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Foul cry

When media watchdogs like FAIR and MRC complain about bias, they often only reveal their own.
By Ben Fritz (ben@spinsanity.org)
July 1, 2002
[First published on Salon.com (Salon Premium subscription required)]

These days, the commentariat is bursting with self-professed media critics of all stripes (this column included). From bloggers to columnists to nonprofit organizations with multimillion-dollar budgets, calling the media on errors and inadequacy -- real or imagined -- is a business that just keeps on growing. But all too often, this analysis is driven more by ideology than the facts, as with the two most prominent media watchdogs, the Media Research Center (MRC) on the right and the somewhat smaller and less well-funded Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) on the left.

Despite their blatantly ideological agendas, both organizations claim to engage in impartial analysis. In practice, however, these groups often treat reporting that reflects the other side's perspective as de facto evidence of bias, with facts supporting their own views ignored or dismissed as an aberration. With MRC and FAIR, it seems, there's often no such thing as a balanced report.

It's not that these organizations don't have valid points. It's undeniable, for instance, that the vast majority of journalists self-identify as Democrats, as MRC points out. And FAIR is certainly correct that media outlets are being consolidated into large corporations that usually support conservative positions on issues such as taxes, regulation and trade. Further, both groups have done admirable work pointing out real examples of unbalanced reporting. Yet these valuable studies are too frequently intermixed with the ideological ax-grinding seen in several recent news analyses from both groups, which provide perfect evidence of how they can twist nearly any set of facts to fit their existing biases.

Consider, for instance, MRC's response to network news coverage of an Environmental Protection Agency report stating that human activity causes global warming, the first time that the Bush administration has explicitly stated this position. The MRC's "media reality check" on the issue is headlined "ABC, CBS and NBC Promote Liberal Critics, Pretend Dissent Over Global Warming No Longer Exists." But in the broadcasts cited, critics of the plan were quoted as many times as those who supported the report's findings (if not its recommendations), and reporters and anchors on all three networks explained the anti-regulation conclusions of the report. Yet, by only providing quotes critical of the Bush administration, MRC is creating a false impression of what these networks actually reported.

Nowhere to be found in MRC's analysis, for instance, are these statements by network reporters, all of which present administration positions critical of environmental regulation:

  • "[Administration officials] continue to insist that new cuts in emissions would harm the economy without curing global warming," said CBS's Bill Plante.
  • "This report says that since global warming has happened throughout the 20th century, and it's not necessarily going to slow down that much, there are going to have be adaptations," said ABC's Terry Moran.
  • "[T]he report also suggests an upside. Growing seasons in northern areas could last longer, crops and timber become more plentiful, therefore cheaper. Fuel bills could be lower. There could be more warm weather for construction or recreation," said NBC's Robert Hager.

    And, according to MRC, Plante "was the only correspondent who included a conservative criticism." But MRC fails to note that Moran didn't include quotes from anyone, including environmentalists, in his short report for ABC.

    Also, it reveals that its criticism is actually extremely narrow: "None of the networks even hinted at the wide array of scientists who still reject that premise [that climate change is real and caused by human activity]." But CBS did quote an oil industry executive who said, "It's not wise public policy to go to the most extreme outcome and say that's reality." Given that NBC also included quotes from Rush Limbaugh, who called the report "gloom and doom" and mocked it by saying, "George W. Al Gore, anyone?" it's clear that MRC's headline claiming that the networks whitewashed the debate is blatantly untrue. The only factual claim MRC can back up is that the criticism didn't come from scientists.

    A recent media advisory from FAIR reaches exactly the same type of misguided conclusion about media coverage of the aborted coup against Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Titled "U.S. Papers Hail Venezuelan Coup as Pro-Democracy Move," the piece selectively quotes from numerous newspaper editorials to make it appear that they supported a coup against Chavez, much as the Bush administration was initially accused of having done. But most examples singled out for scorn by FAIR were ambiguous at best.

    FAIR criticized the Chicago Tribune, for instance, for editorializing that "It's not every day that a democracy benefits from the military's intervention to force out an elected president" and characterizing the paper as "excited by the coup." While this quote on its own might give such an impression, FAIR omits the Tribune's extensive criticism of Chavez for his antidemocratic policies. "Chavez, however, had gone to great lengths since gaining [the presidency] in 1999 to forfeit his legitimacy," the editorial stated, noting that he "weakened the opposition-controlled congress, politicized the military, stripped the judiciary of its independence, and curbed the press." In that context, it's clear the quotation selected by FAIR far from indicated "excitement" by the Tribune.

