Friday, January 20, 2006

What real media bias looks like

At, the Cato Institute's David Boaz examines interesting inconsistencies betwen the press coverage of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Supreme Court nomination in 1993 and the Samuel Alito nomination today:

In the past three months, the major media have repeatedly hammered away at the theme that Judge Samuel Alito Jr. would "shift the Supreme Court to the right" if he replaced retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

According to Lexis/Nexis, major newspapers have used the phrase "shift the court" 36 times in their Alito coverage. They have referred to the "balance of the court" 32 times and "the court's balance" another 15. "Shift to the right" accounted for another 18 mentions.

Major radio and television programs indexed by Lexis/Nexis have used those phrases 63 times. CNN told viewers that Alito would "tilt the balance of the court" twice on the day President Bush nominated him. NPR's first-day story on "Morning Edition" was headlined "Alito could move court dramatically to the right."

.... [N]ote the contrast to 1993, when President Bill Clinton nominated the liberal Ginsburg to replace conservative White. White had dissented from the landmark decisions on abortion rights in Roe v. Wade and on criminal procedure in the Miranda case, and he had written the majority opinion upholding sodomy laws in Bowers v. Hardwick. Obviously his replacement by the former general counsel of the ACLU was going to "move the court dramatically to the left."

So did the media report Ginsburg's nomination that way? Not on your life.

Not a single major newspaper used the phrases "shift the court," "shift to the left," or "balance of the court" in the six weeks between Clinton's nomination and the Senate's ratification of Ginsburg. Only one story in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer mentioned the "court's balance," and that writer thought that Ginsburg would move a "far right" court "toward the center."

The only network broadcast to use any of those phrases was an NPR interview in which liberal law professor Paul Rothstein of Georgetown University said that Ginsburg might offer a "subtle change...a nuance" in "the balance of the court" because she would line up with Justice O'Connor in the center.

No one thought that some momentary balance on the Court had to be preserved when a justice retired or that it was inappropriate to shift the ideological makeup of the Court. ...

For another striking contrast, take a look at The Washington Post's respective headlines on the days the two judges were nominated. For Ginsburg:

"Judge Ruth Ginsburg Named to High Court; Clinton's Unexpected Choice Is Women's Rights Pioneer"

"A Mentor, Role Model and Heroine of Feminist Lawyers"

"Nominee's Philosophy Seen Strengthening the Center"

For Alito:

"Alito Nomination Sets Stage for Ideological Battle; Bush's Court Pick Is Appeals Judge with Record of Conservative Rulings"

"With a Pick from the Right, Bush Looks to Rally GOP in Tough Times"

"Comparisons to Scalia, But Also to Roberts"

"Judge Participated in 2002 Vanguard Case Despite Promise to Recuse," and "Alito Leans Right Where O'Connor Swung Left"

Despite the Post's claim that Ginsburg was a centrist, she has in fact been a consistently liberal vote on the Supreme Court. Research by Richard J. Timpone, director of the Political Research Laboratory at Ohio State, finds that she is the most liberal member of the Court on economic issues and virtually tied with Justices John Paul Stevens and Steven Breyer on civil liberties.


The issue is not Ginsburg's record, but the media's notion that the Supreme Court exists in some sort of delicate balance which will be upset by the introduction of a conservative justice. The Senate has every right to consider whether Judge Alito will be too conservative, too accommodating to executive power, or too dismissive of discrimination claims. But the Supreme Court's current ideological makeup is not divinely ordained, and we should stop wringing our hands over whether he will "shift the court" in some direction.

Is this an example of media bias? I would say so.

This, in fact, is the way in which liberal media bias typical plays itself out. Not ignoring or even defending a possible domestic surveillance program under Clinton while aggressively pursuing evidence of a supposedly similar program under the Bush administration (a scoop is a scoop no matter whose side you're on), but acting on the unspoken assumption that a shift in the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court is something to worry about if it's a shift to the right.

Regardless of where one stands on the Alito nomination, David Boaz has an excellent point.


Revenant said...

It is human nature to view disagreement with your beliefs as unusual and agreement with your beliefs as normal and natural. Since a large majority of reporters are left-wing, people who hold left-wing opinions don't seem comment-worthy to them in the way that people who hold right-wing opinions do.

Anonymous said...

