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Confusing "Bad News" with Bias

Reported by Judy - June 16, 2005

A debate between Democratic strategist Bob Bechel and Republican strategist Charlie Black on "The Big Story" on Wednesday (June 15, 2005) concerning Democratic complaints about their lack of media coverage turned into a rerun of "The Media Is Biased in Favor of Liberals."

John Gibson lead off the segment with a comment about House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, holding a news conference to complain about a conservative bias in the media. Gibson immediately demeaned her (and all women) by saying, "I see Nancy Pelosi stamping her little high heels," and then asking, "what part of the liberal media isn't paying attention to her?" No doubt where this "we report, you decide" journalist stands on this issue.

Bechel opened the exchange in support of Pelosi's complaints against the media by commenting that Bush "has gotten a freer ride than any president" in his conduct of the war.

Black then went into traditional GOP "liberal press" attack mode. "Every objective source that has studied this question, meaning the think tanks, the Program for Excellence in Journalism, the journalism schools, every one of them says the press in the last election was biased against George Bush for John Kerry. Evan Thomas (assistant editor at Newsweek magazine ... he said that media bias on behalf of John Kerry cost George Bush 5 to 15 points. Come on," he said.

Well, Black had me convinced. Until I checked his sources.

In its second annual report on the state of the news media, The Project for Excellence in Journalism reported on its content analysis of media coverage of the 2004 campaign. It found that "the criticism that George Bush got worse coverage than John Kerry is supported by the data.2 Looking across all media, campaign coverage that focused on Bush was three times as negative as coverage of Kerry (36% versus 12%) It was also less likely to be positive (20% positive Bush stories, 30% for Kerry). That also meant Bush coverage was less likely to be neutral (44% of Bush stories, 58% for Kerry)."

The report never used the word "bias" in describing the coverage of Bush. It said it was "negative." The difference is crucial. Coverage of the trial of a mass murderer almost always is "negative" in tone. It can't help but be, especially if the trial results in a conviction. That does not mean such coverage was biased. A "bias" is an unfair personal opinion, not mere negativity.

It is negative to say, as the press did, that the economy failed to produce as many jobs as the Bush administration forecast that it would last year. It also is factually true. That is not an unfair personal opinion of some journalist. It is not bias. The Project for Excellence in Journalism never looked at whether the negative tone of the coverage was justified or unjustified by the facts at the time. Its report, therefore, never said what Charlie Black said it said.

Black also said that Evan Thomas "said that media bias on behalf of John Kerry cost George Bush 5 to 15 points." What Thomas actually said (and this was his opinion, not some study) was that he thought the media wanted John Kerry to win and because Kerry and Edwards were both looked young, the press would portray them that way and that that would be worth 15 points. A few days later, Thomas admitted that was a stupid thing to say and that he was wrong that it would be worth 15 points and that maybe it would be worth 5 points.

Black omitted Thomas' retraction of his earlier claim that his belief in a pro-Kerry media bias was worth 15 points. He never noted Thomas' statement that he was wrong about that and that it was a stupid thing to say. Instead, he stated as fact that Thomas said media bias "cost" Bush 5 to 15 points, implying that Thomas had made the judgment after the fact rather than as an off-the-cuff guess.

Such were the "facts" that Black used to justify his claim that the media is biased against George Bush. Gotta hand it to Black. He substituted "bias" for "negative" and reinforced "liberal media bias" before Bechel knew what was happening to him.

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