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A Bad Case of Tunnel Vision

The Media Research Center blames "liberal media bias" for everything bad in the media -- declining Iraq war coverage, shrinking newspaper circulation -- even when there are other explanations that are more logical and easily demonstrable.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 7/8/2008

As psychologist Abraham Maslow once said, if the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.

The only tool the Media Research Center has is its theory of liberal media bias. Thus, as far as it's concerned, everything bad that happens regarding the media is a result of that purported bias, while everything good that happens is a result of somehow circumventing or overcoming it.

ConWebWatch has previously detailed how MRC research tends to work backwards -- rather than examining information to see where it goes, it starts with the hypothesis that the media has a liberal bias and looks for things to confirm that belief while ignoring things that don't.

That tunnel vision extends to its examination of Iraq war coverage. The MRC has long been critical of it, but of course that criticism is slanted and shaped to its biases -- its main problem being that it's insufficiently laudatory of the Bush administration.

While the MRC complained in 1999 that news coverage during the military action against Kosovo in 1999 under President Clinton wasn't negative enough, it had changed its tune by the time the Iraq war rolled around. A 2003 report purported to grade the TV networks' performance during the first month of the Iraq war, but as ConWebWatch noted at the time, 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 just before the war began 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.'"

A March 17 MRC "Media Reality Check" by Rich Noyes summed up the MRC's "research" on five years of Iraq war coverage by railing against "Five Years of Slant Against Iraq War Success":

Analysts at the Media Research Center have studied TV news coverage of the Iraq war from the beginning, even before the first bombs fell on Baghdad in March 2003. The record shows the networks have trumpeted bad news — setbacks for the U.S. coalition and allegations of misdeeds by American troops — while minimizing good news such as the success of the 2007 troop surge and acts of heroism by U.S. soldiers.

But nearly all of the 11 MRC studies Noyes cited are focused only on the broadcast networks or one specific network -- two focused only on ABC (one of those solely on ABC anchor Peter Jennings), two focused only on NBC (one solely on then-NBC reporter Peter Arnett). One study focused only on cable news coverage. None offered any sort of comprehensive look at all "TV news coverage of the Iraq war."

Why so little focus on cable news? Perhaps because it doesn't want to be put in the position of having to criticize conservative-friendly (not to mention MRC-friendly) Fox News. MRC, after all, has a history of running to Fox News' defense.

That lone cable news-focused MRC study of Iraq war coverage listed, issued in December 2006, was structured in such a way as to Fox News look good: It claimed that, unlike MSNBC and CNN, Fox News "was better able to balance the bad news with more optimistic news of U.S. achievements in Iraq," unashamedly rehashing Fox News' "fair and balanced" slogan. The study does not offer any evidence that news events in Iraq in the period of time studied warranted the "balance" that Fox News provided and the MRC lauded.

Another MRC study, issued Feb. 28, claimed that "[w]hen U.S. casualties began to steadily decline, TV coverage of Iraq dramatically decreased" on the TV networks. That study, like nearly all of the others, excluded cable news coverage, and it uncritically repeats Bush administration talking points claiming that "the President’s surge strategy is well on its way to succeeding."

That conclusion of that last study is one MRC spokesmen have repeated:

  • Brent Baker cited the study in a June 3 CyberAlert in bashing NBC for not reporting "how in May the fewest number U.S. servicemen were killed in Iraq in any month since the war began five years ago."
  • MRC chief Brent Bozell repeated the claim on the June 25 edition of Fox News' "Hannity & Colmes: "Countless studies have been done -- we've done studies on this, showing that as things got worse and worse, you had more and more coverage. But suddenly the surge came around and as the surge took off and was successful, the coverage went down."

But blaming a decline in war coverage solely on liberal bias ignores other documented reasons for it.

In the June/July issue of the American Journalism Review, Sherry Ricchiardi actually went out and talked to newspaper and TV news officials, something the MRC has shown no inclination to do:

Why the dramatic drop-off? Gatekeepers offer a variety of reasons, from the enormous danger for journalists on the ground in Iraq (see "Obstructed View," April/May 2007) to plunging newsroom budgets and shrinking news space. Competing megastories on the home front like the presidential primaries and the sagging economy figure into the equation. So does the exorbitant cost of keeping correspondents in Baghdad.

No one questioned the importance of a grueling war gone sour or the looming consequences for the United States and the Middle East. Instead, newsroom managers talked about the realities of life in a rapidly changing media market, including smaller newsholes and, for many, a laser-beam focus on local issues and events.

Ricchiardi found that, contrary to the MRC's suggestion that only Fox News is adequately covering the war, its war airtime is decreasing as well:

John Stack, Fox News Channel's vice president for newsgathering, has no qualms about allotting more airtime to the presidential campaign than to Iraq. "This is a very big story playing out on the screen every night... The time devoted to news is finite," Stack says. "It's a matter of shifting to another story of national interest."

Meanwhile, the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism's State of the News Media 2008 report found that the trend of declining coverage on Fox News is even worse than the MRC would ever admit: Fox News "spent less time on the war in Iraq" than CNN and MSNBC, and it was "more oriented to crime, celebrity and the media than its rivals."

