's criticism of Democrats, by contrast, has received wall-to-wall coverage. Lieberman's comments were played twice during the December 6 edition of the The Situation Room alone. The same day's edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight brought another mention; Anderson Cooper 360 gave viewers yet another. The December 7 edition of American Morning picked up where the prime-time programs left off; Live Today viewers with short memories were quickly reminded of Lieberman's criticism of Democrats -- twice. Somehow, CNN resisted the urge to cover Lieberman's criticism again that day, but came right back to it for the December 8 edition of American Morning and again for The Situation Room.

And those are just the mentions of Lieberman's criticism of Democrats; his support for Bush's Iraq policy was also featured prominently on CNN and by other news outlets for the second consecutive week.

But while Lieberman's attack on Democrats drew wide media coverage, that coverage was completely uncritical; apparently, no news organization thought to address the obvious questions about the comments they were reporting: Are Lieberman's comments about Democrats fair? Do they make sense? Are they consistent with his past statements? Questions like these are common components of news reports about one politician's criticism of another; yet Lieberman's comments were simply taken at face value.

By the standards of Lieberman's suggestion that “undermining presidential credibility” during a time of war puts the nation in “peril,” everyone should have kept quiet about Watergate; after all, the Vietnam War was going on at the same time. But no news organization pointed that out. His statement that Democrats who point out Bush's lack of candor undermine Bush's credibility (rather than that Bush's lack of candor undermines Bush's credibility) could be seen as inconsistent with his famous 1998 floor statement about President Clinton, in which he lamented the damage Clinton had done to his own credibility, both by making false statements and by not sufficiently acknowledging and apologizing for his wrongdoing. Yet the seeming inconsistency in Lieberman's statements presidential credibility also went ignored by the news media.

Media continues to ignore impeachment polling

On November 7, Dan Froomkin wrote in a column for The Washington Post's website:

Back in June, Zogby asked Americans if they agreed or disagreed with the following question:

“If President Bush did not tell the truth about his reasons for going to war with Iraq, Congress should consider holding him accountable through impeachment.”

An astonishing 42 percent of Americans agreed. (I wrote about that in my July 6 column.)

Since then, no news organizations has [sic] expressed any curiosity, and no polling company has decided to ask the question on its own.

But afterdowningstreet.org , a group urging Congress to launch a formal investigation into whether President Bush has committed impeachable offenses in connection with the Iraq war, keeps asking.

In October, they commissioned Ipsos Public Affairs to ask a similar question. That poll found that 50 percent of Americans agreed.

Now, a new Zogby poll commissioned by the group finds that a clear majority -- 53 percent of Americans -- agree with the statement.

Since Froomkin's online column, news organizations have continued their steadfast refusal to report the results of a poll that shows that the majority of Americans think Bush should be impeached if he did not tell the truth about going to war with Iraq. Only five news reports available on Nexis mention the latest Zogby poll: the Froomkin column, an Investor's Business Daily editorial, a column in the University of Massachusetts student newspaper, a “Potpourri” feature in West Virginia's Charleston Gazette, and a column in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

In a November 13 column, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell addressed reader requests for the Post to conduct its own polls to measure public support for impeachment:

First, there was a swarm to me and to Post Polling Editor Richard Morin asking that The Post do a poll on whether President Bush should be impeached. Whoa. Since we get mail all the time saying that we are biased against Bush or are in his back pocket, why would The Post want to do that? The question many demanded that The Post ask is biased and would produce a misleading result, Morin said; he added that the campaign was started by Democrats.com.

But Howell's defense doesn't ring true. Her reference to complaints that the Post is “biased against Bush or are in his back pocket” is simply an irrelevant dodge; it has nothing to do with the question. It's simply the same tired and lazy strategy that news organizations often fall back on in the face of criticism: saying, essentially: hey, both sides complain, so we must be doing everything right.

Further, Howell didn't explain how “the question many demanded the Post ask is biased,” she just asserted it (attributing the assertion to Morin). But how would it be biased? Surely it must be possible to design a poll question to measure the public's support for impeachment that isn't “biased.” After all, the Post did it repeatedly when there was a Democratic president.

For example, A January 1998 Post poll conducted just days after the first revelations of Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky asked the following questions:

“If this affair did happen and if Clinton did not resign, is this something for which Clinton should be impeached, or not?”

