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Not-So-Special Reports, Part 2

The Media Research Center keeps up its record of reports that reflect its right-wing agenda more than any genuine media research.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 8/17/2011

The Media Research Center has a long record of issuing studies of purported media bias based on such egregiously flawed samples that they are essentially useless as anything other than right-wing propaganda. Indeed, ConWebWatch compiled some of those flawed studies in 2007.

The MRC's research methods, if you can call them that, haven't changed since then -- they're still skewed toward generating right-wing talking points over anything that might appear in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal.

Let's take a look at some recent MRC studies and how they went wrong.

"Cheerleaders for the Revolution"

In May 2009, the MRC released a report claiming that network news programs have "failed as watchdogs, raising few doubts about Obama’s agenda and showering every major policy initiative with positive press," asserting that "The networks lavished good press on every major initiative of the early Obama administration, including the massive stimulus package, all of the various bailouts, health care, stem cells, the environment and foreign policy."

That conflicted with the findings of a Center for Media and Public Affairs study released at about the same time stating that while Obama has received "better press than his immediate predecessors," it "hasn’t precluded heavy criticism of his policies" -- "On the broadcast networks fewer than two out of five evaluative soundbites (39%) praised his policies and proposals."

While CMPA's study evaluated only the first 50 days of Obama's presidency and the MRC evaluated the first 100 days, it's unlikely that CMPA's 61 percent negative critiques by networks of Obama's policies somehow morphed into the MRC's "lavished good press."

Since MRC studies tend to be tainted by its right-wing bias, it's no surprise that it occurred here as well. Much of the report appears to be complaining that the networks didn't unquestioningly repeat right-wing talking points. From the executive summary:

Obama's first 100 days were defined by massive spending, aggressive intervention in the private sector and proposals for a huge expansion of the federal government. Yet none of the networks aired a single story on whether Obama’s policies were pushing the U.S. toward socialism, and no reporter used the term “socialist” to describe Obama.

Not only that, network reporters never used the word “liberal” to describe either Barack Obama or his agenda during the first 100 days.

MRC also claimed that "The networks applauded Obama’s decision to use taxpayer money to fund embryo-destroying stem cell research (82% positive coverage)." By contrast, CMPA noted that "praise for his health care proposals and new stem cell research policy brought balanced coverage overall (50% positive)."

Somebody's not correct here; odds are it's the MRC.

The MRC goes on to criticize the networks for merely reporting facts that it would rather not see reported. For instance, the report notes: "On the February 14 CBS Evening News, correspondent Barry Petersen asserted that the Japanese economy failed to rebound in the 1990s because the Japanese stopped their massive spending program too soon -- and that the U.S. should brace for even greater government spending than the $787 billion stimulus bill." The MRC doesn't dispute the claim, which numerous economists agree with; it attacks CBS for reporting it in the first place.

Reporting inconvenient facts and refusing to regurgitate right-wing talking points does not constitute "bias" -- something the MRC doesn't seem to understand.

"Media Coverage of the 9/12 Protests: A Report Card"

After the 9/12 anti-Obama protests in 2009, the MRC's Rich Noyes issued a "report card" of how major media outlets covered it. But Noyes' analysis is curiously incomplete.

For instance, Noyes noted the performance of only one newspaper, the New York Times, which "buried the protests on page A37 of Sunday’s paper." Noyes didn't mention what the Washington Post did -- perhaps because it broke the MRC's liberal-bias template by putting the protest on the front page. (Not that fellow MRC employee Tim Graham was satisfied with it, of course; he found a way to complain that even that prominent placement was insufficient because "the April 2006 rally promoting amnesty for illegal aliens" received much more thorough coverage. Graham ignored that that protest was much larger both in Washington and across the country.)

Noyes didn't do any relevant comparison, complaining only that the Times' "932-word story [on the protest] was only slightly longer than the 724-word story the paper granted back in March to an ACORN protest with only 40 participants." But that protest was in the New York metro area and thus more directly relevant to its core readers than a larger protest outside of New York.

