How the Liberal Media Myth is Created - Part 1
[Some portions of this post are taken from my existing report on this topic at ICM; * indicates edits made for clarity].
Anyone surprised that there hasn't been much of a mention in the lefty blogosphere about the Kerry v. Bush media coverage analysis from the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ)? I am.
In their annual State of the News Media report of American Journalism for 2004, they have this sound bite in their summary:
When it came to the campaign, on the other hand, the criticism that George Bush got worse coverage than John Kerry is supported by the data.2 Looking across all media, campaign coverage that focused on Bush was three times as negative as coverage of Kerry (36% versus 12%) It was also less likely to be positive (20% positive Bush stories, 30% for Kerry).
That also meant Bush coverage was less likely to be neutral (44% of Bush stories, 58% for Kerry).
Do a Google search for one of these passages and you'll see articles mentioning this (like this one on MSNBC saying: "Study: Election news negative toward Bush" or Howard Kurtz in WaPo saying: "A few readers have complained that I failed to mention, in Monday's column about a Project for Excellence in Journalism report, the finding on pro-Kerry bias last year..."); you'll also find other GOP or Right-oriented sites (example) touting it as (partial) vindication for their claims about the media (partial because the Iraq stats were not exactly "unfavorable" to Bush).
If you consider just the Kerry v. Bush data, is the report really vindicating a "liberal media" claim? NO.
Mr Rosenstiel said these figures did not necessarily reflect bias but, instead, the fact that coverage was always more intense and questioning when it came to the incumbent.
Is that the best explanation that a credible journalism organization could muster? Rosenstiel (or Kurtz or other media outlets) do not seem to understand that something is not right when an organization ostensibly measuring the quality of American journalism decides to report statistics using measures used by politicians, rather than the measures that should be used by journalists.
It is not measuring ACCURACY of news content, only TONE. The terms "positive", "negative" and "neutral" say nothing about whether the coverage was accurate or not. The coverage could be negative but accurate, and positive but fiction (as it was with Bush in most cases). It could also have been positive but accurate, and negative but fiction (as it was with Kerry in most cases). Although they don't actually say this, PEJ seems to implicitly fall for the fake spin (usually from the Right) that somehow "fair and balanced" coverage requires balance in tone, rather than accuracy in reporting!
For example, Bush did get negative coverage on Iraq, but everything that happened in Iraq was his creation. Lack of WMDs, lack of a real Saddam-Al-Qaeda link, depraved indifference to the lives of Americans and Iraqi civilians, Abu Ghraib, unsecured arms dumps and nuclear sites, mismanagement of taxpayer dollars through massive corruption, and an endless amount of other incompetence and mendacity was all fact. Sure, schools may have been built and hospitals re-opened and Iraqis "liberated" after enduring serious bombing followed by a major cronyism-privatization campaign. Covering that objectively (however "negative" that was) is a requirement for good journalism and not something to feel "negative" about. What is distressing is that the media let the Bush administration go scot-free on lying to the public about WMDs, the Saddam-Al Qaeda link, the cost of war, and a lot more. Very little critical coverage actually occurred particularly on the first two topics. So, while some of the coverage on Bush may have been "negative", it was almost always FACT. [Sec. 4.5 at ICM covers some of the media's extremely poor coverage of Bush's AWOL record in the Texas Air National Guard].
On the other hand, a lot of negative coverage against Kerry was FICTION - think "swift-boat-veterans" or Kerry being labeled as more of a "flip-flopper" than Bush (yeah, right) [*sentence edited for clarity]. This is analogous to what happened with Al Gore.
Bottom line? This kind of a survey is worthless to assess the quality of journalism. It is useful to assess "tone" of coverage but that is a very crude measure whose usefulness is highly limited. Being "fair and balanced" does not mean being "positive" and "negative" about the same amount. It means being factual ALL the time.
On top of this, PEJ also noted this in a footnote:
2. The analysis of election coverage begins after March 1 (Super Tuesday) after John Kerry emerged as the all-but-official Democratic candidate. The cross-media comparisons of campaign coverage included stories focused at least 50% on one candidate or the other so that deriving a sense of tone about the candidate was logical. Those totaled 250 stories. The findings, moreover, reinforce what the Project found in a separate study that looked at tone in the final month of the campaign, surrounding the debates, and in a pre-convention study using a different methodology that mapped coverage of different character themes about the candidates. The findings on tone also mirror those of Robert Lichter and the Center on Media and Public Affairs, which employs a different approach to studying tone.
I am highlighting this to emphasize that the "tone" report from Robert Lichter's CMPA for the 2004 election is likewise flawed because it ignores the factual content of the coverage.
I can understand why conservative groups like the CMPA pump money into studies of "tone" of coverage because they can use it to (unjustifiably) claim "liberal bias" at every opportunity. What I can't fathom is why reputed organizations like PEJ spend so much resources studying something which says woefully little about the quality of journalism in this country.
[Incidentally, Ron at Watching The Watchers also emphasizes the point I have made (not shown above) about the very limited sample size of the PEJ study.]