“There are also allegations that Clinton himself lied by testifying under oath that he did not have an affair with the woman. If Clinton lied in this way, would you want him to remain in office as president, or would you want him to resign the presidency?”

“If Clinton lied by testifying under oath that he did not have an affair with the woman, and he did not resign, is this something for which Clinton should be impeached, or not?”

Morin was the Post's polling director at the time, and he wrote the January 26, 1998, article reporting the poll results.

How is “If the president did not tell the truth about the Iraq war, should he be impeached?” a more biased question than the questions the Post -- under Morin's direction -- asked in 1998? They take precisely the same format: If X is true, should the president be impeached?

Howell owes readers more than flippant responses and broad assertions that the Post can't ask such questions because they are “biased”; she owes readers an explanation of why such questions can be asked about Democratic presidents but not Republican presidents. And she owes readers an explanation of why the Post won't report the Zogby polling results. After all, a June 3, 2002, Post article -- written by the very same Richard Morin that Howell cited -- described Zogby International as:

... among the most visible private survey companies in the country. Its client list includes congressional candidates from both parties as well as Microsoft and Cisco Systems, the U.S. Census Bureau, Chrysler Corp., State Farm Insurance, USA Today, the New York Post, Gannett News Service, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Fox Television Network.

While the Post has ignored the Zogby poll outside of Froomkin's online column, it recently mentioned a controversial RT Strategies poll in three articles in six days. The Post reported the RT Strategies poll results to a question about whether Democratic criticism of Bush's Iraq policy “HELPS the morale of our troops in Iraq or HURTS the morale of our troops in Iraq.” In the interest of balance, perhaps the Post should ask in its own polling whether false claims by the Bush administration about why our troops have been sent to Iraq HELPS or HURTS their morale?

The media blackout on news about impeachment polling is particularly surprising given media commentary about the broader topic of impeachment.

Rothenberg Political Report editor Stuart Rothenberg wrote in a December 5 Roll Call column that, if Democrats talk about impeachment, they could suffer electoral losses as a result. Bizarrely, in a column about the public-opinion implications of talking about impeachment, Rothenberg didn't make a single mention of the publicly available polling on impeachment. Maybe that's because the polling doesn't support his assertions?

Like Rothenberg, Roll Call executive editor Morton M. Kondracke also wrote a recent column dealing with the possibility of impeachment. Like Rothenberg, Kondracke ignored the available polling on the matter. And like Rothenberg, Kondracke noted the lack of public support for the Republican's 1998 impeachment of President Clinton. But in the process, Kondracke made a false claim about Clinton's 1998 approval ratings:

But in 1998, even though Clinton's approval rating descended as low as 39 percent after disclosures that he lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, Democrats gained five House seats after Republicans forecast that they would impeach him after the election - as they did.

“We overplayed our hand,” said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who later became chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “The Democrats had better watch out that they don't do the same.”

In fact, Clinton's 1998 approval rating didn't descend to anywhere near 39 percent; they stayed high throughout the year. Kondracke's false claim about Clinton's popularity creates the impression that Republicans “overplayed their hands,” as Davis put it, by impeaching a very unpopular president -- which would, perhaps, be relevant given President Bush's current lack of popularity. But in fact Republicans “overplayed their hands” by impeaching a very popular president. Even aside from the substantive differences in the allegations and evidence against the two presidents, the situations simply aren't analogous.

The difference between Media Matters and conservative media critics

In a December 5 column, Accuracy in Media's Cliff Kincaid wrote:

I didn't need to read any transcripts of the Chris Matthews MSNBC Hardball show to know what's he's been doing. It's a safe bet he was hyping some Bush-related “scandal.” The former Democratic congressional staffer does what he does best -- make Democrats into heroes and Republicans into villains.

Kincaid didn't even need to look at what Matthews said; he just knew Matthews was making “Democrats into heroes and Republicans into villains.”

At Media Matters, we go the extra mile and actually read and watch the news reports we critique. It isn't quite as fast or easy as simply making things up, but we think it's worth it. And because we put in the effort, we found that -- rather than making “Democrats into heroes and Republicans into villains” -- Matthews has recently called those who dislike Bush "real whack-jobs," gushed that Bush “glimmers” with "sunny nobility," derided Democrats as "carpers and complainers," and smeared Democrats.

Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.