GREAT POST, CATH!!! Let us drink fine single-malt scotch together while we sing patriotic songs and contemplate the beauties of nature...


Sorry... I just want to savor this moment of total agreement with you. (*SMILE*)

Now, let me take this opportunity - this segway - to "meld" the point made with this post/thread with the thread concerning Hillary's "plantation" remarks:

Today, in my local newspaper, The Times Herald-Record, there's a story on page 10 titled, "Hillary Steps Up The Attack."

O.K., just from the title there's no decernable "spin." It's just a "grabber" to get folks interested in reading the story.

Hmm... but hold it... when you get into the story there does seem to be a bit of a positive spin on the headline word "Attack."

Here's how The Record (actually, it's an unbylined AP story with no link provided via The Record's website) "clarifies" the word "Attack":

First paragraph: "Hillary Rodham Clinton has come out swinging." Nice boxing metaphor!

Third paragraph: "But there is a new tough-talking Clinton these days" Nope... not "bullying" or "shrill," but "tough talking."

*** NO, NO!!! Don't worry! These nitpicks aren't what I'm using to buttress my coming point about media bias - I'm just throwing them in for context.

Here's the meat of my point:

Paragraph 4 -

"At a Harlem Church on Martin Luther King Day, she said that Bush's presidency would 'go down in history as one of the worst' and that the GOP-controlled House 'has been run like a plantation.'"

Well... notice anything MISSING...??? (*SMILE*)

Yep... the key tag line from Clinton's speech... the infamous and context rich tag line "and you know what I mean," is... "somehow"... missing. (*SMIRK*)

Oh, yes... the article mentions that Hillary was speaking in Harlem so I suppose one might infer that the audience was almost all black... but for "some" reason the author doesn't "dwell" on or even insinuate that the CONTEXT of the remarks specifically TARGETED to a black audience might make all the difference in how one views the use of the term "run like a plantation."

Again... I'm not about to climb to the top of the Empire State Building with a megaphone and announce to the world "Ah, ha! Proof of liberal media bias!" Nope... I don't claim this to be the be all and end all which "proves" some sort of "liberal pro-Hillary, pro-Democrat, anti-Bush conspiracy;" rather, I bring it up as an example of the sort of subtle "air-brushing" a writer or editor can do to give a news story a gentle push towards creating one impression over another.

You see, that's the "problem" with the whole "bias" debate. The skew is often quite subtle and often open to different interpretation. However... day by day, month by month, year by year... a certain consistency in the direction of the bias can't help but have an effect.

My contention is that liberal/Democrat media bias is real and that over the long haul such bias does have an impact.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps all we are seeing is that the MSM has become less and less enchanted with the Executive since '93 or whenever.

Revenant said...

the media simply suggested (correctly) that Ginsberg would move it towards the center, rather than (incorrectly) "to the left" as he wishes they did.

Um, navigator... when a court is right-leaning, moving "towards the center" IS "moving to the left". The center is left of the right. That's how it works.

Furthermore, it doesn't matter if Ginsberg was left-leaning in an absolute sense -- only if she was more left-leaning than the person she replaceed. She undeniably was, and therefore clearly moved the court towards the left when she was appointed.

Revenant said...

There's a difference between moving toward the left, directionally, and moving to the left, in the sense of actually arriving there.

Sure, but both senses are being used to describe Alito, whereas neither was used for Ginsberg. For example, NPR's statement "Alito could move court dramatically to the right" clearly uses the term in the "movement" rather than "arrival" sense.

Furthermore you claimed that it was "wrong" to say that Ginsberg moved the court to the left. She did move the court to the left in at least one of the two possible senses of that term (and, most importantly, in the sense which Boaz was using).

The pre-Ginsberg court contained 4 conservatives (Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas, and White), two moderates (O'Connor and Kennedy) and three liberals (Blackmun, Stevens, and Souter). Ginsberg's appointment shifted that to 3 cons, 2 mods, and 4 libs. Alito's appointment will shift the balance from 3 cons, 2 moderates, and 4 libs to 4 cons, 1 mod, and 4 libs.

So it is hard to see how exactly Alito is moving the court "to the right" in any absolute sense, if Ginsberg's appointment didn't qualify as a move to the left. In neither scenario did the conservatives or liberals constitute a majority on their own, and the appointment of Ginsberg (con with lib) was a more significant shift than the appointment of Alito (mod with con). Indeed, the result of Alito's appointment will be a court slightly less conservative than it was before Ginsberg was appointed!

