Thursday :: Apr 7, 2005

How the Liberal Media Myth is Created - Part 11


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), [the critic's] ignorance (Part 9), and opinions to distort straight news (Part 10).  This part covers attempts to claim liberal media bias using superficial fact checking.

One of the things I have pointed out in previous posts is that it is almost impossible to assess media bias without looking at the actual content of articles. Sometimes, conservatives review the content and claim media bias based on the contention that the article failed to mention something relevant and important. Let's look at a couple of such examples here.

Ryan at Dead Parrot Society catalogued a case which falls into this category. Blogger John Cole claimed (in a post titled "Halliburton- Not Guilty") that CNN Money, AP, Reuters and BBC failed to mention Dick Cheney's name when Halliburton was "exonerated" on a charge of overbilling for fuel costs, even though these same outlets mentioned Cheney's name in their news reports that originally alleged that Halliburton was overbilling the U.S. government. Ryan looked at the specific news reports cited by Cole and discovered that Cole's claims were incorrect in the case of all but one of the media outlets - because the rest had actually mentioned Dick Cheney's name in their reports. [A minor point. The only media outlet that Ryan had found, which did not cite Cheney in the "exoneration" piece is CNN Money. If you look at Cole's post, you see that he compares CNN Money (after the "exoneration") to a CNN piece (before the "exoneration"). So, the comparison is not quite one-to-one. But, this is trivial.]

Although Ryan showed that Cole's claim was largely without substance, there are additional aspects to the news reports that Ryan didn't look at, which make Cole's claims not just untenable, but possibly even opening up arguments for a reverse claim.

Firstly, Cole chose not to emphasize another important portion of the same news reports, where the real reason for the so-called "exoneration" was noted. For example, he cites this section of a Reuters report (bold text is my emphasis):

The U.S. Army said on Tuesday it had granted Halliburton (HAL.N: Quote, Profile, Research) a special waiver to bring fuel into Iraq under a no-bid deal with a Kuwaiti supplier despite a draft Pentagon audit that found evidence of overcharging for fuel.

as support for his starting claim that "...these latest stories that clear them of any wrongdoing..."

Now, if you read the WSJ article that formed the basis of the first news report that Cole cited (from CNN Money), you would have learnt something more about the meaning of this odd "waiver" (bold text is my emphasis):

In a previously undisclosed Dec. 19 ruling, the commander of the Corps, Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, cleared Halliburton's Kellogg Brown & Root subsidiary of the need to provide "any cost and pricing data" pertaining to a no-bid contract to deliver millions of gallons of gasoline from Kuwait to Iraq.

He acted after lower-level Army Corps officials concluded in a memo to him that Kellogg Brown & Root had provided enough data to show it had purchased the fuel and its delivery to Iraq at a "fair and reasonable price."
...
The timing of the Flowers ruling -- technically known as a "waiver" because it waives a requirement that the Halliburton unit provide data justifying its pricing -- is sure to draw scrutiny on Capitol Hill. The waiver came just a week after Pentagon officials confirmed that a draft audit found that KBR fuel overcharges ran to $61 million through the end of September. Under a running Army Corps contract, that sum increased by around $20 million a month through the end of last year, officials said.

The new statement from the Corps, the Army's civil-engineering arm that oversees and builds major construction projects here and abroad, exposes increasing friction between it and Pentagon auditors in charge of keeping tabs on Halliburton and other big Defense Department contractors.
...
Gen. Flowers signed the waiver nine days after officials at the Defense Contract Audit Agency, which keeps tabs on defense contractors, accused KBR of refusing to turn over internal documents that show the company was aware of accounting problems related to the alleged overcharging.

