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Not-So-Special Reports

The Media Research Center's "special reports" purporting to demonstrate liberal media bias have holes big enough to drive misleading claims through.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 11/20/2007

With a name like the Media Research Center, you'd think the place would be doing a lot of, you know, research.

What passes for "research" at the MRC, however, is all too often slanted analyses designed to support its mission of demonstrating that the media has a liberal bias. It appears that MRC researchers begin with the conclusion and then find evidence to support it.

ConWebWatch has detailed previous faulty MRC reports:

  • A 2003 report purported to grade the TV networks' performance during the first month of the Iraq war, but the criteria used identify "bad" coverage was subjectively chosen to comport with a conservative, pro-Bush agenda: "too little skepticism of enemy propaganda, too much mindless negativism about America’s military prospects, and a reluctance on the part of most networks to challenge the premises of the anti-war movement or expose its radical agenda." Another report issued before the war blasted ABC's war coverage for, among other things, "question(ing) the purity of the Bush administration’s ideological and economic motives for war" and "present(ing) a 'peace' movement that would resonate with Middle America" when "many protesters are not in the political 'mainstream.'" Of course, during the military action against Kosovo in 1999 under President Clinton, the MRC fretted that news coverage wasn't negative enough.
  • An April 2006 report by MRC TimesWatch director Clay Waters claimed that The New York Times "has used its seat more as a cheering section" for Hillary Clinton "than as a dispassionate perch for objective observation." But Waters' study is full of unsupported claims, opinions stated as facts and examples that provide dubious support at best to his central claim.

Several recent MRC "special reports" keep up this dubious level of research by using questionable and even doctored evidence to support their claims of bias.

"Meet the Real Katie Couric"

As ConWebWatch first detailed in October, in advance of Katie Couric's ascension to the anchor desk at the "CBS Evening News," an Aug. 29, 2006, report by Rich Noyes purported to document how Couric "pushed a liberal political agenda during her 15 years as co-host of NBC’s Today." One of report's signature claims, as promoted in a press release announcing the report was: "Deploring Ronald Reagan with insults such as 'The Gipper was an airhead!' " In the introduction to the report, Noyes expands this somewhat:

In 1999, Couric decided to begin the Today show by insulting Ronald Reagan: "Good morning. The Gipper was an airhead!" Two days later, the author of the Reagan biography she was supposedly summarizing told Couric she’d gotten it exactly backwards: "Oh, good God, no!" author Edmund Morris upbraided Couric. "He was a very bright man."

In the section of the report substantiating the claim, Noyes includes the original "airhead" quote, a snippet of an interview Couric did with Morris two days later in which Morris denied saying that, and a transcript from a 2002 Couric interview with Ann Coulter, headlined "Couric Re-Writes History," in which Couric takes offense to Coulter's description of the incident in her book "Slander." Noyes failed to note the context in which Couric made the "airhead" comment. As The Daily Howler's Bob Somerby reported:

Why did Couric say what she did? Because everyone thought it was true. Indeed, despite the picture painted in Slander, many conservatives were slamming Morris for what he had said about Ron.

Noyes' reporting of Morris's denial further obfuscated the fact that, as Somerby reported, many conservatives thought that about the book as well. From an Oct. 13, 1999 (a couple weeks after Couric's statement), Heritage Foundation online chat with Dinesh D'Souza, author of the hagiography "Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader":

Morris' book has been subject to an incredible public whipping. He has virtually no defenders. Even Morris's own reasons for using multiple fictitious characters and for calling Reagan an ignoramus and an apparent airhead sound hollow and ill-considered. When the dust has settled, Reagan will be seen as a great president.

Couric was hardly alone in interpreting that Morris' book called Reagan an "airhead." Yet Noyes left the false impression that a maliciously biased Couric came up with that on her own.

Noyes and Brent Baker followed up a year later with an Aug. 30 "Media Reality Check" by purporting to document Katie Couric's "liberal approach" to her first year of hosting the "CBS Evening News." But the evidence they provide is a bit thin -- only 12 examples over a year containing 200-plus half-hour programs. If the MRC could only find one a month, that's not a bad record. The MRC later appended a link to a Sept. 4 CyberAlert that tried to inflate that number by listing "about 30 of her most left-wing moments from the past year." One of those was an item describing how Couric praised Susan B. Anthony's fight for women to vote and noting that "now there are a record 90 women in this new Congress, including for the first time ever, the Speaker of the House." How is noting a historical fact "left-wing"?

