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Working the Refs: Debate Division

The Media Research Center follows the same template for every Democratic presidential debate: Attack the moderator's purported "liberal bias" beforehand, then pick out questions afterwards to try and prove that the so-called analysis was correct.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 10/30/2019

The Media Research Center has been running a work-the-refs narrative for its coverage of this year's Democratic presidential debates: Crank out a huffy post before the debate attacking the moderators as irredeemably liberal, then declare victory afterward that its narrative against them was proven correct (through murky analysis of the questions asked).

The MRC did its best to try and work the refs ahead of the Democratic presidential debate in June -- but, as usual it refuses to complete show its work in assigning ideology to the questions asked at the debate.

Geoffrey Dickens kicked things off in a June 24 item by demanding that NBC and affiliated networks ask questions with a right-wing bias: "If they are to match what their colleagues did with Republican candidates in 2015, they should ask questions designed to humiliate, badger and paint them as not ready for prime time, cartoonish, out-of-touch extremists." Dickens refused to acknowledge that the questions asked of the Republicans were legitimate even though they put the candidates on the spot.

After the first night of the debate, the MRC was quick to frame anything non-conservative as a pejorative. Scott Whitlock declared that "the NBC and MSNBC hosts" asking questions "catered to the party's far-left base, offering questions about just how to take guns away from Americans, the need for aggressive action on climate change and repeated questions about how the nominee would fight the looming threat of Mitch McConnell."

Rich Noyes followed up by falsely conflating "left-wing," hard-edged leftism," Democratic" and "liberal," asserting: "A Media Research Center analysis finds 39 of the questions at the debate echoed liberal talking points or were framed around a liberal world view, vs. only five that challenged liberal/Democratic assumptions. Another 15 questions were framed in a neutral fashion, or were neutral follow-ups to previous questions." Noyes never explained how the MRC made these decisions, though he linked to Whitlock's post containing a complete list of questions.

Noyes served up more of the same after the second night of the debate:

After two nights, NBC/MSNBC has proved that they deserve the nickname “MSDNC.” The twenty Democrats who made the presidential debate stage were treated to questions that were wildly skewed (69%) to the left, with only a scant 13% challenging the candidates to defend their outside-the-mainstream views, a five-to-one disparity.

A Media Research Center analysis finds 70 of the 102 distinct questions at the two debates echoed liberal talking points or were framed around a liberal world view, vs. only 13 that challenged liberal/Democratic assumptions. Another 19 questions were framed in a neutral fashion, or were neutral follow-ups to previous questions.


There’s a reason why these debates are moderated by (supposedly) independent journalists, who are supposed to challenge the candidates, rather than party insiders who would want to present both the candidates and the party’s platform in as favorable a light as possible.

But it’s hard to see how NBC/MSNBC/Telemundo’s approach was at all different than a debate moderated by Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and other liberal Democratic bigwigs. Real journalists should gag at the two-night display of bias.

Noyes again failed to explain the MRC's alleged methodology, nor did he provide evidence that any view of any Democratic candidate -- let alone all of them, as he seems to be claiming -- is "outside-the-mainstream." Its standards here are purely subjective: a question was deemed "liberal" seemingly because it needed a big number of "liberal" questions to make the so-called analysis exploitable for political purposes.

If Noyes can't offer a sound, scientifically valid methodology for determining "bias," one can come to the conclusion that the MRC is simply making things up, letting their own right-wing opinions color their judgment and are motivated only by partisan politics designed to advance its anti-media agenda.

For July's debate on CNN, the MRC's target was moderator Don Lemon. In a July 30 post, Dickens dismissed Lemon as a "Democrat-adoring, Trump-despising, black hole conspiracy theorist" who purportedly "hates rank-and-file Trump supporters" and is prone to "incendiary and obnoxious outbursts."

After the debate, Dickens declared that he "called it" and insisted that Lemon used the debate "to relentlessly promote lefty policies and politicians, and launch invectives against Donald Trump and his supporters," gloating that "The bias was so bad from Lemon last night, even President Trump noticed, slamming the CNN Tonight host." Dickens claimed that a Lemon question noting that "President Trump is pursuing a reelection strategy based in part, on racial division" was based in "rage against Trump" -- but he didn't dispute the accuracy of the statement. Dickens also included a list of "Lemon’s most obnoxious questions from the left," but he provided no methodology as to how he reached that conclusion.

After the debate's second night, Dickens struck again, complaining that Lemon "used his questions to pontificate on Trump’s 'racism' – as if the Democratic candidates wouldn’t have done that anyway." Again, Dickens added a Lemon-bashing Trump tweet to round things out. And, again, Dickens declined to offer evidence that Lemon was wrong about Trump's racism.

This time around, we were spared a "study" devoid of methodology and raw data purporting to designate how many debate questions were "liberal."

(Meanwhile, at the MRC's "news" division, the attacks on Lemon continued with an article by Melanie Arter touting a Trump tweet calling Lemon "the dumbest man in television.")

