Testing Media Bias

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

Conservatives argue that the national news media are biased for liberals and Democrats. Liberals argue the opposite. You could write a book about it. It's a difficult argument to have because neither side is willing to accept the other's evidence. Liberals point out that the punditocracy, on radio, on cable TV and in most broadcast outlets is dominated by right-wingers, who don't do too badly on the op-pages either. Conservatives counter that reporters are liberals. Liberals respond that well, only on social policy, not economic policy, but anyway, owners are conservatives and that matters more. Conservatives respond, "Oh forget it, you don't understand anything" or something like that.

It's difficult to test the proposition in any respectably scientific fashion because the nature of the issues change, as do baseline assumptions. Certainly most of the media were far kinder to George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11 than they were before—to say nothing of their treatment of Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Every once in a while, we find a test that tells us something about how the media treats the respective parties. For instance, earlier this week, the Washington Post reported on a study of time allotted to both Bush and Sen. John Kerry by the cable news outlets. They found that from March 3, the day after Kerry clinched the Democratic nomination, through April16, they devoted 12 hours and 11 minutes to live appearances by Bush and only 3 hours 47 minutes to Kerry.

The cable news executives offer all kinds of excuses about this, citing Bush's role as commander-in-chief, but as the newspaper points out, "When President Bush delivered a routine stump speech to a group of New Mexico homeowners on March 26, CNN and Fox News each carried his appearance for 35 minutes, and MSNBC for 33 minutes. Meanwhile, "when John Kerry gave what was billed as a major address on national security at George Washington University on March 17, he was knocked off the screen by a large explosion in Baghdad. CNN and Fox each dropped Kerry (who had been reduced to small box) after three minutes, and MSNBC never picked him up." It has long been true, in addition, that the cable networks they have long been far kinder to Bush than to any Democrat, and this predates 9/11, as previous studies have demonstrated.

A second type, but no less telling test may be found in the treatment that each candidate, receives from what is almost universally recognized as the premier news interview program—both in terms of influence and viewership—NBC's "Meet the Press." It is easy to take this too far, but as Tim Russert is the only interviewer to sit down with both Bush and Kerry in recent times, it offers one of the only true points of comparison. In watching both interviews back to back, here's what I noticed.

Number of times in which Russert asked Bush or Kerry to make an impossible prediction? Kerry 1, Bush 0. (RUSSERT: If you were elected one year from now, will there be 100,000 American troops in Iraq?)

Number of times Russert tried to put guest in impossible position, based on actions of his opponent: Kerry 2, Bush 0. (RUSSERT: So if Iraq is not secure, how can you possibly say the U.N. and NATO are going to come to our rescue when they don't have the troops or the interest of going in there?…. RUSSERT: Could you accept a Shiite theocracy running Iraq similar to what we have in Iran?)

Number of times Russert asked guest to defend statements he made over 30 years ago: Kerry 2, Bush 0. (RUSSERT: And people refer back to an interview when you first ran for Congress, back with The Harvard Crimson, where you said, "Kerry said the United Nations should have control over most of our foreign military operations. I'm an internationalist. I'd like to see our troops dispersed through the world only at the directive of the United Nations…. RUSSERT: You used the word "war criminals.")

Number of times Russert tried to pretend that a 30-year statement was untrue when in fact, by his own admission it was true. Kerry 1, Bush 0. (RUSSERT: But, Senator, when you testified before the Senate, you talked about some of the hearings you had observed at the winter soldiers meeting and you said that people had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and on and on. A lot of those stories have been discredited…" Note. As Kerry points out when he notes that "A lot of them have been documented," the fact that "a lot of those stories have been discredited," clearly implies that a number of them—perhaps most, perhaps a few, we have no way of knowing from Russert's question which ones he means, have not been discredited. So when Russert asks, "So you stand by that?" he is asking Kerry to take a position that he himself endorses with his question, but is unwilling to admit. And surely Russert has heard of My Lai, and now, Tiger Force.)

Number of times Russert plays the other candidate's campaign commercials attacking the interviewee played on the air: Kerry 1, Bush 0.

Number of times Russert asks questions designed to alienate a crucial ethnic bloc: Kerry 1, Bush 0. (RUSSERT: Why not lift the embargo and overthrow Castro…)

Number of times Russert casts aspersions on one candidate's military record asked without noting that the other candidate managed to avoid military service, despite his cushy national guard post: Kerry 1, Bush 0. (RUSSERT: The Boston Globe reports that your commanding officer, Lt. Commander Grant Hibberd has suggested that you perhaps didn't earn your first Purple Heart and question whether you should have left Vietnam after six months….)

Number of times Russert attempts to equate service in Vietnam with cushy national guard services that was not even completed: Kerry 1, Bush 0. (RUSSERT: In order to deal with those kinds of issues, when I asked President Bush about his service in the Texas Guard, he agreed to release all his military records, health records, everything. Would you agree to release all your military records?)

And finally, who has better manners?

Number of times the guest is called "sir" by host: Bush 1, Kerry 0.

Number of times Russert is called "sir" by guest: Kerry 2, Bush 0.

The numbers do not lie….

Eric Alterman is the co-author of The Book On Bush and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Eric Alterman

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