ConWebWatch home
ConWebBlog: the weblog of ConWebWatch
Search and browse through the ConWebWatch archive
About ConWebWatch
Who's behind the news sites that ConWebWatch watches?
Letters to and from ConWebWatch
ConWebWatch Links
Buy books and more through ConWebWatch

MRC vs. Real Research

The Media Research Center works hard to try and discredit the work of genuine researchers who commit the offense of concluding there's really no such thing as "liberal media bias."

By Terry Krepel
Posted 5/3/2012

For an organization whose idea of "research" is shoddy political tracts so narrowly focused to produce a predetermined result that no legitimate researcher would recognize them, the Media Research Center sure hates it when actual researchers contradict those bought-and-paid-for results.

After all, the idea that there is a "liberal media bias" is the raison d'etre of the MRC's existence, and anyone who challenges that right-wing orthodoxy -- no matter how credible -- must be shouted down and discredited.

The latest round of the MRC trying to shout down actual researchers started last October, when the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that in September, negative assessments of President Obama in the media "outweighed positive by a ratio of almost 4-1."

Obviously, that could not stand unchallenged, so the MRC research director Rich Noyes devoted a lengthy article to attacking Pew's claims, asserting there are "three major problems" with it:

First, they didn’t study what most people would consider “the media.” Second, their definition of “positive” and “negative” press doesn’t match what media experts consider “favorable” or “unfavorable” coverage.

And, third, the researchers didn’t really even look at the stories — they let a computer (using an algorithm dubbed “Crimson Hexagon”) churn through the words and determine whether an assertion was pro- or anti-Obama (or Perry, or Romney, etc.).

Noyes complains that the Pew survey, which examined "coverage and commentary on more than 11,500 news outlets. This is a bad thing, apparently:

So for a study to include 11,500 news outlets (English-language only, the report says), the researchers have cast their net so widely that their study necessarily includes a huge number of insignificant or derivative news outlets — hundreds of iterations of the same AP story on the Web sites of local TV stations, for example. Such a study design makes it impossible to discover how the candidates were covered by the relatively small number of news media outlets that reach hundreds of thousands or millions of people each day.

[Pew also separately looked at “hundreds of thousands” of blogs, which again means that the few dozen top-ranked influential blogs are buried in a mass of data that includes vast numbers of low-trafficked and irrelevant sites.]

To study the news media’s effect on the campaign, researchers need to isolate the news media sources that are having the most profound effect — either at reaching the most viewers (like the big networks) or most influential at establishing a national narrative (like the New York Times or Politico). Throwing thousands of sources into one big pot — some with audiences in the millions, others reaching only a few hundred a day — just confuses the role that journalists actually have in setting the agenda and crafting a candidate’s image.

By contrast, the MRC's "research" methods focus primarily on the three major broadcast networks, mostly because it has determined that they are a target-rich environment for the purpose of pushing the"liberal media bias" meme. This deliberately precludes any examination of right-leaning Fox News, even though it's the highest-rated cable news network.

Noyes then complained about Pew's methodology of identifying stories as "“positive,” “negative,” or “neutral” because they include "horse race" assessments:

Careful researchers would avoid blurring such “horse race” statements into an overall measure of good press/bad press. Back in August, both Rick Perry’s strongest supporters and his staunchest foes would agree that he was on top of the GOP preference polls — it’s not “the media” pushing a biased editorial line to say so. Standard measures of “good” and “bad” press include: assessments of a candidate’s personal integrity, ethics and job competence; evaluations of their policy proposals; and their capabilities as a candidate — in other words, those attributes that can make someone more or less likely to support their candidacy.

Including “horse race” assessments undoubtedly skewed the numbers in favor of Perry (who led most surveys until late September) and hurt President Obama, whose job approval ratings were on the decline. Plus, tallying overt “assertions” would also minimize the effect of daily news coverage (where the bias is usually more subtle), while boosting the effect of editorials and commentary with obvious opinions.