Meanwhile, over the same period of time, the MRC's liberal counterpart, Media Matters, found 17 examples of "conservative misinformation" on the part of Couric and the CBS Evening News over the past year. That would seem to trump MRC's bias assertion.

"Rise and Shine on Democrats"

On Aug. 29, the MRC released a report by Noyes claiming that network morning shows have devoted more time to covering Democratic presidential candidates than to Republican candidates. But there are a couple of holes in MRC's methodology that misleadingly pump up Democratic numbers.

Related articles on ConWebWatch:

The MRC's War

At Home With A Crappy Study

The study asserted that "the networks also aired more stories about the never-declared candidacy of former Democratic Vice President Al Gore than the actual candidacies of Republicans [Mitt] Romney and [Rudy] Giuliani," noting that Gore "was a network guest eight times, getting more than 48 minutes of airtime," later citing its methodology behind it: "MRC analysts only counted interviews in which a potential Gore presidential campaign was discussed." But nowhere does the study note what we can likely surmise -- that much of the Gore coverage was centered around his global warming activism, specifically his promotion of the Live Earth concerts and his winning of an Oscar for "An Inconvenient Truth."

The study suggests as much, claiming that "Gore’s coverage consisted of praise for his work on behalf of a liberal global warming agenda" and alleged "open pitches for a Gore candidacy." Nowhere did the study note that Gore has repeatedly disavowed serious interest in running for president in 2008.

With this conflating of discussion of Gore's activism with with speculation about a presidential bid, it appears that if interviewers asked just a single question about, or even mentioned, the idea of Gore entering the race -- again, despite his repeatedly expressed lack of interest in doing so -- the MRC apparently counted the entire interview as coverage of a "Democratic presidential candidate." That's a stretch.

Tim Graham appears to concede a similar flaw in an Aug. 30 NewsBusters post, responding to criticism of the study by the morning shows themselves (reported by the Associated Press) that coverage of Elizabeth Edwards' cancer relapse was included in the total of coverage of John Edwards' campaign. Graham wrote:

It's a decent argument to suggest that Elizabeth Edwards interviews about her cancer shouldn't count as campaign coverage. But her interviews are often partially (or even barely) about her illness, and mostly about her husband's campaign, or her husband's squabbles with Ann Coulter. Elizabeth's cancer is a constant undercurrent in their campaign, as in suggesting they know how important universal health care would be -- because of her illness. But it doesn't dominate her interviews when she's been on.

Graham offered no evidence to support these claims, however. And it appears that any interview with Elizabeth Edwards, even if it focused on her cancer and had but a single question about the presidential race, was tallied toward John Edwards' total.

A Nov. 7 "Media Reality Check" by Noyes and Scott Whitlock similarly claimed that the morning shows "spent more time covering the Democratic race and spent far more time interviewing the Democratic candidates than the Republicans" appears to repeat the same doctored evidence. It didn't describe the criteria by which it decided what constituted "election coverage," suggesting that it once again counted entire stories about Gore's global warming activism or Elizabeth Edwards' cancer -- or other primarily tangental issues -- as campaign stories simply because a single question was asked about the election.

"Huffington's House of Horrors"

A report by Tim Graham posted Sept. 12 claimed that "official bloggers" at the Huffington Post, "many of them Hollywood celebrities," wrote posts that "often loaded with profanity and crude sexual and excretory metaphors."

But out of the tens of thousands of posts made on HuffPo over the past two years, Graham specifically cites just 19. Graham then claims: "These blogs may not be typical, but they are common." Since the report shows no evidence that Graham did any comprehensive statistical analysis of objectionable content in HuffPo blogs -- that is, comparing the number of posts with objectionable content to the total number of posts made on the site -- he has no factual basis upon which to that statement; he's merely expressing an opinion.

Graham makes his bias clear in his "study" by his disparaging smears of HuffPo's bloggers as an "all-star far-left cast of celebrity dilettantes," "celebrit[ies] toasted by the leftist elites" and "Arianna’s cast of hate-speech specialists." The unspoken suggestion is that conservtive blogs such as the MRC's own NewsBusters are somehow above such attacks and are written only by morally upstanding people.

