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The Debate Double Standard at the MRC

When Donald Trump complained about biased debate questions from Fox News, the Media Research Center said nothing. But CNBC asks questions of GOP candidates that weren't right-wing-friendly, and it goes ballistic.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 11/23/2015

With Fox News acting as host and Fox News anchors acting as moderators, the Media Research Center got the Republican presidential debate setup it wanted, free of influence from that nasty "liberal media" and their silly gotcha questions. The MRC has long railed against the idea of other networks that don't identify as explicitly conservative getting involved in talking with GOP candidates over various perceived slights.

MRC chief Brent Bozell declared back in 2007 that "the GOP put an end to this charade by refusing to debate on CNN or MSNBC" and put his stamp of approval of Fox as being in charge of GOP debates, declaring that "They ought not to suggest, but demand, a Brit Hume or a Chris Wallace as moderators."

So Bozell and the MRC got what they wanted -- including Chris Wallace as one of the moderators. But the Fox News anchors sounded a lot like they weren't employed by Fox, according to much of the ConWeb. For instance, Dick Morris complained at Newsmax that the Fox moderators "pummeled Trump with such personal attacks and treated all of the other candidates like enemies," adding that "Megyn Kelly was especially partisan, her bias showing through her questioning of Trump.'

Even though the Fox anchors sounded just like the "liberal media" in their debate questions, and much of the right-wing media has been quite vocal about it, the MRC has been almost completely silent, even though accusing the media of unfairly targeting conservatives is kind of its job.

In fact, quite the opposite happened: an Aug. 7 NewsBusters post by Tim Graham touted how "The first GOP debate's Fox News moderators were so hard on the candidates that a New York Times columnist called it an "inquisition' and said the debate 'compels me to write a cluster of words I never imagined writing: hooray for Fox News.'" Graham did concede that there is an issue of "whether the Fox moderators have provided Democratic operatives with priceless video for negative commercials," but he didn't criticize the apparent slant of the questions.

Then, in an Aug. 10 post, Mark Finkelstein noted MSNBC host Joe Scarborough actually saying that a non-Fox News network that asked those questions would be the victim of "trashing" for months to come -- but added only that it's an "interesting point." He doesn't note that his employer has been conspicuously silent on the issue.

So what happened? Did the MRC not see the Fox moderators' questions as biased because they are from Fox? Or is Fox exempt from MRC scrutiny because it's too important a booster of conservatives to criticize publicly and the place where Bozell has a weekly spot on Sean Hannity's show to spout off about the latest right-wing media outrage -- that is, effectively buying the MRC's silence?

The problem is Trump, not Fox

While the MRC won't cop to its silence on its own websites -- after all, this is the debate lineup they demanded -- Bozell did open up a bit more on the subject in, of all places, an interview with Rush Limbaugh for his Limbaugh Letter publication:

Rush: What was your analysis of the public reaction to that debate, aimed at Fox News? Not just Megyn Kelly, but the whole thing as it related to Trump?

Bozell: People love Fox News. People have so much hope in Fox News, and I think people felt really let down by what they saw.

Rush: Is that right?

Bozell: Absolutely. I was there. I will tell you that the mood inside that auditorium was apparently very different from the mood on television. If you were to have taken a poll of the people who were there, in no way did Donald Trump win that debate. You could hear the grumblings in the audience. People were asking why there were so few questions to Cruz, why there were so few questions to Carson, and then question after question after question to Trump. People got very tired of it, Rush.

So Bozell did, in fact, dislike the way Fox News handled the debate as well, if only (publicly, anyway) for letting Trump divert attention from his beloved Cruz. But, again, none of this criticism made its way to the websites of the MRC. Bozell does have that weekly spot on "Hannity" to consider.

Strangely, it seems that the MRC wants nothing to do with media-bias claims that Trump forwards. When Trump denounced "gotcha" questions in an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt, the MRC didn't feel like echoing it. Why? Because Hewitt is a conservative the MRC loves. It cheered how Hewitt bragged that NPR is the "liberal version of my show" and his ridiculous claim that the right-wing-fueled controversy over Hillary Clinton's emails was itself an "indictment" of her (as opposed to, you know, an actual indictment).

The only mention of Trump's MRC-inspired attack on Hewitt was a few days later it happened, in a Sept. 6 NewsBusters post by Melissa Mullins noting that "liberal journo" Geraldo Rivera had backed up Trump. Curiously, Mullins didn't mention the fact that Hewitt is a conservative.

Later in the Limbaugh interview, Bozell touted how Fox News chief Roger Ailes is "a master of this medium" by latching on to Trump and even by making Trump a focus of the Fox debate, then threw in some wishful thinking by grumping, "I think Trump may have peaked."

If you're afraid to engage in media criticism for fear of angering one side or the other lest you lose access because of it, as the MRC apparently is, you're a terrible media critic. The MRC never been afraid to play right-wing God to decree who is and is not a true conservative -- that's what Heathering is all about, after all -- and there's no reason it should stop now, especially when it ought to know that Trump is an opportunist and not a genuine conservative.

