Wednesday :: Apr 6, 2005

How the Liberal Media Myth is Created - Part 10


by eriposte

This is a continuation of a series on how the "liberal media" myth is created. Previous installments covered myth-creation using "tone" of media coverage (Part 1), "catch-phrases" like 'right-wing extremist' v. 'left-wing extremist' (Part 2), "newspaper headlines" (Part 3), "topics" covered (Part 4), "think-tank" citations (Part 5), journalist ideology or voting preferences (Part 6), public opinion polls on media bias (Part 7), obvious, unintentional errors in news reports (Part 8), and [the critic's] ignorance (Part 9).  This part covers attempts to invent liberal media bias using opinions to distort straight news

Atrios recently mentioned an example of this type of myth propagation by Michelle Cottle of TNR (The New Republican - Atrios' term and an appropriate one). The sheer vacuity of her comments is self-evident:

Press Club Wankers

I was rather annoyed this weekend when Even the New Republican's Michelle Cottle let Howie Kurtz goad her into saying that the media was biased against Christian Conservatives because it was... get this... actually showing lots of images of the Schiavo protesters on TV. The exchange:
KURTZ: Well, some of them are now being resurrected by newspapers to show that this has happened before.

Michelle Cottle, has the press ridiculed, or maybe I should say marginalized, religious people who believed the Terri Schiavo must be kept alive as a matter of Christian morality?

MICHELLE COTTLE, THE NEW REPUBLIC EDITOR: Well, it's not that they get out there and make fun of them. It's just you come with a ready-made kind of visual here. You have people on the streets praying. They're (UNINTELLIGIBLE), you have very dramatic and even melodramatic protests and things like this.

These people are very easy to kind of just poke fun at without even saying anything. You just kind of show these people. And the majority of Americans who don't get out there and do this kind of, you know, really dramatic displays feel a little bit uncomfortable on that level.
So, here we have "the liberal" mocking these people while simultaneously saying the media was mocking them simply by putting them on TV. Lord knows how biased the media would have been had they not put them on TV. Heads I win tails you lose. [eRiposte emphasis]

As Bob Somerby at The Daily Howler has noted, Cottle's Millionaire Pundit Values got more absurdly moronic as she went on:

KURTZ: Let's broaden this to other religious-related issues: teaching of evolution in Kansas schools, a lot of coverage there, whether it should be required, whether creationism should be included; the Ten Commandments display in Alabama and elsewhere; even gay marriage in San Francisco. Isn't there some built-in media bias by the East Coast journalists toward those who have a different view of these matters?

COTTLE: I think there is. I mean, it's not that they—again, it's not that they say unpleasant things. But they do behave as though the people who believe these things are on the fringe, when actually the vast majority of the American public describes itself as Christian.

Cottle still hadn’t given any examples of the press corps’ troubling “behavior.” But as she continued, her commentary became even more puzzling:

COTTLE (continuing directly): You know, a huge percentage, somewhere between a third and a half, actually say that they believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. And another huge chunk would be uncomfortable with evolution being taught in the schools. And this—this is not what you find in the New York media.
Say what? It was still unclear what Cottle was saying, but her complaint began to seem bizarre. Should members of the New York media be “uncomfortable with evolution being taught in the schools?” Should members of the New York media “believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible?” [eRiposte emphasis]

Indeed, heh, let's extend Cottle's argument for her. If, hypothetically, 33% of the country believed the earth is flat, it would be "liberal media bias" if the media portrayed them neutrally. Cottle just earned a well-deserved nomination to the Society Of Flat Earth Wankers - SOFEW (actually SOMANY these days).

Of course, the more common perpetrators of liberal media myths are conservative columnists, bloggers or "media watch" organizations. Jesse at Pandagon has two good examples from the crackpot wankers at NRO.

Let's start with this one:

Instant Response, Instant Stupidity

Tim Graham:

The Washington Post also signals its liberal bias by putting Al Franken on the front page AGAIN. Howard Kurtz reports from the battle front: “the signal was elusive in Los Angeles, its San Francisco station didn’t materialize, and its Internet feed kept breaking off.” So how on Earth is this front-page news? (Maybe it’s because this tinhorn network with next to no affiliates has “less than 100 employees.” Losing money hand over fist, eh?) Tom Brokaw did a whole story on his show last night, saying talk radio “of course, is dominated by conservatives.” Perhaps we should all this as a tribute: they really, really hate the idea that there’s conservative talk radio to act as instant rebuttal to Dan, Tom, Peter, Katie, Diane, and Harry.