A more direct comparison would be to a similarly sized 2002 anti-war protest. As Media Matters noted, while the Times published a photo of the anti-Obama protest in its front page -- something Noyes failed to mention -- it did not do so for the anti-war protest; the articles for both protests were inside the A section.

Noyes also downplayed the extent to which Fox News fawned over the protest. He wrote: "By far, Fox News offered the most detailed coverage, with a two-hour midday program on Saturday plus regular updates throughout the day, and FNC stuck to presenting the protesters’ point of view, not denigrating them."

Noyes failed to note that Fox News did a lot more than present the protesters' point of view -- it promoted the bejeezus out of the protest, to the point where it was an essentially an unofficial sponsor. That's some serious straying over the line from news into advocacy, but it earned Fox News an "A" for coverage from Noyes.

Hilariously, Noyes downgraded Fox News' rating on tone of coverage to an"A-" apparently for a single comment by Geraldo Rivera that Noyes called a "sour note." Apparently, balanced coverage of conservatives is not what Noyes and and his MRC buddies want -- nothing less than completely positive, sycophantic coverage will do.

"Rush to Ruin: the Left's Character Assassination Campaign Against Rush Limbaugh"

An October 2009 MRC report by Tim Graham on "the Left's Character Assassination Campaign Against Rush Limbaugh" is more significant for what it omits than for what it includes.

The errors of omission start at the beginning, with a quote from P.J. O'Rourke that "It’s the twilight of the radio loudmouth, you know? I knew it from the moment the fat guy ... refused to share his drugs." Nowhere is it mentioned that O'Rourke is a libertarian conservative.

Graham goes on to highlight how Limbaugh's statement that "We are being told that we have to hope Obama succeeds, that we have to bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever, because his father was black, because this was the first black President" caused the "media establishment" to "denounce Limbaugh and demanded that Republicans distance themselves from his claims." As the MRC has before, Graham gives Limbaugh a pass on the sexual crudity of Limbaugh's remark, just one of many references to anal sex by Limbaugh that Graham and his MRC buddies don't find offensive, though references to anal sex by other entertainers are routinely denounced.

Graham complains how Limbaugh has been subject to "vicious personal attacks" by various people in the media. But the MRC has a long history of personal attacks on President Clinton in the form of sex jokes.

Graham also engages in irrelevant evidence on another claim, calling it unfair that Limbaugh was criticized as racist for his 2003 statement regarding Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb that "The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback can do well" and insisting that there was "plenty of evidence of liberal sports columnists 'desirous' of black advancement in the NFL (New York Times columnist Selena Roberts complained the NFL was 'white as baking soda')." But a single example making a general claim about blacks in the NFL -- which, as excerpted, does not demonstrate support for the claim -- hardly constitutes "plenty of evidence." As ConWebWatch detailed back then, the MRC couldn't back up Limbaugh in 2003, either.

Graham stuck to the Limbaugh party line in defending him over his 2007 statement that he appeared to call soldiers who called for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq "phony soldiers." Graham wrote:

Less than two minutes after that exchange, Limbaugh elaborated on what he had meant, explaining exactly who he was thinking about when he offered the term: Jesse Macbeth, a left-wing hero on YouTube for describing the horrors he’d seen American troops commit – but was then charged and convicted of falsifying a military record and falsely applying for veterans’ benefits. He’d never served overseas, and was dismissed from boot camp. ABC’s Brian Ross had done a story several nights earlier, and called Macbeth a “phony soldier.”

The left and Democrats in Congress then mangled Limbaugh’s comments to claim he had said that any servicemen or women who might oppose the war in Iraq in public had been defamed by the talk show host as “phony soldiers.” They typically made no reference to the actual “phony soldiers” Limbaugh was talking about.

In fact, it was not at all clear that Limbaugh was referring to MacBeth at the time he said the remark. As Media Matters documented, Limbaugh had not mentioned MacBeth at all on that day's show before he made the "phony soldiers" remark, and then did not specifically reference MacBeth until 1 minute and 50 seconds later. Limbaugh did not call MacBeth a "phony soldier" at that point either; rather, he berated the media for not checking out his story.