The MRC would presumably also never mention Fox News' longtime hostility toward airing negative Iraq war coverage:

  • John Gibson claimed that those who criticized news channels for obsessive coverage of Anna Nicole Smith's death while minimizing Iraq war coverage (like Fox News) were suffering from "news-guy snobbery."
  • Bill O'Reilly, responding to a previous PEJ study with similar findings for Fox News, defended the lack of coverage of negative Iraq war news by asserting that it does not "highlight every terrorist attack because we learn nothing from that. And that's exactly what the terrorists want us to do." O'Reilly also asserted, without evidence, that "CNN and MSNBC are actually helping the terrorists by reporting useless explosions. ... I'm not gonna cover every bomb that goes off in Tikrit, because it's meaningless."

The MRC's narrow-mindedness (and sloppiness) extends to other media issues. A June report by the MRC and its Culture and Media Institute purported to argue against a return of the Fairness Doctrine by claiming it's a myth that, among other things, "major corporations are muzzling liberal opinion on the radio, so Americans are not hearing both sides of issues." But it failed to offer any real evidence to support the assertion.

The report countered claims about the dominance of conservatives on talk radio by asserting that "Public radio offers consistently liberal news/talk programming produced by four separate networks." The report offered no evidence that public radio is "consistently liberal," even though it's not shy about footnoting things (there are 54). It similarly insisted that "every major broadcasting network leans to the left," and that "No major conservative-leaning broadcast television network exists," also without offering any evidence to back it up. It also claimed that CNN, CNN Headline News and MSNBC are "liberal-leaning" (again, ,without evidence); surprisingly, it does state that Fox News is "conservative-leaning," contrary to the MRC's longtime efforts to pretend otherwise.

It further claims that the "weekly news magazine medium," as represented by Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report, "is composed exclusively of liberal-leaning sources." That's unsupported as well -- in fact, it's wrong. U.S. News has historically tilted conservative, and doesn't noted conservative George Will have a column at Newsweek?

Regarding newspapers, the report claimed:

America’s leading newspapers overwhelmingly tilt to the left. Twenty-one of the 25 newspapers with the highest daily circulation lean liberal, three lean conservative, and one paper fits in neither category. The paper with the second greatest circulation, The Wall Street Journal, has a famously conservative editorial page, but the Journal’s news pages are among the nation’s most liberal, so we list the WSJ as “mixed.”

Once again, no evidence is provided to back up these assertions of newspapers' political "tilt." Indeed, evidence shows the report's classifications of the "tilt" of the top 25 papers is not accurate at all:

  • The Washington Post is described as "liberal" even though it shares numerous editorial positions with the admittedly conservative Wall Street Journal.
  • The Orange County Register is described as "conservative" even though it considers itself to be libertarian.
  • The San Diego Union-Tribune is described as "conservative" for reasons known only to the report's authors. The Union-Tribune was the paper that broke the story of the corruption scandal involving Republican congressman Duke Cunningham, which would suggest that perhaps it's not.

Yet another issue in which the MRC's tunnel vision surfaces is the current state of the newspaper industry -- declining circulation, falling profits. While pretty much every other industry observer understands that the turmoil is the result of a paradigm shift from print to online and the growing commoditization of news, the MRC's writers blame it all on, yes, liberal bias:

  • A June 21, 2006, NewsBusters post by Mithridate Ombud offered the following: "Here's a suggestion for all you newspaper VP's. Why don't you get rid of the bias, the America-hating columnists, the socialist editorials, and the reporters pushing a gay/lesbian/transgendered/illegal alien/pro-abortion/anti-God/anti-gun agenda? Ever thought of that in one of your falling circulation meetings? No. Probably not." Ombud added in a Nov. 19, 2007 post: "The reason these bastions of liberal thought are failing is that the Internet age has made their bias apparent to people who, thanks to the Internet age, now have other places to get the news."
  • Tom Blumer asserted in a Nov. 1, 2007, NewsBusters post: "Readers, and investors, might be more impressed if they thought the papers were giving even a reasonable effort at being fair and balanced." He added in a Nov. 8, 2007 post: "Please don't tell me that bias, errors of omission, and errors of commission have nothing to do with the steep declines." Blumer followed up with a June 23, 2008, post claiming: "Geez, even an investment analyst won't talk about the media-bias and media-incompetence elephants in the room."
  • In an Oct. 14, 2006, NewsBusters post, Matthew Sheffield admonished the Los Angeles Times: "Put the kibosh on the left-wing bias." In an April 30, 2007, post, he wrote, "Let's imagine for a moment now what types of stories we'd be hearing about these bad numbers if liberal journalists applied the same standards to themselves as they do to Republican presidents." (Though he does concede that "I don't think that liberal bias is the sole reason for these drops.") In a Feb. 9 post, Sheffield claimed that "The non-stop bias when things weren't going well there [in Iraq] and news blackout now that things are going much better is a sad testament to this fact" of newspaper woes.

And so we go full circle. "Liberal bias" is the MRC's only tool, so its writers whip it out again and again for use on anything that could possibly be interpreted as a nail. Real media research involves considering all possibilities,not just one.

We hear Home Depot has good deals on full sets of tools. The MRC might want to send an intern over there sometime to check it out.

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