Kids, this is what happens when your intellectual movement is led by dope fiends and the hopelessly nepotistic. A new network with prominent names on a mission to balance out the politcal leanings of a prominent and important medium gets front-page coverage? Really?

If they covered it now, liberal bias. If they cover it when it's got a hundred affiliates and a thousand employees, liberal bias. If they cover it when it's failed, liberal bias. Anyone notice a pattern here?

(Out of curiousity - can you really judge whether or not a company is profitable or not after one day of official operation?)

But, yes. If the media covers the media, it's because they're liberal. Unless they hate the media...which is only defined as anyone who's liberal - one of the curious things about the whole allegation of liberal media bias is that the strong and growing openly conservative media just doesn't count.

Here's the other one:

...For instance, the madcap dash to root out liberal media bias.

A Madness-watching reader e-mails: "Does anyone out there besides me think that CBS, by airing the promo for the Clarke interview over and over and over again during the NCAA Tournament, is jumping on what they percieve to be a golden opportunity to plant in as many Middle American minds as possible the idea that Bush is a lying screw-up? Just a thought."

The sad part is, there probably are other people besides this nut.

If anyone can think of a reason that CBS would promote CBS shows during a heavily viewed CBS-aired event, you can e-mail K-Lo with your very interesting idea.

Since Iraq coverage has been a common complaint from the Right, let's review Kevin Drum's post at Calpundit where he dispensed with the "media bias" nonsense trotted out by the usual suspects (led by Instapundit) back in October 2003:

The most common angle is to look at the facts on the ground in Iraq, but that doesn't get you very far. The media generally reports that although some progress is being made, things are still pretty bad: people are getting killed, tensions are high, and troop morale is low.

Scoffers suggest that this is just media bias. Why, touring musicians and federal judges, having spent short times there under heavy guard, have returned to tell us that things aren't so bad! Iraqis are definitely better off than they were under Saddam.

This gets us nowhere. Media bias is generally the last refuge of a scoundrel who has no evidence of his own, but the fact is that I've never been to Iraq, the critics have never been to Iraq, and none of us would be qualified to assess the situation even if we did go there. So it's impossible to judge if the press is doing a good job.

Instead let's look at it from a different angle. Presumably the Bush administration does have some idea of how things are going in Iraq, so how have they reacted to events?

  • Before the war they expected to draw down troop levels to around 30,000 by now. This hasn't happened, so obviously events on the ground have turned out to be a lot worse than they originally expected.

  • In fact, as I mentioned last month, we've seen the following actions recently: (a) keeping the 3rd ID in country after scheduling them to return, (b) rotating officers and senior NCOs out of their units, (c) extending the tours of regular troops, and (d) extending the tours of reservists. Now apparently leaves are being shortened. These are risky moves, and the Army wouldn't be making them unless the reality on the ground continued to be grim.

  • The White House has shuffled responsibility for Iraqi reconstruction three times, first to Jay Garner, then to Jerry Bremer, and finally giving Condoleezza Rice a bigger role, the last move provoking a furious response from Donald Rumsfeld, who apparently learned about it via memo and media reports.

  • Last month Bush shocked everyone by requesting an additional $87 billion for Iraqi reconstruction. He wouldn't have requested a sum this large if he could have gotten by with less.

  • Finally, there's the UN. Regardless of what his apologists say now, it's pretty obvious that Bush didn't want to fight for another UN resolution. He wouldn't have done this unless he'd been convinced that he had no other choice.

...

But the Sunni triangle still seems to be a war zone, ambushes are taking place at an alarming rate, oil production is not ramping up very quickly, NGOs (and the UN) have pulled out because conditions are so unsafe, unemployment is over 50%, and Saddam is still loose. Compared to this, it's hard to take seriously the evidence of a few miscellaneous visitors who proclaim that everything looks safe to them while refusing to go anywhere without a heavy armed guard.

When you combine these facts on the ground with the fact that the administration isn't acting like things are going well, it's hard to be very optimistic...

Ryan at Dead Parrot Society highlights another aspect of news reports in this post - the fact that reports from war zones may evolve as more data comes in and may have nothing to do with bias:

The last time I brought this up, nothing much happened. But if the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results, call me crazy. Because the blogosphere is a critical part of making journalism get better, and I hate to see it chip away at its own credibility.

So let's take a look at this email printed at Instapundit today:

Two thoughts: One of the great things about blogs is bloggers work through the holidays, as opposed to newspapers and magazines, which recycle the year's news during the last week of the year to put together the inevitably boring "Year in Review" issue.