Halliburton officials said they requested the Army Corps grant them the waiver so they could continue to purchase gasoline without interruption. Spokeswoman Wendy Hall said in a written statement that "we needed the approval of the client to proceed in a streamlined procurement fashion."
...
Army Corps officials said Monday that the Flowers ruling was necessary to allow KBR to continue to deal with Altanmia at a time when the need for gasoline and kerosene in Iraq remains high. The process that led to the waiver, they said, began in early December when the Army Corps needed to increase the amount of gasoline coming in from Kuwait and KBR had to justify sticking with Altanmia instead of seeking a new supplier through a competitive bid.

Thus, Cole's claim was not only incorrect in the case of most media outlets, he did not address the fact that the "exoneration" was no real exoneration, but a waiver exempting Halliburton from actually justifying its pricing - which was what prompted the Pentagon audit to claim overbilling in the first place! It can therefore be argued that many of the media outlets were in fact kind to Halliburton (and by extension Cheney) by underplaying the fact that this was a "waiver" and by touting the "exoneration" instead. For example, the BBC "exoneration" article cited by Cole is highly biased in favor of Halliburton, by completely omitting ANY mention of the waiver. That is a gross distortion of the facts. [NOTE: The AP article, which was updated since Cole linked to it has a brief and confusing blurb: "A spokesman said Tuesday, however, that the corps had not completely exonerated Vice President Dick Cheney's former company of overcharging allegations." Again, this contradicts the entire premise of Cole's post about Halliburton being "Not Guilty".]

That's not all. Cole's post starts with a criticism of lefty bloggers:

I wonder if Oliver and Kevin will take the time to issue an apology to Halliburton, KB&R, Dick Cheney, and all of the good people who work for those vital corporations...

The fact that the "exoneration" was not a real exoneration indicates that Cole's requests for apologies were premature. Having said that, it's a pity Cole did not ask George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld to issue an apology too. Why?

Here is what Bush had claimed, originally (bold text is my emphasis):

A Pentagon audit confirmed that a Halliburton subsidiary - Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) - overcharged the department for some of its deliveries.
...
"If there is an overcharge, like we think there is, we expect that money to be repaid," President Bush said.

And here is what Rumsfeld had claimed, originally, clearly agreeing that there had been an overcharge (bold text is my emphasis):

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Friday he believed the Pentagon caught the overcharge in time to avoid paying the Halliburton subsidiary. There has not, "to my knowledge, been any overpayment," Rumsfeld said. "We've got auditors that crawl all over these things, and what you're reading about in the paper is not an overpayment at all," Rumsfeld said, responding to a question from the audience at a conference of state legislators. The discrepancies were uncovered in what was described as a routine audit.

What's more, the WSJ article that formed the basis of the first news report that Cole cited (from CNN Money), had a blatantly misleading statement favoring Halliburton (and by extension Dick Cheney):

...when news of the audit broke, President Bush said that if Halliburton had overcharged for the fuel, he expected the company to repay the money. [Emphasis mine. Thus, the news report did not not acknowledge the fact that Bush also stated, initially, that "we think there is" an overcharge.]

Bottom line? Cole missed the forest for the trees. He even got the trees mostly wrong. Rather than prove liberal bias, the articles were quite generous to Halliburton and could just as easily have been attributed to "conservative bias" because of their downplaying the "waiver".

Another example comes from Tim Lambert, who responded to a John Lott claim:

Counting stories about the Appalachian Law School shootings

After Lott claimed that biased news coverage of the shootings at the Appalachian School of Law deliberately omitted a defensive gun use, I did my own analysis of the news stories and found that the alleged bias was the product of Lott’s flawed counting methodology. Lott has posted a spreadsheet listing 295 articles he found on Nexis, and a file containing 249 of those articles. Some of those articles he does not count because they are duplicates. He asserts that the coverage was biased because only 3 out 218 stories mentioned that the attack was stopped by armed students. Some of the differences in our counts are because we used different sources for the articles (Factiva vs Nexis), so I’ll redo my analysis using the articles Lott posted. I’ll count things in the same way if possible to see why we get different results.