Er, not quite. ConWebWatch has previously noted that NewsBusters has used writers such as Cinnamon Stillwell (who has expressed support for a terrorist who attempted to blow up a California mosque and the office of a congressman) and Dan Riehl (who used NewsBusters to make false allegations of racism); NewsBusters has also posted items written by Jeff Goldstein, a blogger with an unhealthy obsession with his own penis. In addition, NewsBusters writers have called Daily Kos posters "crypto-nazis," likened Hillary Clinton to North Korea's Kim Jong Il, and endorsed an attack on liberal-leaning MSNBC host Keith Olbermann in which he was called a "moron" and "hung like a thumbtack."

Further, NewsBusters -- as well as WorldNetDaily and NewsMax -- has accepted money to run ads by a company, Those Shirts, selling conservative-oriented T-shirts. One of the shirts being sold reads, "Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required." Does Graham find that more or less offensive than what he plucked out of HuffPo?

Unreal "Media Reality Checks"

The MRC also periodically issues so-called "Media Reality Checks" on various issues. But sometimes they demonstrate that what is in need of a reality check is the MRC.

-- A March 2, 2006, "Media Reality Check" by Graham attacked a CBS News poll showing record low job-approval ratings to President Bush by claiming:

As the blogosphere quickly discovered from CBS's online report, CBS "weighted" its sample to reflect an ideal cross-section of American adults. They adjusted the number of self-described Republicans up to 28 percent and Democrats down to 37 percent, and independents with the rest. That's hardly the exit-poll breakdown the networks found on Election Day 2004 (37 percent GOP, 37 percent Democrat, 26 percent independent).

In fact, the Democrat-Republican ratio of the CBS poll closely mirrored the general population of registered voters, as Republican strategist Rich Galen pointed out in a column the day before at MRC sister site Galen stated: "In the general population, those who claim to be Democrats outweigh those who claim to be Republicans by 7 to 9 percentage points." Graham also does not explain why a poll methodology based on registered voters is less valid or accurate than one based on likely voters or one based on the voter ratio of the last major election.

-- A Nov. 15, 2006, "Media Reality Check" by Noyes was little more than regurgitated Republican talking points -- not necessarily the equivalent of reality -- that described Rep. John Murtha's proposal for withdrawal from Iraq as a "cut-and-run prescription" and "defeatism." Nowhere did Noyes actually state what exactly Murtha's proposal was -- to withdraw troops at the "earliest practicable date" -- or explain how withdrawal at the "earliest practicable date" equals "cut and run." Noyes also noted that "Karl Rove criticized Murtha and John Kerry’s defeatism" treating defeatism as an uncontested fact (as did another reference to "Murtha's defeatist rhetoric") rather than as merely Rove's opinion.

-- In an attempt to tamp down the then-burgeoning scandal involving Republican Rep. Mark Foley and congressional pages, an Oct. 11, 2006, "Media Reality Check" by Graham compared news coverage of the Foley scandal with Democratic congressman Mel Reynolds' sex scandal more than a decade earlier, claiming that "Foley’s scandal is based on sex talk, while Reynolds not only had an active sex life with one teen, he was trying to add more teen sex partners." But Graham offered no evidence that 1) the teens Reynolds was involved with were under the supervision of Congress, as the congressional pages are, and 2) Reynolds' Democratic superiors in the House were aware of his behavior before the scandal broke and did nothing about it, as was apparently the case with Foley's Republican superiors.

-- In a June 11 "Media Reality Check," Noyes complained that network coverage of an immigration reform bill refused to parrot conservative talking points (not in so many words, of course). The offenses:

  • CBS "profiled an illegal immigrant working as a housekeeper." Apparently, treating immigrants as if they were human is not permitted in the MRC's conservative orthodoxy.
  • Reporters "matter-of-factly used the positive adjective 'reform' to describe the Senate bill, but only twice did reporters refer to it as 'amnesty.' " Noyes didn't mention that "amnesty" is a preferred right-wing term for the bill, or even explain why "amnesty" should be used "matter-of-factly" over "reform."
  • Noyes complained that 'Most reports (75%) uncritically described the bill as one that 'would toughen border security' " without explaining why it purportedly doesn't.
  • Noyes also complained that "The costs of illegal immigration were mentioned just twice," but in citing one accounting of those costs, a Heritage Foundation report estimating that the costs "could be more than $2.5 trillion over the next two decades," Noyes neglected to note that the Heritage Foundation is a conservative group that opposed the bill.

Noyes concluded: "The networks’ paltry coverage makes one wonder if they are still equipped to adequately cover big debates like immigration, or if that job has already been yielded to energetic talk radio." So, "energetic" is now a euphemism for "conservative bias"? 

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