For the Sept. 12 debate, Dickens established the right-wing talking points in a post the day before: "The moderators for ABC’s Thursday night Democratic debate include a former Bill Clinton campaign staffer and an anchor who was actually kicked out of a Donald Trump campaign event. So it’s safe to say ABC’s Democratic debate hosts won’t be asking any tough questions of the candidates – at least none from the right." Dickens listed the moderators' purported "history of liberalism" and made sure to huff that the former, "Good Morning America" co-host George Stephanopoulos, "spun the news as Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign advisor and then White House Communications Director" and was also a "Clinton Foundation donor."

For the latter, Univision host Jorge Ramos, Dickens repeated that he "was so rude he was removed from the press conference." As ConWebWatch has documented, the MRC held Ramos to a higher standard, by ranting that he was an "activist" and worse, than it held Daily Caller reporter Neil Munro when he was similarly rude to President Obama in 2012. The MRC also was much more sympathetic to another activist reporter from the right-wing Breitbart who got booted from a campaign event for Beto O'Rourke, declaring that O'Rourke, not the reporter, was the rude one.

The day of the debate, Noyes weirdly complained that "debate host ABC’s evening newscast has awarded a majority of its news coverage to just one candidate: former Vice President Joe Biden" while virtually ignoring other candidates. This is just more lazy research; Noyes focused only on a single, short program and ignored other ABC news programs and its website operation. The point of all this, of course, was a cheap gotcha, as Noyes revealed in his final paragraph: "So, the question can be posed: Have the media already effectively winnowed the Democrats’ 2020 field before the voters ever had a chance make themselves heard?"

This was followed by a post by Joseph Vasquez claiming that "at least 29 executives from ABC, or parent company Disney, have donated to Democratic candidates." He later conceded, however, that these executives "held entertainment roles with Disney Television Studios, Walt Disney Studios, Disney+ and Twentieth Century Fox," and he identified none as linked to ABC's news operation.

Shockingly, however, the MRC's initial post-debate reaction was praise, not its usual attack mode. Scott Whitlock did the deed:

It’s actually possible to ask 2020 Democratic candidates questions that conservatives want answered. Thursday’s debate was proof that it can be done. To be clear, there were plenty of liberal questions, including wondering how forcible gun confiscation “will work.” Yet, ABC did manage some queries of interest to conservatives, including demanding answers on eliminating private health insurance, not speaking out on socialist dictators and calling Trump voters racist.

Yes, the MRC insisted that merely asking how a proposed policy would work was not "liberal" -- Whitlock devoted an entire post to the subject.

But the MRC wasn't about to let the moderators off that easy. Cue Jorge Bonilla complaining that Ramos was being praised for the questions he asked and insisting how everyone's wrong for doing so:

Much of the media misread of Ramos’ performance stems from his exchange on “democratic socialism” with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Ramos garnered wide praise for daring to ask a tough question. Except that it wasn’t. For starters, Ramos had already put the Venezuela question before Sanders, on Univision’s Sunday political affairs showAl Punto.

In fact, one could call it a dry run inasmuch as Sanders’ answer was identical to what he proffered at the debate, varying only in degree of denunciation of Venezuelan tyrant Nicolás Maduro (going from "abusive" to "cruel tyrant"). Sanders then transitioned into a furious defense of his brand of so-called “democratic socialism,” which made Ramos’ question look a lot tougher than it actually was[.]


But the question only looked tough because Sanders botched the alley-oop. If Ramos’s own Facebook Watch program is any indication, it looked like the question was framed so as to set Sanders up for an affirmative differentiation of “democratic socialism” vis-a-vis Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea.

Ramos’ weird segue from Venezuela to veganism, the Amazon to climate legislation (in furtherance of the Green New Deal) reinforces this track. The intent was clearly not to make “democratic socialism” look bad.

Otherwise, Ramos’ role within the debate was wholly predictable.

Just about as predictable, one could say, as the MRC's narrative about it.

The pattern also pretty much held for an Oct. 15 debate. The morning of the debate, Geoffrey Dickens trotted out the required attack item on CNN's Anderson Cooper, serving up what he claimed was "a collection of Cooper’s liberalism at CNN" out of the MRC archives, "from trashing the 'treasonous' Trump to hailing Hillary Clinton as the 'Queen of Compromise.'" Dickens did attempt a backhanded compliment, though: "While Cooper has in the past shown the capacity to ask tough debate questions, a look through the MRC archives suggests it’s more likely that if the AC360 host does ask any challenging questions, they’ll be from the left."

One of the things Dickens deemed to be "liberal" about Cooper was the accurate observation that former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders wasn't a fan of telling the truth. Dickens offered no evidence that Cooper was wrong.

Exactly 12 hours later, after the debate, Scott Whitlock took up the attack baton, ranting that Cooper "made sure to exonerate the Bidens, telling Joe Biden that your son has been 'falsely accused' and there’s 'no evidence' of any wrongdoing when it comes to Ukraine." Whitlock offered no evidence that Cooper was wrong.

"Media research," folks.

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