The MRC's Very Trumpy -- And Bogus -- Media 'Studies'
Funny how the Media Research Center's methodology -- a tiny slice of coverage on a tiny slice of news media -- always seemed to find overwhelmingly "negative" coverage of Trump. It's almost as if it was designed that way.
By Terry Krepel
Even though their guy was in the White House for the past four years, the Media Research Center couldn't stop playing victim -- President Trump always had to be portrayed as being on the receiving end of unfair media coverage. Its way of doing that was to invent a methodology that guaranteed such an outcome.
Not only would the MRC completely ignore Fox News -- it focused solely on the evening newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC -- it would cherry-pick further by determining what were "evaluative statements," dismissing the entirety of news coverage. Rich Noyes wrote in May 2018 about one such so-called "study":
The liberal media’s war against President Trump was as fierce as ever during the first four months of 2018, but the onslaught appears to be for naught: In the face of massive and hostile coverage from ABC, CBS and NBC, Trump’s overall job approval rating actually rose, from 37 percent in mid-December to roughly 43 percent at the end of April.
To summarize what's wrong with the MRC's approach:
Noyes even managed to mislead about Trump's poll numbers. As FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver pointed out at the time, the 43 percent approval that Noyes cites is close to Trump's ceiling; his approval rating has never ventured out of the range of 36 percent to 44 percent -- the narrowest range in the first 500 days of a presidency in the history of modern polling.
But then, providing an accurate record of media coverage of Trump is not the MRC's goal -- promoting a pro-Trump, anti-media agenda is. Which means that MRC chief Brent Bozell couldn't have been prouder that Trump referenced his bogus "research" in a tweet.
Nevertheless, the MRC tries on occasion to defend these so-called studies. Nicholas Fondacaro inadvertently demonstrated just how meaningless that talking point is when he uses an August 2018 post to lash out at CNN anchor Don Lemon for purportedly misrepresenting it:
Speaking of being unable to say anything nice about someone; at the top of his show following the handoff, Lemon attacked a Media Research Center study that found 90 percent of broadcast network evening coverage of the President was negative.
But "a narrow tracking of 'explicitly positive and negative statements' on just three TV shows that deliberately excludes the vast amount of neutral coverage" isn't how Fondacaro first described the study; he said it "found 90 percent of broadcast network evening coverage of the President was negative." It's only when a non-conservative pushes back against that bogus, overbroad talking point -- which, again, was crafted to be spread in the way Fondacaro first described it -- is he forced to concede how narrowly drawn it actually is.
And, as far as we know, nobody at the MRC has ever lectured Trump or any conservative for misleadingly extrapolating that talking point the way Fondacaro did in lecturing Lemon. After all, Brent Bozell and Co. want that misrepresentation coming out of the mouths of conservatives -- but they don't want anyone to read the fine print.
In October 2018, Noyes put out another "study" with similar results. Again, the methodology was very narrowly defined:
We calculated spin by tallying all clearly positive and negative statements from non-partisan sources (in other words, reporters, anchors, voters and other unaffiliated sources). This excludes coverage that merely reflects the partisan back-and-forth of the campaign, in order to isolate the spin being imparted by the networks themselves. It also excludes “horse race assessments” about the candidate’s prospects for winning or losing.
And, again, Noyes couldn't be bothered to post the raw data so readers can double-check his almost certainly biased pronouncements of what constitutes a "negative" or "positive" statement, or explain why neutral coverage wasn't factored in, or explain whether he thinks "negative" coverage can be the most accurate way to cover a given story, or whether he believes all stories must be "balanced" whether or not the story warrants it.
For a January 2019 "study," Noyes began by falsely conflating his tiny sliver of "research" as representative of the entire "establishment media": "At the midpoint of Donald Trump’s first term, the establishment media’s obvious hostility shows no signs of relenting, but polls show this negative coverage has had no discernible impact on the public’s attitudes toward the President." Fox News has been firmly established for more than 20 years, but Noyes will never admit it's part of the "establishment media."
Noyes did admit that "neutral statements" are excluded from the MRC's work, then bizarrely complains that the so-called "negative" coverage of Trump peaked when "a White House aide [was] accused of domestic abuse." Noyes did not explain what positive spin the networks should have been done to counteract the "negative" spin. That, of course, is one key flaw in the MRC's methodology -- it refuses to acknowledge that at least some negative coverage is deserved.
Still, Noyes concluded by whining: "The media elite have clearly waded into the political fray to wage war against this President. But have they accomplished anything beyond cementing their reputation as political partisans, not objective journalists?"
Yes, that's coming from an organization whose "media research" lacks all objectivity and is narrowly designed to reinforce a right-wing narrative instead of following where the evidence leads.
Bogus impeachment coverage "study"
The MRC was sure to trot out its bogus methodology to defend President Trump over the ongoing impeachment inquiry. Cue Noyes, in a November 2019 post:
MRC analysts have reviewed all coverage of President Trump and his administration on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts since 2017. Following the beginning of the impeachment inquiry on September 24, this coverage has been even more hostile than normal: Out of 684 evaluative comments included in these broadcasts, a whopping 96 percent have been negative, vs. a meager four percent that have been positive.