The MRC is in a perfect position -- one it created -- to weigh in on Trump's fights with conservative media. But it won't, apparently choosing to hope that Trump simply goes away, and to hope that a media-bias debate that more closely follows its decades-old script will surface.

Attacks on CNBC debate

And surface it did with the CNBC debate.

Echoing the attacks by Republican presidential candidates on the moderators of the debate, Bozell ranted: "The CNBC debate will go down in history as an encyclopedic example of liberal media bias on stage."

But there was one thing missing from Bozell's declaration: the encyclopedia.

Bozell's statement did not cite any specific examples of "liberal media bias" expressed at the debate. And in an appearance on Fox Business, Bozell denounced the CNBC moderators as "smarmy, condescending, arrogant" -- but he didn't cite a specific example. He did, however, creepily call the Republicans' ranting about bias "better than sex."

Thus, Bozell set the substance-free agenda for his MRC subordinates, who served as an echo chamber for the "liberal bias" charge while also not proving it:

  • Scott Whitlock complained about the debate's supposed "obnoxious, left-wing questions," but he cited no examples. Instead, he linked to an earlier NewsBusters clip from the debate of Marco Rubio complaining about media bias.
  • Kyle Drennen asserted the MSNBC moderators were "incredibly biased," but he too cited no examples.
  • Whitlock returned to assert that "the liberal bias of CNBC’s debate [was] so obvious that even Carl Bernstein and the left-wing Salon acknowledged the network’s failure."Actually, neither specifically criticized any "bias" in the debate; Bernstein was criticizing CNBC 's overall handling of the debate, and Salon did so as well, going on to note that "Most damningly, the anchors frequently failed to call out the candidates on easily checkable misstatements.”

But who needs evidence when there are right-wing talking points to enforce? An MRC poll asked readers: "Who had the best anti-media slam of the debate?"

Bozell finally got around to mentioning a couple of examples in another Fox Business interview. One of them: "Asking Ben Carson about his face on somebody's website." Bozell's fanciful rewording obscures the fact that the question was about Carson's relationship with nutritional-supplements maker Mannatech, which has a history of shady practices -- a relationship Carson dissembled about during the debate.

Bozell seems willing to give Carson a pass on an issue that goes straight to his character -- just like the MRC gave Carson a pass on his conducting research on fetal tissue, which is supposed to be verboten under the right wing's current anti-Planned Parenthood crusade.

Bozell also denied that the Republicans' anti-media attack was planned in advance, despite Ted Cruz -- who issued the debate's first anti-media attack -- having a history of avoiding questions he doesn't want to answer by denouncing them as liberal.

Further, the candidates didn't really have to plan such an attack in advance; after all, people like Bozell have been inculcating this talking point into right-wing politics for decades. Bozell's mission is to destroy any media that doesn't uncritically repeat right-wing talking points, so he couldn't be happier with the debate, as his ewww-worthy "better than sex" remark demonstrates.

Still, it's interesting that the MRC is simply mouthing the anti-media rhetoric, making no effort whatsoever to back up the claim. To go all Clara Peller here, there's a distinct absence of beef.

Given that "research" is the MRC's proclaimed middle name, it would be so simple to post a list of all the questions asked by CNBC moderators at the debate (including Rick Santelli, who effectively inspired the tea party movement and is a good right-wing friend, but is bizarrely being lumped in as a liberal shill under this attack) and explain where in each of them the "liberal bias" resides.

Instead, the MRC issued what it claims is a "study" on the subject. The unsubtle headline: "MRC Study Proves It: CNBC Agenda Was to Undermine GOP Candidates." The unbylined "study" asserts:

A Media Research Center analysis of the questions posed by moderators John Harwood, Carl Quintanilla and Becky Quick at CNBC's Republican presidential debate found nearly two-thirds (65%) hit the candidates with negative spin, personal insults or ad hominem attacks.

In contrast, all of the questions posed by CNBC personalities Jim Cramer, Rick Santelli and Sharon Epperson focused on policy matters and were phrased in a constructive, respectful tone.

The MRC analysis examined the 43 unique questions posed by one of the three moderators. Nearly two-thirds of those (28, or 65%) included negative spin, personal insult or attack, such as Harwood's question to Donald Trump asking if his was a "comic book version of a presidential campaign," or Quintanilla's question to Ted Cruz asking if his opposition to a just-passed spending bill showed he was "not the kind of problem-solver American voters want?"

What you won't find: anything that resembles an actual scientific study. The MRC provides no methodology for making such a determination about the questions, or any objective definition of what it considered "negative spin." It did not even provide a list of the questions to show how it categorized them. The only supplemental material provided with this "study" is a video compilation of "the most insulting questions posed."

Let's face it: This is not a "study," it's a political statement pretending to be "research." The MRC's goal is partisan and it makes no attempt whatsoever to be objective. It seems that whatever personally offended MRC staffers was determined to be "negative" or an "insult."