Anonymous said...

Brad wrote...

I’m going to wade into some deep waters, and ask why a media bias is actually a problem, if one indeed exists.

Why do (or should) we expect any particular outlet (let alone show or writer/article) to remain unbiased? .... BTW: I’m not asking this as a rhetorical point of debate...


Fair question, Brad.

Basically I'd say MSM bias is a problem because by its very nature it's limiting.

The problem isn't that one... or a few... or as you put it "any particular outlet" tends to skew the news left. It's that the "norm" of the majority of MSM skew left.

Beyond the MSM, the majority of American television and movies seem to skew left when there's some sort of economic/social/political/legal focus at play.

Beyond the MSM and the "arts" community the majority of academia seems to skew left.

All these left (or liberal if you'd prefer) influences feed on and support each other.

Note... I'm not saying "all" or "all the time." To clarify, my contention is that since there's not a level playing field as concerns access to ideas, theories, facts, and viewpoints, the negative effect is to give the average American less information than he or she needs in order to rationally take advantage of and reinforce American civic culture and society.

Yes... most Americans have access to all sorts of information and can expose themselves to competing ideas concerning what "is," what "should be," and various options about how to get there... wherever "there" is. Access is theory... utilization is hard reality.

Most Americans rely upon the MSM for their news and when the news is skewed this obviously effects a readers/listeners/watchers perception of the "meaning" of the news. Take my example on this very thread of the way my local rag (and perhaps other local rags which used the same AP story or edited it the same way) somehow failed to publish the full Hillary quote. While not everyone (perhaps not even most!) exposed to the full quote would react differently to the full quote as opposed to the "abridged" quote, bottom line... those exposed ONLY to the abridged quote are lacking information that MIGHT change their view of Hillary's remark.

Now, sure... perhaps most readers of my local paper (circulation around 225,000) heard or read about Hillary's "and you know what I mean" quote somewhere else... but if so that only proves the point of how important it is to be exposed to diverse opinion and fact so as to have the most information available in order to make judgements and come to conclusions.

Propaganda isn't ALWAYS bad. Bias isn't ALWAYS bad. It's just that more often than not the greater good - at least as I perceive it - is served by open and honest reporting that is as free of bias as it can be.

Yes... the Wall Street Journal editor page "balances" the New York Times editorial page. Yes the Washington Post may be "balanced" to a degree by the Washington Times and the NY Daily News by the NY Post. Sure we have Reason Magazine and The New Republic and National Review and Atlantic Monthly... and on and on and on. The problem... not a lot of people regularly read these newspapers or blog or even listen to talk radio. Most people get their news from their local newspapers and network TV news and entertainment and these sources depend on The New York Times, Washington Post, other "liberal" newspapers and wire services and thus you get skew upon skew upon skew.

It doesn't matter to me that Americans are in large part responsible for their own ignorance. The "why" is secondary to the result for me.

A biased MSM... assuming you believe this to be the case... is - based upon size and influence - a limiting factor in terms of allowing citizens all the information and conjecture they should be exposed to in order to make the best judgements and decisions - especially when it comes to politics.

Well... comments or questions? I apologize if I've rambled a bit and if I've been less than articulate, but I've tried to answer your questions to the best of my ability.

Cathy Young said...


There's a difference between moving toward the left, directionally, and moving to the left, in the sense of actually arriving there. Yes, Ginsberg brought the Court slightly towards the left based on who she replaced, but there was no chance she's bring the Court to the left in the sense that the end result of her confirmation would be a left-wing Court. Alito, by contrast, may be the vote that brings the Court over to the far right.

But doesn't that depend on your concept of "far right," "far left," etc.? There's really no such thing as an abstract "center" -- it's all relative to one's own understanding of what is preferable, legally and politically.

Brad, as for "what does it matter": I think it matters insofar as the news media present themselves, and are seen, as objective arbiters of news (rather than as presenting a viewpoint).

Revenant said...

Did White have, as did O'Connor, a reputation as the swing vote on a closely divided court?

