How the Liberal Media Myth is Created - Part 2
In Part 1 of this series, I covered myths created about "liberal bias" using "tone" of media coverage. In this part, the creation of "liberal media" myths by the Right using "catch-phrases" is highlighted. The basic MO of the Right here is to:
- Either mine databases for "words", without looking at context or usage (let me call this "Type A" BS, for convenience)
- Or to mine databases for "words" without establishing any controls for comparison ("Type B" BS)
Let's start with a couple of examples of "Type B" BS.
Here's Bob Somerby of The Daily Howler:
Trembling over his acolyte’s brilliance, Sullivan quoted at length:
RUFFINI, AS QUOTED BY SULLIVAN: Since 1996, the Washington Post has used this loaded term ["right-wing"] more than twice as frequently as "left-wing"…This disparity was even more palpable at the New York Times, where 80.2% of the left-right mentions on the national news pages since 1996 have spotlighted the right. The research also found that the more loaded and derogatory the phrase, the more likely it was to be associated with the political right. The term "conservative" outpolled "liberal" by 66-34% in New York Times news page mentions, while the aforementioned "right-wing" clocked in at 80% in a similar measure. However, the term "right-wing extremist" was used at least six times as frequently than "left-wing extremist" (at 87.4% since ’96 in the Times). [emphasis added]
If that didn’t prove it, nothing would. At the New York Times, "right-wing extremist" was used much more often than "left-wing extremist." Case closed.
But duh. Does unequal usage of those terms show a liberal bias? We were dubious, so we did a test—we checked out the use of these terms at the Washington Times. How many times did the Wes Pruden rag use those terms in the last five years? Our finding? The Washington Times reeks of liberal bias! In fact, its liberal bias is even worse than that found in the Times of New York!
...According to NEXIS, if you start your search at 1/1/96, here’s how the Times Two stack up:
The Washington Times:
Right-wing extremist: 86 uses
Left-wing extremist: 9 uses
The New York Times:
Right-wing extremist: 75 uses
Left-wing extremist: 9 uses
According to Sullivan’s brilliant technique, the WashTimes has slightly more liberal bias. Question: Where in the world—where on earth—did we ever come up with this dud?
COULTER (page 166): Despite the constant threat of the “religious right” in America, there is evidently no such thing as the “atheist left.” In a typical year, the New York Times refers to either “Christian conservatives” or the “religious right” almost two hundred times. But in a Lexis/Nexis search of the entire New York Times archives, the phrases “atheist liberals” or “the atheist left” do not appear once. Only deviations from the left-wing norm merit labels.In a footnote, Coulter extends her complaint. “In a one year period (roughly corresponding to calendar year 2000), the New York Times found occasion to mention either ‘Christian conservatives’ or the ‘religious right’ 187 times. Not once did the paper refer to ‘atheist liberals’ or ‘the atheist left.’” To Coulter, of course, this is all a sign of gruesome bias. She goes on to claim that the terms “religious right” and “Christian conservative” are now used “[j]ust as some people once spat out the term ‘Jew’ as an insult.”
It certainly makes for high excitement, but does it make any sense? Do newspapers use “Christian conservative” as an emblem of hatred, and avoid “atheist left” due to liberal bias? If so, we have big news to share. If Coulter’s NEXIS search has proven these things, then the once-conservative Washington Times is spilling with lib bias, too.
In the calendar year 2000, how often did the New York Times refer to “Christian conservatives” or the “religious right?” A NEXIS search of that year presents 182 references. But the Washington Times—a much slimmer paper—had 151 such cites that same year. And how about those other terms—“atheist liberals” or “the atheist left?” Incredibly, Coulter was right in one of her claims; the New York Times never used either term. But guess what? The Washington Times never used the terms, either. If Coulter has sniffed out a vast left-wing plot, Wes Pruden is in on it too.
Why do newspapers write about “Christian conservatives?” Because they exist, and because they’re important. And why don’t we read about the “atheist left?” Because the group doesn’t exist.
Let's now turn to "Type A" BS.
Here, Stanford Professor Geoffrey Nunberg's work at The American Prospect, which was done in the context of reviewing the fraudster Bernard Goldberg's book "Bias", is very useful to illustrate the point (bold text is my emphasis):
One response to the piece came from Bernard Goldberg himself, whose bestseller Bias has given wide circulation to the notion that the press define liberals as the mainstream by labeling conservatives far more than they do liberals. In an op-ed piece in the Miami Herald, Goldberg offers two numbers to prove his point about labeling. First, he says that a six-month search of The New York Times showed that the word "conservative" popped up in news stories 1,580 times; "liberal" only 802 times.
Well, but so what? Goldberg didn't bother to check how many of those instances of "conservative" and "liberal" were used as labels of American politicians or interest groups, much less to relativize those numbers to the occurrences of the names of each. For that matter, he didn't even try to screen out occurrences of "conservative" that referred to European political parties, business suits, or investment strategies, not to mention occurrences of "liberal" that referred to loan repayment terms and helpings of gravy. In short, these figures are utterly meaningless.