Our own work this campaign season shows that the national media consistently framed the debt story in a way that played to Obama’s agenda, and hit Republican candidates with mainly hostile questions premised on liberal policy assumptions. In an election context, those are big favors to the Democrats that cannot be tallied on a simple “positive” or “negative” scorecard.

Who are these "careful researchers" Noyes is talking about? Because they sure don't work at the MRC.

One example of the MRC's research methods at work: A Sept. 13 "Media Reality Check" by Geoffrey Dickens determined that "there were far more liberal questions (13) to the GOP candidates" at the recent CNN-sponsored Republican presidential debate "than there were conservative-oriented questions at the NBC News debate." As per usual for MRC "research," Dickens did not explain how he determined what a "liberal" question was as opposed to a "conservative" question; no indication is given that an objective research metric was determined.

But the CNN and NBC debates were not the only two major debates in the month preceding Dickens' item. There was a the third one that Dickens doesn't mention, which took place on Aug. 11. That debate was sponsored by two right-wing media entities, Fox News and the Washington Examiner. Perhaps Dickens didn't want to concede that these conservative outlets asked questions that, had they been asked by employees of CNN or NBC, would get immediately pegged as "liberal."

For instance, the indisputably conservative Byron York asked Michele Bachmann about her previous statements that wives should be "submissive" to their husbands -- something that Dickens and any other MRC employee would be screaming "liberal" over had it come out of the mouth of, say, Wolf Blitzer or Brian Williams (both of whom Dickens took to task for their supposedly "liberal" lines of questioning). And Newt Gingrich got all huffy and accused moderator and Fox News host Chris Wallace -- who knows how to toe the Fox corporate line, as a recent interview with Jon Stewart demonstrated -- of asking "gotcha questions."

When NewsBusters' Matthew Sheffield highlighted how Gingrich attacked one of his inquisitors for biased questions during the NBC debate, he inexplicably failed to mention that Gingrich did the exact same thing to Wallace in the Fox-Examiner debate.

You'd think that the MRC would be rushing to highlight such questions as a way to prove that Fox isn't a monolithically right-wing outlet. Then again, the Fox debate was the only one of those three that MRC chief Brent Bozell felt compelled to judge; he offered no similar grading of the NBC- and CNN-sponsored debates.

Finally, Noyes complained that Pew used a computer algorithm because "it’s impossible that human researchers could cross-check even a tiny fraction of the coverage. Nearly all of the “anti-Obama” or “pro-Perry” stories were never reviewed by an actual researcher to check the context and meaning of the keywords the computer was trained to spot."

But mostly, Noyes was angry that Pew is trying to undermine the MRC's reason for existence:

The point of studying the media for potential bias is to make sure that journalists are not skewing the news before it reaches voters, so that the real decisions are in the hands of the people, not the media elites. For liberal journalists to hear that their profession is somehow skewed against President Obama can only encourage them to attempt to tilt the scales in the other direction. That’s a step away from the fair and balanced journalism that we need.

Of course, the MRC cares nothing about "fair and balanced journalism"; if it did, its "news" outlet wouldn't have such a pronounced right-wing slant. The MRC's real goal is to try and discredit the media and create openings for organizations that will uncritically promote a right-wing agenda, like Fox News.

Given that, it's no surprise that when the PEJ released another study in April claiming that coverage of President Obama has been "mostly negative," while Mitt Romney saw more positive coverage after he began winning more presidential primaries, Noyes went on the attack again, this time in an item headlined "Don't Believe It: The Media Aren't Beating Up on Barack Obama."

Noyes rehashed many of his previous arguments, adding:

Think about it this way: Can any serious media observer argue that the media elite have been more positive towards Christian conservative Rick Santorum than Barack Obama? On its face, this study is not measuring what it purports to measure, i.e., the tone of campaign journalism.

Undoubtedly, given the resources they've put into this project, you'll see additional reports throughout the campaign year. If President Obama takes a polling lead over Mitt Romney, you'll see PEJ claim a burst of good press for the Democrat; if Romney takes the lead, they'll continue to say that the press is beating up on Obama. Don't believe it.