Second, a big media observation. Have you ever noticed that no matter how small the scale of the attack in Baghdad,the headline from the big media outlets will read something like "Huge Explosions Rock Baghdad" or "Baghdad Reels From Attacks"? I noticed an absurd example of this on the radio on Christmas Eve. My local ABC-radio affiliate interrupted regular programing to report that "huge explosions" had rocked the area near the Sheraton Hotel in Baghdad.

40 minutes later the end of the hour news update reported that an RPG had been fired at and missed the Sheraton, landing in the backyard. Big difference, huh?

If you don't mind, I'll start with the second observation, because the first one's just so silly. [eRiposte: Ryan is being overly generous and polite, as always. But, the contemptuous, ignorant, unmitigated horse*** about when journalists don't work, both from Instapundit's reader and from Instapundit - in his lame defense of the point in an "Update", after Virginia Postrel called the first observation "crock" - is a small but important reflection of their utter lack of credibility as media critics, which manifests itself time and again.]

It is entirely true that media reports sometimes use hyperbolic terms to describe attacks in Baghdad. If you are stridently anti-media, you probably assume this is because journalists hype everything, or because journalists will lie to make these attacks sound as bad as possible. Actually, you might assume both of these things.

If you are somewhat reasonable, you might consider that initial reports run the risk of being conflated because there's not much perspective available. Ideally these stories are clarified as soon as possible. In the example cited, this is precisely what happened. If you were on the scene of an RPG attack, you might well describe it to a reporter as a "huge explosion," too. And I wouldn't hold it against you if 40 minutes later your description was clarified to provide some perspective. This process of reporting, then revising upon further detail, is fairly common [eRiposte: This is a link to an Instapundit post where he links to (Dem) message board postings that are ridiculous and later "updates" that at least one of the posts is from a troll. This is not the first time Instapundit made accusatory posts based on something posted by a sock puppet or troll. Here's another example.] It's unfortunate, but not particularly unexpected or malicious.

Also, if you are somewhat reasonable, you might go to Google News and search on "baghdad explosion" before you accuse the media of always writing sensational headlines. Different story, yes, but you might find that even though bad headlines are great to poke fun at, straight headlines are the norm.

In doing these things, you wouldn't have to back away from your role as media critic. In fact, please don't, because journalism has plenty of real problems for you to help fix. But keeping your criticisms reasonable helps you hold onto your credibility.

OK, now back to that first observation by Glenn's reader: "One of the great things about blogs is bloggers work through the holidays, as opposed to newspapers and magazines, which recycle the year's news during the last week of the year to put together the inevitably boring 'Year in Review' issue."

I will avoid mentioning, at this point, how many Thanksgivings and Christmases and New Year's Days I've worked on the news desk, while a great majority of the public (including my own family) spent time at home. I will also avoid mentioning how many days of my vacation time I haven't been able to use because of short staff and a busy schedule during the past couple months. Because that's just me, and that's just anecdotal. Instead I will point back to Google News, where you can see exactly how little fresh work is being done this season by the news industry at large.

As for those bloggers who keep on updating through the holidays, I'm enjoying the fruits of their labor too. But I'm curious, with the media taking so much time off during the holidays, what exactly are they linking to? Since we're finding this criticism on Instapundit's site, we can take a quick peek at his last couple days of posting, as of mid-afternoon Pacific time Wednesday:

Total posts: 42. (wow!)
Posts that have no relation to recent media reports: 15. (Disagree with my methodology here if you like. I was looking for anything that didn't have a direct media link and didn't link to another blogger commenting on a media report. Among these 15 are links to techcentralstation columns, some interesting blogger reports direct from Iraq, and miscellaneous observations on food, books and other topics.)

... and just for fun ...

  • Posts linking to a blogger's "Year in Review"-style compilation: 1

One could go on and on....but I have to move on. So let me stop here, with links to a few more examples from among the reams of "media bias" garbage that gets accumulated daily in many right-wing blogs and websites:

  • The dependably egregious, crackpot pair - Power Line and Michelle Malkin - invent liberal bias on the NYT's coverage of the Pope's death, using "evidence" that, if anything, shows the opposite: see Michael at Ezra Klein's blog
  • Right-wing blogs expressing their trademark fake outrage over the memo from ABC's Mark Halperin that the media should report Bush and Kerry's claims objectively without resorting to a subjective, false "balance": see Mark Kleiman
  • Tim Graham at NRO attemps to paint a picture of bias over news coverage that is biased because.....it is not fawning over or neutral to Bush: see CJR Daily
  • The Media Research Center invents liberal bias on a Peter Jennings story: see Roger Ailes
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