The usual caveats applied including the refusal to make the raw data or the actual statements it evaluated public so its work could be evaluated by others.
What the MRC measured cannot be extrapolated into an evaluation of coverage across the entire broadcast media -- it excluded cable news, and the MRC never does these kinds of studies on the work of Fox News. Heck, it can't even be extrapolated into an accurate evaluation of the coverage on the three networks since, again, it cherry-picks "explicitly evaluative statements" and ignores all other coverage.
Noyes went on to complain about specific subjects about which Trump received especially "negative" coverage -- impeachment, of course, as well as Trump's withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, about which he groused that "journalists routinely framed it as “abandoning” an ally (the Syrian Kurds) in the fight against ISIS."
But fair and accurate research isn't what this report is about; using those dubious numbers to get attention from Fox News empire is. Thus, MRC chief Brent Bozell was granted two appearances on Fox Business to push those bogus numbers, which he talked about only as "coverage" and the narrowly tailored, cherry-picked numbers from selected sources they are in reality, falsely asserting at one point, "Almost 100 percent of the media coverage is against Donald Trump." Similarly, Fondacaro referenced the study's finding of "96 percent negative coverage" without the numerous qualifiers that would have made that statement accurate, as did Joseph Vazquez in a later MRC post.
Needless to say, Bozell and Tim Graham devoted their Nov. 13 column to the findings, lying that the numbers reflected the "tone of overall coverage" when it did nothing of the sort; they too omitted a complete listing of the study's bogus methodology.
The latest version of this stock study shows once again that at the MRC, the facts aren't important -- the narrative is. Speaking of perpetuating the narrative, the MRC's "news" division CNSNews.com contributed to it by devoting an article to a glowing review of the study by the MRC's favorite right-wing radio host, Mark Levin, who absurdly gushed that the the MRC is "a solid organization, come hell or high water." Did the MRC pay Levin to say that?
A January "study" that claimed to examine impeachment coverage added a new dishonest spin: framing of impeachment coverage as being "donated" to Democrats. That happens in the collective MRC mind when reality has a liberal bias -- and the MRC exists to donate positive coverage to Trump and Republicans. And, yes, Noyes and Bill D'Agostino really are surprised to learn that impeachment is considered a legitimate news story:
In the first 100 days since Pelosi announced the start of the House impeachment inquiry on September 24 (through January 1), ABC, CBS and NBC have generated a combined 849 minutes of evening news coverage about the subject.
Noyes and D'Agostino advanced another right-wing narrative, that Trump can't possibly be guilty because not enough people are watching the proceedings on TV, as if justice was linked to popularity: "Such unusual coverage aims to build up the significance of the event in the viewer’s mind suggesting an historic moment on par with the Kennedy assassination or 9/11, not a futile partisan exercise. But Nielsen ratings showed the public didn’t seem interested with the hearings conducted by the House Intelligence Committee." The MRC regularly pushed this dubious narrative throughout the impeachment process.
By contrast, the MRC has an audience of one: the man in the White House. And he must be pleased no matter what.
One more bit of impeachment-related "media research" came in a Jan. 29 piece by Fondacaro:
Before the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald J. Trump was gaveled into session, Chief Justice John Roberts presided over a swearing-in ceremony where all 100 senators pledged to be impartial jurors. The liberal media zeroed in on that pledge and decried Senate Republicans who seemed to be siding with the President.
As usual, the MRC's exceedingly narrow methodology was at play: examining only network evening news, and then only a tiny sliver of that with "evaluative statements," and the complete exclusion of neural coverage and the refusal to make its data public so the rest of us can judge how biased the "study" is. Curiously, Fondacaro didn't disclose the methodology in his piece. Instead, he seemed to be more interested in serving as a member of Trump's defense team:
The networks would roundly tear down the arguments Trump’s legal team was making despite the evidence they would present. When Trump lawyer Michael Purpura argued with evidence that the President was long interested in burden-sharing when it came to Ukraine’s defense, CBS chief congressional correspondent Nancy Cordes tried to shoot it down by saying, “Those claims run counter to witness testimony.” A common assertion by the networks.
Fondacaro offered no evidence to rebut Cordes' statement that defense lawyers' arguments "run counter to witness testimony."
Fondacaro further complained that "With the liberal media’s demand that Republicans be impartial in hearing the case, it was clearly more of a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ suggestion." He failed to note how his employer's "news" division, CNSNews.com, offered even more biased coverage of impeachment trial arguments.
But CBS complained to the MRC about the study, and the MRC's response dismissing it in a editor's note at the bottom of the piece, showed just how narrow and ideologically driven its methodology is:
A spokesman for CBS News contacted NewsBusters to insist that the minutes-and-seconds count for CBS did not mention CBS had the only interview with a group of Trump-defending House members.
Funny how anything that might have made CBS look less biased is conveniently excluded from the MRC's study. It's almost as if the methodology was drawn up to reach a pre-determined conclusion in order to fit an agenda.