I indexed and categorized the articles and placed them here. Lott has not counted stories that are exact duplicates from his count, but if two versions of a story are slightly different he counts both of them. For example, he counts this and this as different stories, even though they are almost the same. In order to be as consistent as possible with Lott’s counts, I will count duplicates the same way as him in the analysis below.

After removing the stories Lott marks as duplicates, I am left with 198 articles. Of these, nine mention a defender’s gun. (Lott counted seven—he seems to have missed two of them.)

Next, I leave out stories about the funerals and students being released from hospital, leaving 124 stories stories that mention how Odighizuwa was apprehended,

Rex Bowman of the Richmond Times Dispatch wrote a story on January 17 that stated “fellow students tackled and subdued him”, and then on January 18 wrote another story that stated “Odighizuwa … was wrestled to the ground by fellow students, one of whom aimed his own revolver at Odighizuwa”. Obviously the reason why Bowman didn’t mention the gun on the 17th wasn’t because he was biased against guns, but because he hadn’t learned about it. The only stories that could potentially exhibit bias against guns are those that appeared on the 18th or later. There are 25 such stories. Some of these stories don’t have any bylines and appear to have just been rewritten from wire service accounts. If reporter’s biases are removing references to defender’s guns, then we need to look at the original stories and not the ones without bylines. That brings us down to 14 stories by eight different sets of authors. I’ll look at each of these authors to see if any show signs of bias.

...

My basic result does not change. There was only reporter whose account could possibly be construed as biased against guns. Lott makes it appear that there is bias by counting all the reports from the 17th and 16th when the reporters did not know about the defender’s gun, and also counting all the stories that were about completely different aspects of the shootings. [eRiposte emphasis]

The story doesn't end there, though. There was an important detail that Lott did not address (and sharp readers will probably know what that detail is, especially if you read the previous example :-)).

As Lambert pointed out (bold text is my emphasis):

Lott has a posting responding to my comments on his claims that the news coverage of the shootings at the Appalachian School of Law was biased. I wrote:

Unfortunately, Lott’s counting methodology is flawed, his count missed half of the stories that mentioned the armed students, his version of what happened deliberately omits important facts and omits contradictory accounts from other eye witnesses and his version contains details that appear to have been invented by Lott.

Lott has no answer at all to almost all of this, so he just responds to part of the criticism about his counting methodology. He once again deliberately omits mentioning Ted Besen’s contradictory account that strongly suggests that the guns were not used to stop the attack. He also carefully avoids mentioning or linking to my posting so that his readers won’t find out what Besen said. And remember that Lott is well aware that Besen and other witnesses say that Odighizuwa had dropped his gun before the armed off-duty policre officers arrived on the scene—he selectively quoted from Mathews’ article, he talked to Markus Funk who told him the same thing and now he is responding to my posting where I stressed the same fact.

It is hypocritical for Lott to accuse reporters of deliberately concealing facts while deliberately concealing facts himself. In a separate posting I redo my analysis using his set of articles and get the same results as before, but the most important thing to notice is the way Lott keeps avoiding mentioning that the “fact” of defensive gun use that he accuses the media of deliberately suppressing, actually isn’t a fact.

These are just two examples. The basic point is clear. Even when some critics allege "liberal media" bias by focusing on specific content in articles, their fact-checking is often weak, superficial and incorrect.

There is an important reason why I posted this particular installment of this series. It is very easy for journalists, media watchers and third party observers (including those in academia) to be taken in by seemingly meaningful criticisms like the ones shown above. It gives the appearance that the critic actually took the time to read the articles or search the articles for relevant content (rather than blindly use a "catch-phrase" search) and may lead the casual reader or observer to believe there is merit to the criticism, even though there isn't.

The lesson is simple, as I've stated a few times already. Is the article or report accurate? If you're not looking at that aspect and are still claiming bias, the chances that your claim is credible are very low.

P.S. Readers, if you are familiar with other such cases, feel free to leave a note in the comments.

 

eriposte :: 7:31 AM :: Comments (7) :: Spotlight :: Digg It!