Noyes provides no evidence whatsoever to back up his assertions -- perhaps because the MRC's methodology tends to be so shoddy and so ridiculously stacked.

Further, if Noyes was the "serious media observer" he claims to be, he wouldn't be tossing around terms like "media elite" in such a pejorative way. The work of Noyes and the MRC is simply too agenda-driven to be taken seriously beyond the political activists it's intended to motivate. That's not research, that's propaganda.

But that wasn't all: the MRC found offender, a Washington Post article examining the idea of liberal media bias and concluding that actual researchers found that it all balanced out. Playing defense for the MRC this time was Tim Graham, who whined in an April 30 NewsBusters post:

Saturday’s Washington Post included a story dismissing the public for believing the media has a bias, complete with the headline “Public has its own biases about media.” It sounded like a twist on "I Know You Are, But What Am I?" Media reporter Paul Farhi argued studies finding an increased perception of the media favoring “one side” since 1985 are somehow dashed because professors and their studies disagree.

Of course, perception does not equal reality. The millions of dollars the MRC and other right-wing groups have spent over the past couple of decades to peddle the talking point that rampant liberal bias exists, thus conditioning people to believe it, is much different as objective research examining the subject.

Graham went on to praise Farhi for citing right-wing media critic Tim Groseclose's claim that pretty much every media outlet has a liberal bias, then criticized him for having "quickly dismissed him" (though neither Graham nor Farhi noted the shaky methodology that Groseclose employed to reach his dubious conclusion). Graham then attacks a researcher Farhi cited, David D’Alessio, who points out that left-leaning reporting is balanced by reporting more favorable to conservatives. Graham then bashes Farhi for not identifying D’Alessio as a "liberal," even though the only evidence he offers to back up that claim is that he once "attack[ed] Richard Nixon" -- actually, D'Alessio was citing Nixon's attempts to manipulate the media by portraying it as biased, which is exactly what the MRC is still doing today -- and that his conclusions deviate from the MRC's right-wing agenda.

Graham then nonsensically claims: "The story denying liberal bias only underlines liberal bias." Well, only if you work for the MRC, which starts with the partisan-driven -- not research-driven -- conclusion of liberal bias and then selectively cite evidence to back it up.

Graham went on to get hilariously huffy that Farhi mentioned the MRC in the same breath as Media Matters:

Dear Paul: FAIR was founded in 1986, and the MRC in 1987 (and technically, Brent Bozell's and Brent Baker's MRC was under way at the National Conservative Foundation in 1985). It's at best misleading to pair the MRC on a timeline with Media Matters, which Hillary Clinton helped start in 2004. The MRC, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, deserves to be in a "long ago" sentence.

Graham concluded by clinging to his preconceived notions:

Here's the big picture: the liberal media may not be more biased to the left today than it was in the of Reagan's tenure in 1985, but that's not the point. The point is the public is smart/jaded enough to realize now that the liberal media can't pretend not be liberal -- and yet, they keep pretending. Farhi's piece reads like "there's little to the idea we're more biased than we were in 1985 -- and we were denying it, then, too."

Graham doesn't seem to know the difference between political talking points and research. And if you've seen what passes for research at the MRC, you'd know why that is.

Finally, Brent Bozell himself devotes a column to the subject, pretty much regurgitating what Noyes and Graham said about the PEJ and D’Alessio studies, right down to baselessly accusing D’Alessio of being a "liberal." Bozell defensively concludes:

The media's homegrown experts are not displaying an actual interest in measuring bias seriously, as much as they are dying to dismiss it flippantly. They don't want the public to suspect the media are more dedicated to promoting Obama's path to victory than the public's "right to know." But the public can smell it.

Like his underlings before him, Bozell offers no comparable to prove the comprehensive work of PEJ and D’Alessio wrong.

Bozell seems to have not considered the possibility that the thing "the public can smell" is the stench of desperation emanating from his own hindquarters.

Send this page to:

Bookmark and Share
The latest from

In Association with
Support This Site

home | letters | archive | about | primer | links | shop
This site © Copyright 2000-2012 Terry Krepel