In August, Noyes again did what he was paid to do in an post under the blaring headline "STUDY: 150 TIMES More Negative News on Trump than Biden":
As the pandemic grinds on, the Big Three broadcast evening newscasts are among the highest rated programs on television today and that means millions of viewers are witnessing the most biased presidential campaign coverage in modern media history.
Again, the usual caveats apply, and again, Noyes failed to provide the raw data or the actual statements it evaluated so its work could be evaluated by others. If the MRC's work was genuine and rigorous, wouldn't it be happy to provide the data to back it up?
Given that much of the news coverage Noyes presumably looked at for the study -- again, we don't know for sure because he refuses to post the raw data -- involved the coronavirus pandemic and Trump's questionable handling of it, negative coverage was inevitable, and Noyes is not being paid to admit that Trump deserves any of the negative coverage he's getting.
Noyes' attempt to describe the study's methodology didn't help his case:
Methodology: For this report, MRC analysts reviewed every mention of President Trump and former Vice President Biden from June 1 through July 31, including weekends, on ABC’s World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News. To determine the spin of news coverage, our analysts tallied all explicitly evaluative statements about Trump or Biden from either reporters, anchors or non-partisan sources such as experts or voters. Evaluations from partisan sources, as well as neutral statements, were not included.
Noyes didn't explain what exactly Robinson's "groundbreaking research" was about; he simply linked to an Amazon page about Robinson's book that, apparently, contains said research. (According to the Amazon blurb, Robinson and a coauthor "examine how the news media behaved (or misbehaved) in covering the 1980 presidential campaign," specifically focusing on CBS and United Press International.)Noyes did not explain how, exactly, the MRC is emulating (or not) Robinson's research.
Noyes is also not going to admit that his determination of whether an evaluative statement is "positive" or "negative" -- remember, he's pretending there are no neutral evaluative statements -- is entirely subjective and is not an objective metric. (Declaring a particular media outlet or story to be "biased" is subjective too, but that's an argument for another day.)
This is not "media research" in any competent academic sense -- it's an attempt to create justification for a political agenda. And that, not "media research," is what Noyes is being paid to do.
MRC admits 'liberal media' hated Hillary
Noyes huffed in a Sept. 29 post:
Four years ago, the liberal networks pounded Republican nominee Donald Trump with bad press, yet he won the White House anyway. Now, ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts are giving Trump the same hostile treatment, but they’ve significantly softened their approach to Trump’s Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Wait, what? Hillary Clinton got negative coverage in the media, even by the MRC's bogus, highly subjective "evaluative statements" metric that examines only a tiny sliver of media? Please go on, Rich:
In 2016, the networks spent less time on candidate Clinton (262 minutes, or about two-thirds of Trump’s total airtime), and there were many fewer negative statements about that year’s Democratic nominee compared to Trump. But Clinton still faced a decent amount of scrutiny: 90 negative statements vs. 17 positive statements, for an overall spin of 84% negative).
Yet "Hillary Clinton gets negative media coverage," while true, runs counter to the MRC's "liberal media" narrative. So back in 2016, Noyes buried that inconvenient fact by loudly complaining that the media was even more negative toward Trump and didn't cover Clinton's alleged scandals to his satisfaction. As Noyes put it in a October 2016 post:
The results show neither candidate was celebrated by the media (as Obama was in 2008), but network reporters went out of their way to hammer Trump day after day, while Clinton was largely out of their line of fire.
So, to Noyes, the "liberal bias" on Clinton was that it wasn't negative enough about her. And Noyes also made sure not to put those negative Clinton numbers in a graphic in his 2016 post -- though he did this year, because doing so suits this year's narrative.
Oh, and yet again, Noyes refused to make the raw data public. What is he afraid of? That the subjective fakery of his metric will be exposed?
One final shot
As election season wound down, it was deemed time for yet another bogus "study" of media coverage. Whine away, Mr. Noyes:
Four years ago, the Big Three broadcast evening newscasts tried to destroy Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign with historically negative press coverage. This year, those newscasts are doubling down, with coverage that is even more hostile to the Republican. Meanwhile, his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, is enjoying mostly positive coverage and a friendly media that’s virtually ignoring all topics such as the scandal swirling around his son, Hunter that might harm his prospects.
The issues with the MRC's so-called study are the same as always. And Noyes went on to whine further that the media pointed out negative things Trump did:
The topics tell the story: Trump’s coverage during these crucial 12 weeks has been dominated by the coronavirus (424 minutes 284 minutes spent on policy and 140 minutes on the President’s own diagnosis), his comments about mail-in voting (87 minutes) and the ongoing protests in major American cities (63 minutes). Notable controversies include The New York Times’reporting on Trump’s apparently stolen tax returns (23 minutes), and the hotly-disputed Atlantic story about the President supposedly calling U.S. war casualties “suckers” and “losers” (19 minutes).
But the basic premise of our democracy is that voters are presented the facts about both sides, and then make up their own minds based on their own values and their own views of the candidates. What we’ve seen in this campaign, and over the past four years, is the establishment media choosing to abandon its traditional role and become combatants on behalf of liberal politicians.
Noyes -- along with the rest of the MRC -- is a combatant on behalf of Trump, which makes his defense of this bogus "study" even more suspect.