The MRC hammered the partisan intent by closing its so-called "study" with a rant from Bozell:

The three main moderators, and in particular John Harwood, acted like petulant children trying to pick fights with the candidates. When nearly two-thirds of your questions are comprised of negative spin, personal insults or ad hominem attacks, your agenda is clear: undermine the Republican candidates at all costs. These CNBC "journalists" exposed themselves to the world as left-wing stooges jockeying for a position in Hillary Clinton’s campaign press shop. It was embarrassing.

Who's really being the petulant one? It looks like it's Bozell and the MRC for crying "bias" over questions it doesn't like and ginning up a bogus "study" as purported proof.

Contrary to the headline, the MRC's "study" does not prove an "agenda" -- or anything else it has been asserting about the debate. It does prove, however, that the MRC is little more than a group of hacks dedicated to churning out right-wing talking points without regard to the facts.

By contrast, the MRC did no such "study" on the questions from the GOP presidential debate hosted by Fox News, despite Trump's loud complaining about their bias, nor did it make any comparison of the questions in the CNBC debate with those of the Fox debate. Heck, even MRC friend Ann Coulter has argued that the questions in the debates were no different.

This study has as much scientific legitimacy as Sean Hannity's assertion that the debate was "the single worst example of media bias in a debate in like intergalactic history" -- a nonsensical assertion MRC "news" division decided was worthy of promoting on its front page.

Amnesia about tough questions

Despite its failure to offer any actual proof the CNBC debate was biased, the MRC still insisted on claiming it was.

In their Nov. 4 column, Bozell and Tim Graham whined that "liberal journalists asked one too many deliberately snide and hostile “gotcha” questions attacking the GOP candidates and the candidates exploded in anger," declaring that "The RNC’s action to drop NBC and Telemundo and whole Comcast brand from debates is long, long overdue." Then they write this:

You have to go back to April 2008 to find a debate where Democrats were faced with hostile questions, when ABC hosts George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson dared to ask Barack Obama one question about his ties to ex-terrorist Bill Ayers.

Actually, that's a complete lie -- Anderson Cooper asked tough questions at the Oct. 13 CNN-hosted Democratic presidential debate. How do we know? Because Bozell himself said so. And he even sent out a press release praising Cooper's "tough, probing questions":

During last night's Democratic debate, Anderson Cooper in large measure did exactly what a debate moderator is supposed to do. He asked tough, probing questions of all the candidates. Better yet, he did what most moderators won't do: when given an evasive or untrue answer, he pounced in a follow-up question, exposing the evasion or untruth. It was a breath of fresh air to see such professionalism. Give him an A- for a job well done.

Yeah, we know the "liberal bias" mantra is how the MRC makes its bread and butter, but are Graham and Bozell really so stupid as to forget a statement Bozell made just three weeks ago? And are they really so stupid as to think that his readers have forgotten?

Loving the Fox Business debate

Given that Bozell was running to Fox Business to trash the CNBC debate, his reaction to the Republican debate hosted by Fox Business would be, well, different. So different, in fact, that "fawning" isn't nearly strong enough a word to describe it. Try "slobbering."

The MRC telegraphed its reaction in an email sent the day of the debate in which it confidently declared: "FOX Business and The Wall Street Journal will be moderating tonight’s fourth Republican presidential debate this evening. Unlike the rabidly left-wing, anti-conservative CNBC moderators, we expect tonight’s moderators to exhibit journalistic integrity and basic decency."

Apparently, the MRC's idea of "journalistic integrity" was for the moderators to refuse to correct the candidates when they got a fact wrong, or even to answer the questions that were asked; as TPM's Josh Marshall noted, it was a debate "structured around letting candidates say absolutely anything -- because scrutinizing candidates is liberal."

Needless to say, Bozell couldn't be happier. Was it better than sex? He issued a statement immediately after the debate that did suggest some orgasmic satisfaction:

"Fox Business promised to best CNBC in the management of a debate. Fox did not best CNBC, Fox utterly humiliated their competition. Quite simply, this network did a fantastic job moderating both of tonight’s GOP primary debates. They asked fair serious, substantive questions, and did so respectfully.

"It’s amazing what you can learn from debates when obnoxious liberal moderators aren't there. I hope CNBC and future debate moderators took notes. The Fox Business moderators didn’t engage in personal insults or ad hominem attacks. Fox Business completely outclassed CNBC."

And to further demonstrate he knows what side his bread is buttered on, Bozell returned to Fox Business to slobber all over the Fox Business debate, asserting that the moderators "asked good questions, it was all about the candidates, and this is what a debate is supposed to be about." Bozell added that "you certainly in three minutes got more out this Fox Business debate than in two hours, or seemingly eight hours, on CNBC."

Of course Bozell proclaimed his love for the Fox Business debate. He wants to continue appearing on Fox Business and Fox News, after all.

In other words, he has skin in the game, which is more than enough reason to dismiss his opinion on debate quality.

Since the MRC's "media research" is so obviously geared toward advancing its political agenda and protecting its political allies than doing any serious analysis of "bias," there's no reason to take Bozell and his organization seriously on the subject. They are partisans, not researchers, and should be treated as such.

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