Goldberg's other number involves one of those specious comparisons that critics of liberal media bias are prone to. In this case, he points out that "the Los Angeles Times ran only 98 stories about the Concerned Women for America and identified the group as conservative 28 times. But The LA Times ran more than 1,000 stories on the National Organization for Women and labeled NOW liberal only seven times."
But that's meretricious, in every sense of the term. Concerned Women for America is a self-identified conservative Christian group (it opposes, among other things, abortion, homosexual adoption, hate-crime legislation, the AmeriCorps volunteer program, and the teaching of "ill-conceived Darwinian theory" in the schools). Whereas NOW makes a point of rejecting explicitly partisan labels -- the appropriate description of the group is "feminist." To insist on labeling it as "liberal" would be to assume that to be pro-choice makes you by definition a liberal, by which criterion Goldberg ought to be equally indignant that the press doesn't use the "liberal" label for Christine Todd Whitman or Tom Ridge.
Brent Bozell's column on my TAP article develops this strategy at length. Bozell claims that I ignored studies by the Media Research Center that show discrepancies in the labeling of what he takes to be conservative and liberal groups. For example, he says, newspaper stories on the Competitive Enterprise Institute included a conservative label 28 percent of the time, compared to less than one percent for the Sierra Club, and that Concerned Women for America is labeled far more often than Planned Parenthood.
But those comparisons are as transparently loaded as Goldberg's are. After all, the Sierra Club membership came close to adopting a resolution favoring immigration restriction a few years ago, and Planned Parenthood proudly points out that Peggy Goldwater was the founder of its Arizona chapter. To insist that the press describe these groups as liberal amounts to demanding that it adopt the lexicon of the right on a wholesale basis, like a baseball manager demanding that the team's own fans should determine the strike zone. Again, this one is for the bleachers.
It's notable that Bozell doesn't mention any figures for well-known groups like the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) or the Center for Justice, who fairly deserve to be labeled as liberal or progressive. As it happens, I did counts for a number of political organizations like these, and if I wanted to play Bozell's game I could point out that ADA and the Center for Justice are labeled far more often than conservative groups like the National Association of Scholars, the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, or the Competitive Enterprise Institute. But that would be misleading -- the fact is that there's a lot of unaccountable variation in the frequency of labeling of groups, with some groups on both sides, like the Heritage Foundation and ADA, being labeled far more than others.
Other responses to my study are worthy of more serious discussion. The blogger Edward Boyd went to the trouble of replicating a part of the study on the last six months of the Nexis "Major Papers" database (probably not the best period to pick, since the coverage of American politics has been decidedly atypical in the months following September 11). Boyd used the ten names that I used in my test set, and found that conservatives on average were labeled as "conservative" about fifteen percent more often than liberals were labeled as "liberal."
Not surprisingly, a few conservative bloggers trumpeted Boyd's results as having "refuted" my claims. But even if Boyd's results were valid, that conclusion wouldn't hold. What Goldberg argued, after all, was that there was a massive disproportion in the labeling of conservatives, which is not the same as a fifteen percent difference. Still, Boyd's result surprised me, since the American papers in the Nexis database are largely the same ones I looked at.
But there turns out to be a very big fly in Boyd's ointment. He himself points to the problem when he notes that the database he used contained some English-language foreign papers that might have skewed the results. In fact, fully 32 of the 80 papers in the database are foreign, ranging from the Sydney Telegraph to the Scotsman, the Tokyo Daily Yomuri, and The Jerusalem Post. And when I ran these searches in the Nexis "non-US news" database, which includes all of the foreign papers in the database that Boyd looked at, it turned out that foreign papers label American conservatives more than four times as often as they label liberals -- possibly because of their point of view, but more likely because "liberal" often has another meaning in foreign contexts and because American conservatives like Jesse Helms, John Ashcroft, and Trent Lott are much better known abroad than liberals like Barbara Boxer, Barney Frank, Tom Harkin, or Paul Wellstone.
That disparity introduces a strong tilt in favor of labeling conservatives into the overall data. In fact, when you correct Boyd's results for the relative disproportion of labels in the foreign papers in the database -- a matter of fairly simple math -- you find that the likely rate of labeling in the American papers in the database favors the labeling of liberals by an 18 percent margin. In short, Boyd's data confirm my own, or at least as best as one can make sense of such a small and noisy sample.
One other point worth mentioning is that Boyd did another search that included not just the labels "conservative" and "liberal," but also the labels "right wing" and "left wing," which increased the disparity in the labeling of conservatives to around 30 percent.
The bottomline though, as Nunberg and Somerby point out, is that these kind of word games are nonsensical and are of virtually no use in proving "bias", especially without context or controls. Moreover, as I emphasized in Part 1, any analysis that does not measure accuracy of the media coverage is really not measuring media bias at all. So, anyone who seriously purports to show "liberal bias" using such shoddy approaches (especially *only* such approaches) is a quack.