Given that Graham's report came out in the midst of Limbaugh's failed attempt to buy a piece of the St. Louis Rams, Graham complained that some media outlets attributed racially insensitive statements to Limbaugh that have since proven to be unverified or fabricated. Unsurprisingly, Graham didn't mention that there are numerous other examples -- fully documented -- of racially charged statements by Limbaugh.

"The Real Radio Hatemongers"

In August 2010, the MRC issued a report by Rich Noyes asserting that liberal radio hosts are "The Real Radio Hatemongers," as opposed to conservative radio hosts. Of course, the MRC has to overlook a few things to reach that conclusion.

First, Noyes complained:

For two decades, conservative radio hosts have been under assault from the establishment media as mean-spirited, divisive and a menace to civil discourse. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Bryant Gumbel smarmily insinuated that conservative broadcasters were the real villains: “Never do most of the radio hosts encourage outright violence, but the extent to which their attitudes may embolden and encourage some extremists has clearly become an issue.” Then-CBS anchor Dan Rather smeared: “You can turn on your radio in any city and still dial up hate talk: extremist, racist and violent rhetoric, from the hosts and those who call in.”

A dozen years later, ex-NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw was still hammering away: “The problem with talk radio is they mock anyone else’s point of view, and they do it often in a mindless fashion....We’ve lost the ability to have civil discourse in America, and it’s a big cancer on our political system as well.”

When conservative hosts say something that liberals want to paint as out of bounds — or when the Left falsifies quotes to impugn them — the news media seize the opportunity to stoke the fires of outrage. Journalists also have no problem heaping epithets on individual hosts. Sean Hannity is a “conservative junkyard dog,” according to CBS’s Morley Safer. Mark Levin is an “angry voice” speaking to “the wingnuts,” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews claimed. Time’s Joe Klein blasted both Hannity and Glenn Beck as “poisonous helium balloons” who peddle “hateful crap.” When radio host Bill Cunningham dared call then-presidential candidate Barack Hussein Obama by his full name in 2008, CNN’s Anderson Cooper branded it “sleazy campaigning” from “a two-bit radio host.”

Missing from Noyes' report is any attempt to disprove those criticisms, or even any specific quote from those conservative hosts. Noyes continues:

Yet the “news” media that have gone out of their way to demonize conservative hosts have had virtually nothing to say about the vile and vicious rhetoric that spills forth from the Left’s leading radio talk show hosts. MSNBC even gave Ed Schultz his own program in 2009, bringing his extremist rhetoric to an even wider audience.

And liberals like Bill Press don’t seem at all bothered by the vitriol emanating from his side of the airwaves. In the acknowledgments of Toxic Talk, Press went out of his way to praise his liberal comrades: “There may not be many national progressive talk show hosts, but the few who do broadcast every day are world-class. I’m proud to be in the company of Ed Schultz, Stephanie Miller, Thom Hartmann, Randi Rhodes, Ron Reagan, and Mike Malloy — and I’m in awe of their strong voices on the air.”

But the MRC has done the exact same thing -- demonize liberal hosts while giving conservative hosts a pass for their offensive words. As ConWebWatch has detailed, the MRC -- despite its own self-proclaimed anti-obsenity agenda -- couldn't get worked up about Rush Limbaugh's repeated references to anal sex on his show.

Further, Noyes is lacking a sense of proportion: none of the liberal hosts the MRC is attacking has anywhere near the audience or corporate promotional backing of the top right-wing hosts. The highest-rated hosts targeted by the MRC -- Ed Schultz and Thom Hartmann -- have only one-sixth the audience of the top right-wing talker, Rush Limbaugh. Their syndicator, Dial Global, has a much smaller presence than Premiere Radio Networks, the syndicator of the top three radio hosts, Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. The report's biggest target, Mike Malloy, self-syndicates his show (and is not even listed among the top 30 or so highest-rated hosts).