    Even more maliciously, FAIR slams a follow-up editorial in the Tribune two days later by saying that the paper "seemed to suggest that the coup would have been no bad thing if not for 'the heavy-handed bungling of [Chavez's] successors.'" The entire quote, however, reads, "Chavez had managed to alienate most Venezuelans before Friday, and his resurrection owes much to the heavy-handed bungling of his successors." The Tribune was explaining how the bungled coup made Chavez's return to power possible, not that it "would have been no bad thing."

    Long Island's Newsday is similarly taken to task, accused of "offer[ing] a number of reasons why the coup wasn't so bad," in an April 13 editorial. Again, however, the paper was simply criticizing Chavez's policies - it called coups "a lamentable Latin American tradition."

    And the one newspaper that actually apologized to its readers for not condemning the coup was still criticized by FAIR. The New York Times admitted that its first editorial on the coup "overlooked the undemocratic manner in which [Chavez] was removed" and slapped itself hard on the wrist: "Forcibly unseating a democratically elected leader, no matter how badly he has performed, is never something to cheer." Yet this was characterized as "half-apologizing" by FAIR. It even describes the Times' hope that Chavez's policies will improve -- "We hope Mr. Chavez will act as a more responsible and moderate leader now that he seems to realize the anger he stirred" -- as the paper "[standing] its ground ... on the value of a timely military coup for teaching a president a lesson."

    FAIR and MRC also mirror each other when it comes to the frequent alerts they send to readers. FAIR's "action alerts" call for readers to contact the media asking for more balanced coverage on stories the group deems biased, while MRC's near-daily CyberAlerts are advertised as "tracking liberal media bias since 1996." Often, however, these alerts don't prove bias; they simply prove that the media sometimes interviews people or makes comments that FAIR and MRC don't like.

    FAIR, for instance, recently took National Public Radio to task in an "action alert" titled "NPR's One-Sided 'Liberal Media' Debate." It notes, "Though the program cited a poll suggesting that [claims of conservative and liberal media bias] are believed by substantial numbers of Americans (36 percent see a rightward slant, vs. 46 percent who see a tilt to the left), only one of those points of view got a full hearing on NPR."

    FAIR fails to make the obvious point, though, that the NPR piece it criticizes was focused on two recent books criticizing the media for being too liberal, one of which, Bernard Goldberg's Bias, was a bestseller. The first segment of the show featured the two authors (Goldberg and William McGowan, author of "Coloring the News"), while the second featured two longtime reporters discussing Goldberg and McGowan's perspective, disagreeing with parts and agreeing with others based on their own experiences. FAIR's complaint that NPR did not include "progressive media critics with an opposing view" therefore holds little water. How is it unfair to feature the authors of two books that criticize the media for being too liberal and then interview two journalists to seek their perspective?

    In "tracking liberal bias," meanwhile, MRC's "CyberAlerts" often do little more than present evidence of anything liberal ever said in the media, as if all liberal statements are evidence of liberal bias. For instance, a CyberAlert about media coverage of the recent arrest of Jose Padilla, aka Abdullah al Muhajir, for allegedly planning to detonate a dirty bomb leads with this:

    "Terrorists had a plan to detonate a dirty nuclear bomb, but CNN's Aaron Brown was much more interested in the rights of the captured suspect. Brown's lead: 'An American citizen, Abdullah al Muhajir, is being held in a military brig with no access to a lawyer, none of the other rights afforded to a citizen ...' CBS's Dan Rather fretted about John Ashcroft's motives: 'The arrest was made May 8th. It's not clear why Ashcroft chose to reveal this a month later with great fanfare while traveling in Russia.'"

    These statements are insufficient as evidence of bias on their own, yet MRC presents them as such. Both present legitimate political issues being debated at the national level. And MRC admits later in the alert that the other networks did not present similar reports, writing that Rather had a "hostile attitude toward the story not displayed by ABC or NBC." The entire case, then, that coverage of the Padilla case is biased is that two of four major news stories framed the story in ways that MRC didn't like.

    It appears that both groups' real beef is that perspectives they disagree with are aired at all.

    Perhaps the worst part of all this is that the methods of these ideological media watchdogs are spreading, with more and more commentators adopting their tactics of selective quotation, and lumping together all reporting they don't like under the rubric of "media bias." This is not only lazy; it is intellectually dishonest.

    One is forced to conclude that FAIR and MRC are falling well short of their self-professed goals to, respectively, "invigorate the First Amendment" and "bring balance and responsibility to the news media." The American press, so desperately in need of less ideology and more objectivity, is worse off for their failure.

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