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The Disconnect

A Media Research Center official insists that the media has a liberal bias, even as he admits that most news reports the MRC watches aren't biased.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 3/22/2006

On February 17, the Media Research Center's director of media analysis, Tim Graham, published a guest post on the CBS News Public Eye blog that answered "a few questions we are often asked" about the MRC. But it raises a few more questions about the MRC's methods.

In his post, Graham makes a surprising admission:

But the great majority of what we watch and read is not noticeably unfair or inaccurate. If we were asked the recent CBS poll question, "How often do the news media tell the truth," we would answer "most of the time."

This admission would seem to undermine the main foundation of the MRC's existence, that the media is liberal-liberal-liberal. Given the generally accepted view that a majority of journalists are liberal-leaning (which the MRC is all too happy to remind you of, with lots of graphs and pie charts and stuff), this would seem to indicate that even a senior staffer at the biggest promoter of the concept of liberal media bias believes that the great majority (to use Graham's term) of news reports are not tainted by those reporters' evil liberal views -- another MRC bedrock assumption.

Yet despite that admission, Graham goes on to make broad generalizations about the media. The most egregious one is implying that all journalists are as liberal and as activist as Bill Moyers and Danny Schechter:

The Danny Schechters of the world, weaned on sixties radicalism, have the network resumes. He’s worked at ABC, at CNN, and made documentaries and series for PBS. Most of us as young conservative journalists never considered sending a resume to these outlets.

But Graham offers no evidence that Schechter had liberal activism on his resume before working for a network nor any examples of "radicalism" Schechter engaged in while working there. Not only is Graham conflating news with the media in general (Schechter's "documentaries and series for PBS" may not have even been presented as news), he is playing guilt by association, insinuating that news organizations hire only liberal activists -- a claim that would appear to be irrelevant given his earlier claim that most of the news the MRC views is not biased.

This disconnect between spin and reality manifests itself on the MRC's websites in one main form: Lots of table-pounding about liberal media bias juxtaposed with an inability to admit that there are some journalists who have a conservative bias.

ConWebWatch previously documented how, in coverage of so-called partial birth abortion, networks that declined to use that term (a political term promoted by conservatives) were portrayed by the MRC as having an "agenda," while Fox News Channel -- which used the term without qualification -- was not tarred with the "agenda" tag.

Another example is the case of MSNBC host Chris Matthews. The MRC has long attacked Matthews as an unreformed liberal:

  • A Feb. 8 NewsBusters post by Noel Sheppard claimed that Matthews is a "San Francisco liberal" with an "ultra-left, San Francisco Chronicle columnist side."
  • The MRC's "Best Notable Quotables" competition for 2005 gave the "Crazy Chris Award for Chris Matthews' Left-Wing Lunacy."
  • A February 2005 "Media Reality Check" accused Matthews of exhibiting "liberal arrogance" on the Jeff Gannon scandal.
  • Another February 2005 "Media Reality Check" with the backhanded compliment that he "at least doesn’t deny that he brings his liberal opinions with him."
  • The MRC admonished in April 2004: "MSNBC should be running away from the idea that Matthews is any sort of journalist who confronts and challenges political leaders, at least if they are liberal."

But Media Matters (full disclosure: my employer) has caught Matthews saying and doing some less-than-liberal things:

  • Matthews stated that President Bush sometimes "glimmers" with a "kind of sunny nobility."
  • Matthews falsely accused Democrats of attacking Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito's Italian "ethnicity" by noting that Alito, while serving as a prosecutor, lost a case against accused mobsters.
  • Matthews lauded Bush as reminiscent of a heroic character in the novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" for his actions in the Dubai Ports World controversy: "He looks like he's a wise man now ... almost Atticus Finch."
  • A review of the guest list on Matthews' MSNBC show "Hardball" shows it to be skewed toward Republicans and conservatives.
  • Matthews proved to be an equal-opportunity non-confronter of political leaders, issuing no challenge to claims made by Rep. Tom DeLay in a "Hardball" appearance following his indictment on charges of campaign finance violations.

So, who's right? Is Matthews liberal or conservative? Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle -- that Matthews is inconsistent in who he attacks or praises and pretty much says whatever pops into his head. But will the MRC even admit the possibility that Matthews has some conservative tendencies? After all, that sorta puts the lie to the MRC's longtime insistence that Matthews is an unrepentant liberal.

Yet another example -- in the old-fashioned form of ignoring facts inconvenient to their point of view -- is a March 2 MRC "Media Reality Check" by Graham, which dishonestly attacked a CBS News poll showing record low job-approval ratings to President Bush:

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).

Graham never says what is wrong with a poll that reflects "an ideal cross-section of American adults" or why such a poll is any less valid that one that reflects the 2004 voter breakdown that he touts. In fact, he later calls the CBS poll sample "biased" despite the fact that elsewhere in the MRC universe, a March 1 column by Republican strategist Rich Galen backs up the poll's methodology:

CBS had a sample of 1,018 respondents which they weighted to reflect 28 percent Republicans; 37% Democrats; and 34% Independents. Not likely voters, but adults in the American population.

In the general population, those who claim to be Democrats outweigh those who claim to be Republicans by 7 to 9 percentage points.

Still, Graham was joined by fellow MRCers Brent Baker and Rich Noyes in attacking the CBS poll as "skewed," despite the statistically sound methodology.

But then, that's the kind of disconnect that allows Graham to claim that the media is hopelessly biased while, in the same breath, he admits it really isn't.

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