The MRC seems to have overlooked that the reason liberal talkers get so little attention in the media is because their audiences are small. That, coupled with the MRC's refusal to hold conservatives accountable for their words -- or even to acknowledge that they make controversial remarks too -- shows that this report is too hypocritical to be taken seriously.

"CNN Claims 'No Favorites,' But New MRC Data Documents Its Liberal Skew"

A November 2010 MRC item by Rich Noyes stated:

MRC analysts reviewed all of the guests and commentators on CNN’s primetime weekday programs from October 4 through October 29, the last four full weeks before the November 2 elections. Guests were grouped into three categories: “Democrat/liberal,” “Republican/conservative,” and “Other.” The latter category included all non-political guests, as well as guests who were not associated with a clear political point of view.

The results show that liberal guests outnumbered conservatives by a more than three-to-two margin, 61% to 39%. Our analysts found 88 “Democrat/liberal” guests to just 56 “Republican/conservative” guests. All three of the network’s primetime programs — Parker Spitzer, Larry King Live, and Anderson Cooper 360 — featured more liberals than conservatives among their politically-affiliated guests.

To be clear, CNN offered opportunities for conservatives and Republicans to speak during the crucial final weeks of the campaign. But as for not “playing favorites,” the data show the networks provided clear advantage for liberals.

But Noyes curiously didn't post the list it compiled of the guests and the ideological tags the MRC put on them. It wasn't until Politico contacted it that the MRC released its list -- thus exposing its inherent flaw. From Politico:

CNN took issue with MRC’s methodology.

“Simply using partisan labels on guests who are not even talking about politics is not helpful to the national discourse,” said Barbara Levin, vice president of media relations at CNN. “And counting a newsmaker/headliner guest who gets twice the airtime as a roundtable guest, distorts the true overall picture. As our promo says, CNN doesn’t play favorites and is proud to be the only cable news network without partisan primetime programs.”

Several of the people listed as “Democrat/liberal” in study, such a Wanda Sykes, Kathy Griffin and Sean Penn, were on the air talking about non-political topics, such as bullying and the disaster in Haiti.

And CNN’s booking a liberal guest did not always pan out well for liberals. NAACP President Ben Jealous, for example, showed up on the “Democrat/liberal” side of MRC’s list, but the interview he did with Anderson Cooper – in which Cooper challenged the NAACP’s report pointing to racism within the tea party – ended up being celebrated in the conservative blogosphere the next day.

Noyes responded to Politico, admitting that the MRC focused only on perceived ideology, not the content of the appearance:

“If a guest (such as The Nation's Ari Melber) comes from a strong ideological perspective, we did not parse each interview,” he said. “National Review's Will Cain sometimes talked about non-political issues on Parker Spitzer, but he was consistently labeled as "conservative/Republican."

He also responded to the charge that weighing each guest equally, regardless of how long they were on, distorts the picture.

“We did not weigh interview length, but just tallied guests," he said. "Given the lengthy amount of time given to liberals like Michael Moore on Larry King Live (October 13), it is our belief that timing each interview would have exacerbated the disparity, not reduced it.”

Noyes also added a comment to the Politico article:

FYI, the guests CNN claims were really nonpartisan made liberal points. For example, Kathy Griffin on LKL, talking about bullying, unleashed against conservatives: I think that the way that we had trickle-down economics in the 80s, this is trickle down homophobia. And I really want people to connect the dots. And that's why I believe there's a connection between Prop 8, Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and now the string of teen suicides. It's almost sanctioned to bully gay people and treat them as second-class citizens. That's why we classified her as a liberal.

Because only liberals oppose bullying of gay teens, apparently.

The MRC also listed other dubious ideology choices; for instance, it labeled Jesse Ventura a "Democrat/Liberal." Really? the guy who thinks (along with MRC employee Noel Sheppard) that global warming is a conspiracy is a "liberal"?

