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The MRC and Liberal Media Bias: Creating Their Own Enemy
July 12, 2002
By Mark Weber

It's an Orwellian irony: Conservative pundits can only justify their overwhelming domination of the news media if they can prove that Liberal Media Bias exists. Right-wingers need not present an opposing point of view as long as Liberal Media Bias ensures that left-wing thought is well represented.

Fox balances ABC. Rush balances CBS. The Wall St. Journal balances NBC. It's only fair - but only if you can prove that Liberal Media Bias is alive and well.

Enter the Media Research Center, Brent Bozell's media hit squad for the right, running on a healthy dose of Scaife money and lucre from other conservative cash cows. Bozell (Bill Buckley's nephew) has been charged with what may be the most important job in conservative circles ­ verifying that Liberal Media Bias exists, and therefore vindicating the overwhelming amount of conservative punditry that we are subjected to daily.

How does MRC do it? Their website is full of the old conservative standbys: anecdotes about biased journalists, particularly those of the TV-celebrity type; quotes taken out of context purporting to show Liberal Media Bias; silly "Viewer Polls" that are designed to show off the good common sense of MRC acolytes.

But MRC also loves to put a pseudo-scientific patina on their findings. Thanks to the Nexis news database, MRC can gather "data" that they can then "analyze" using strict "methodologies" that lead to "objective" conclusions about the media.

MRC's latest study is draped in this pretense of scholarship. "Burying the Liberal Label on Network News" (released last week) revels in its methodological soundness; apparently, we are supposed to be impressed by the academic tone of the study. Right-wing pundits will undoubtedly quote it ad nauseum over the next several months.

On closer inspection, however, this report does nothing more than expose MRC's talent for partisan sophistry and sloppy research.

At the beginning of "Burying the Liberal Label," MRC juxtaposes their past work against a study by Stanford linguist Geoffrey Nunberg. Nunberg was compelled to take a look at the media after reading Bernard Goldberg's "Bias," a book MRC lauds for its exposure of liberal tendencies in network television news.

Nunberg compared the total number of times that a politician's name was used in several different newspapers to the number of times it was used near the label "conservative" or "liberal" (he admits that it was easier for him to check newspapers than network broadcasts, and that television may be different than newspapers, but probably not by much).

To his surprise, liberal politicians were much more likely to be labeled than conservatives. This, of course, flies in the face of every bit of "research" the MRC has conducted.

"Burying the Liberal Label" is essentially a rebuttal to Nunberg. But rather than follow his example and compare the number of times a politician is labeled to the number of times she is not, MRC instead decided to count up the total number of "liberal/conservative" labels on the three network evening newscasts.

The results? Big surprise - a "conservative" label is used much more often than a "liberal" label: 992 to 247. Numerical proof that here must be Liberal Media Bias. Q.E.D. So there.

By this logic, if Brent Bozell bought a new fishing pole, took it down to the lake, and caught three bass and one sunny, he would say that the pole was three times more biased toward catching bass. It wouldnıt occur to him that maybe there were more bass in the lake.

A much more plausible explanation for the greater use of the "conservative" label would be that conservatives get a lot more airtime on the networks than liberals do. In fact, Nunberg's study suggests just this: his five liberal politicians got considerably fewer mentions, even in "liberal" newspapers, than his five conservatives did.

Is this proof of Conservative Media Bias? Of course not; it only shows that the numbers game MRC plays is rigged to give them the results that they and their funders want.

But even if we accept MRC's goofy premise, this study fails on its own terms. The MRC's methodology has holes large enough to drive a newsvan through.

To massage the data for "Burying the Liberal Label," MRC winnowed down the number of uses to only those it deemed relevant to the study. Most of the "methodology" involved selecting which labels should stay or go.

For example, MRC eliminated all uses of the labels that are not "Swithin the U.S. political context." Time out ­ why do all of those get eliminated? I can understand removing a description of "a deeply conservative Islamist," but what about a label of, say, Tony Blair as a "liberal"? There are plenty of Western world leaders whose labeling should be relevant to this study.

Next, the study removed all uses of labels by "news sources." If, for example, a reporter repeats that a Republican calls a Democrat a "liberal," that doesnıt count.

But why not? The reporter is using editorial license to make her point. If she uses the quote, and then calls the Republican a "conservative," she gets dinged for using a conservative label but not for using a liberal one. She wouldnıt repeat the label for the Democrat ­ it's already been used. Why doesnıt MRC believe that editorial bias is relevant?

It gets sloppier. MRC also doesnıt count sound bites, where a politician can label himself or someone else. So a network can choose to run a string of clips with Republicans calling Democrats "tax-and-spend liberals," and not get dinged, but if they describe Bush as a "compassionate conservative," theyıre showing bias.

All of this methodological madness, however, is not nearly as bad as the premise on which the study is based. The use of the word "conservative" more often than the word "liberal" in no way betrays Liberal Media Bias.

During the five years of the study, conservatives dominated the Congress and won (sorry, stole) a presidential election. Conservatives have increasingly commanded the political debate in this country. Republicans proudly identify themselves as "conservatives"; Democrats shy away from being labeled "liberals." All of these factors contribute to the increased use of the "conservative" label in newscasts.

In fact, the overwhelming use of the word "conservative" on the nightly news suggests quite the opposite of Liberal Media Bias. Conservatives are setting the agenda and getting the lion's share of the face-time. Liberals have been pushed off to the side, unable to make their case to the public. The right has taken over the mainstream.

But donıt tell that Brent Bozell. He's getting paid to point out the enemy ­ even if he has to create one out of cooked numbers.

Media Research Center ­ "Burying the Liberal Label on Network News"
Geoffrey Nunberg - "On the Bias" ­ Background on the Media Research Center
MediaTransparency ­ Sources of MRC's funding

Mark Weber is a writer and composer whose political work includes arts advocacy.

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