"Christmas Without Christ"

The MRC's Culture & Media Institute spent many, many man-hours to compile this study finding in December 2010:

2,000 years ago, there was no room for Mary and Joseph at the inn in Bethlehem. Fittingly enough, in the past two years, there was no room for their baby at the network evening news shows. Every year, millions of Americans celebrate the most important Christian holiday by reflecting upon the significance of the birth of Christ. Families attend church, count blessings and exchange gifts, and yet the evening news broadcasts for ABC, CBS and NBC almost completely ignored these religious traditions by leaving Christ and God out of Christmas.

Two years of Christmas coverage on three networks produced a scant 1.3 percent of stories mentioning the deity. The true message of Christmas, the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ, has simply been ignored by the mainstream media.

The big three networks ran 527 stories about Christmas in their nightly news broadcasts, but a mere seven of those stories mentioned God or the birth of Jesus Christ. ABC's "World News," "CBS Evening News," and "NBC Nightly News" all thoroughly covered Christmas, but 98.7 percent of the Christmas references highlighted the holiday's impact on the economy, weather, travel, retail sales, the passage of the Senate health care bill and its other less religious connotations.

Of course, Christmas is a secular holiday as well as a religious one, something that seems to have escaped the supposedly eagle-eyed MRC researchers. Instead, CMI's Erin Brown seems to think this secular aspect is a media conspiracy to avoid talking about religion:

Falling as it does at the end of the calendar year when businesses and governments scramble to show a profit or claim accomplishments, and given the demand it creates for often chancy travel during winter, Christmas offers plenty of excuses the media to talk about anything but its religious dimension.

It is no secret that Christmas gift sales and their impact on the U.S. economy, garners huge press coverage every December. But when the focus on the holiday's impact on retailers becomes all that Christmas is good for, the original message of Christ's birth is completely lost.

Brown goes on to make irrelevant comparisons:

On the Aug. 14, 2010, broadcast of the "CBS Evening News," Jeff Glor dedicated 327 words to the possible addition of table tennis to the Olympics in 2012. That's more words devoted to ping pong than were devoted to God during all of the Christmas coverage in two years of broadcasts.

Plainly, to the networks, Christmas means travel delays and spikes in sales for retailers hoping to see profits in the black. Christmas means arbitrary congressional deadlines and general placeholders for timelines. Christmas means that a sexy Santa can get away with toeing that naughty line in order to attract buyers to his store.

On ABC, CBS and NBC, Christmas means everything except the birth of Christ.

Finally, Brown serves up her recommendation to jam religion into everything Christmas-related:

The Culture and Media Institute recommends that ABC, CBS and NBC not show bias against Christians by glossing over one of their most important holidays. If there are more than 300 million Americans, and 80 percent claim to be Christians, than the networks are slighting an important holiday for more than 24 million people.

CMI recommends that the networks:
  • Recognize the lack recognition given to Christ during the Christmas season.
  • Include more discussion about the birth of Christ and what it means to 80 percent of Americans.
  • Interview Christians, Catholics, pastors, church leaders, authors, musicians and others who celebrate the Christmas every year by remembering its true meaning.

This study, like so many other MRC studies, focuses only on the broadcast networks. There's no mention of conservative Fox News, whose Christmas coverage would likely reflect that of the networks.

"Supremely Slanted"

A 2010 report by Clay Waters, "Supremely Slanted," claimed to find "stark differences" in how the New York Times "reported on the four [Supreme Court] Justices nominated by Democrats versus the three nominated by Republicans." But in covering how the Times treated the two justices nominated by President Obama, Waters presents misleading right-wing talking points as fact.

In the section on Sotomayor, Waters took her statement that a "wise Latina woman ... would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male" out of context, asserting that Sotomayor was "not shy about opining on the superiority of 'wise Latinas' over old white men." In fact, Sotomayor she was specifically discussing the importance of judicial diversity in determining race and sex discrimination cases, and she noted immediately after saying those words the challenge to her as a judge "to be greater than the sum total of my experiences," and "continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate." Further, conservative justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas similarly noted the importance of their backgrounds in shaping their judicial thinking.

Waters also misled about Elena Kagan, asserting that she "banned the military from recruiting at Harvard Law School in reaction to the ban on openly gay soldiers" and that she has demonstrated "activism against military recruitment." In fact, the military was banned only from using on-campus facilities; students were free to meet with recruiters in other ways. Waters' suggestion that Kagan despises the military is belied by her record of repeatedly praising military service, most notably during a speech at West Point.

"Rewriting Ronald Reagan"

An early 2011 report by Brent Baker, Tim Graham and Rich Noyes marked the centennial of Ronald Reagan's birth by purporting to document "most biased takes on President Reagan, his record and his times," but it repeated one favorite MRC canard: that Katie Couric called Reagan an "airhead." The report added that Reagan biographer Edmund Morris "actually wrote that President Reagan was 'an apparent airhead.' He told Couric, 'He was a very bright man.'"

As ConWebWatch noted the last time the MRC claimed this, Couric was accurately reporting the advance buzz around the book, and many conservatives thought the book made that claim as well. The interview with Morris to which the report refers took place two days after Couric made that statement, not immediately after as the report suggests.

"Weinergate: The Story the Networks Never Liked"

A June 22 Media Research Center "Media Reality Check" by Tim Graham purported to compare coverage of the Anthony Weiner scandal with that of the 2006 scandal involving Republican congressman Mark Foley. Graham declared that "the networks did not attack" the Weiner scandal, while they exhibited "a real feeding frenzy" in the Foley case; Graham asserted that such disparate treatment "underline[s] how politicians know the media is liberal."

But Graham made no mention of one key factor in the initial lack of coverage of Weiner: the lack of credibility in the outlet breaking the story, Andrew Breitbart's network of websites.

Breitbart's embrace of James O'Keefe's deceptively edited ACORN videos and another deceptively edited video in the Shirley Sherrod case made it clear that Breitbart put partisan hackery ahead of the truth. Given that Breitbart has declared war on the "Democrat-media complex," and Weiner was a forceful advocate for liberal views who appeared frequently on TV, there was no reason not to assume that Breitbart's attacks on Weiner was anything other than politically motivated and, therefore, suspect. Breitbart's later declaration that he "loved every second of" Weiner's downfall negates any credibility he might have gained from getting a story correct for once.

The Foley scandal, by contrast, was broken by a nonideological (to all but the hardcore right-wingers at the MRC) reporter, Brian Ross, at a nonideological (to all but the hardcore right-wingers at the MRC) news outlet, ABC News.

In short: Ross is a trustworthy reporter, Breitbart is not. That Graham refused to acknowledge this confirms that the MRC's media analysis is no more trustworthy than Breitbart's reporting.

"Numbers Don't Lie: 'Daily Show's' Stewart Hammers Right Nearly Four Times More than Left"

"Numbers Don't Lie," states the headline on Erin R. Brown's July 18 MRC Culture & Media Institute article purporting to examine the political bias of "The Daily Show." Actually, numbers lie after all, and Brown's article demonstrates it. Brown wrote:

It was contentious and dramatic. On Sunday, June 19, "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace grilled funnyman Jon Stewart on his obvious liberal bias and Stewart replied, "… there is not a designed ideological agenda on my part to affect partisan change ..."

The exchange got heated when Stewart held that line, telling Wallace, "You can't understand, because of the world you live in, that there is not a designed, ideological agenda on my part to affect partisan change, because that's the soup you swim in."

Well, "designed" or not, Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" mocks the right far more than it does the left, and a survey of the 16 broadcasts since the Wallace-Stewart run-in proves it.

CMI found that Stewart went after Republicans and Fox News (which he labels "conservative") almost four times as often as liberals and Democrats in just three weeks of shows. However the next eight broadcasts proved that Stewart just couldn't help but show his true, partisan colors.

Note the small, selective sample size -- just 16 shows in a particular three-week span. Brown's cherry-picked sample excludes the shows in the three weeks running up to Stewart's "Fox News Sunday" appearance -- which just happen to feature numerous attacks on former Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner and his sexting scandal.

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