No, he had a reputation for being a *conservative* vote on a closely divided court, and he was replaced with a liberal. Why would replacing a swing vote be bigger news than replacing a reliable opposition vote? According to that logic Alito would have been less controversial if Bush had nominated him to replace Ginsberg or Souter.

does a genuinely democratic constitution allow five or more of nine unelected officials to make major policy decisions?

Apparently. If not, Roe vs Wade has definitely got to go. :)

Anonymous said...

Brad wrote...

I think this is trying to have your cake and eat it, too. You can't say that right-leaning papers don't matter because no one reads them (or listens to radio), but that left-leaning ones do.


I'm not saying that. I never said that. If that's what you took from my post perhaps I was less than articulate. Allow me to try again:

(Beware... I'll probably ramble and even repeat myself a fair bit here.) (*SMILE*)

We're talking about the mainstream media. By that we mean the media most "average" Americans are exposed to (or if you'd rather, EXPOSE THEMSELVES TO) day in and day out, week in and week out, to some extent or another.

Most Americans AREN'T exposed to National Review. Nor are most Americans exposed to The New Republic. Most Americans DON'T listen to Rush Limbaugh (or Air America). Most Americans don't read the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal (nor watch the Sunday morning news shows or C-Span or watch the News Hour with Jim Lehrer). Most Americans don't spend hours a week reading and posting on blogs like Cathy's where by and large bright people all over the ideological spectrum are take part in an intellectual free for all that constantly exposes them to diverse facts and opinions.

In other words, Brad, most Americans stick to pretty much "homogenized" MSM... perhaps... PERHAPS... straying to the "exotic" news organs such Time and/or Newsweek (or U.S. News and World Report... or maybe Reader's Digest).

Most Americans - if they read a daily paper - read a LOCAL newspaper. (And maybe... especially in metropolitan areas... also subscribe to papers like the New York Times or Washington Post or LA Times - or whatever the closest "big city newspaper" is.)

But back to local newspapers...

Local newspapers get their national and international news from wire services and directly or indirectly from larger newspapers like the New York Times and The Washington Post - just to name two. (Trickle down news!)

These same wire services (AP as the main example) and "national/regional" newspapers influence TV and radio news and vis-a-versa.

So... for "mainstream" Americans... who sets the agenda - the emphasis - the tone? I'd say the AP, New York Times, Washington Post, ABC, CBS, NBC... i.e. the "mainstream" media.

Is the mainstream media more liberal than conservative? I think so. If you don't buy this contention than we're pretty much at loggerheads, but for the sake of you understanding where I'm coming from you've got to buy into the premise - for the sake of argument.

When most Americans are exposed almost exclusively - on a day to day, week to week basis - to stories picked or not picked... emphasised on not emphasised... reported and edited mainly by reporters and editors who (at least according to media polling) "lean liberal" and tend to identify with (sympathize with?) the Democratic Party more than the Republican Party than "access" is beyond the point.

We call it the "mainstream" media because it's what "mainstream" Americans rely upon for information.

Even if most Americans don't read the liberal (and for the sake of argument just go with the tag "liberal") New York Times, Washington Post, et al, the big "national" and "regional" liberal newspapers are read by and supply the news and news direction to smaller newspapers. They set the overall national news agenda.

No matter how successful Fox News is or conservative dominated (see... I'm willing to acknowledge the tag!) radio is, their influence is dwarfed by CBS/NBC/ABC TV news and even while listening to talk radio the NEWS breaks in between Rush's show are penned (and this applies in general) by "national" network/station writers and don't necessarily echo the spin of the "entertainer."

Heck, Brad, even if Fox News kicks CNN's butt in the ratings, which network is portrayed as more "serious" (trustworty?) by the MSM? Assuming FNC veers right and CNN veers left... which network is usually given more credibility - more benefit of the doubt... respect... assumed gravitas... by the MSM - Fox or CNN?

So, Brad... what I'm saying isn't that non-MSM outlets - right or left - don't matter; I'm saying that in DEGREE... the MSM matters much, much more and the MSM is basically liberal as opposed to conservative... Democrat leaning as opposed to Republican leaning.


Brad continued...

Let me ask you this: do outlets (etc) that are obviously right-friendly bother you? That is, do you have irritation at the way Fox reports the news, or that Rush is beating the right-wing drum?


Short answer: No.

But again Brad, apparently I didn't make myself clear in my initial post.

It's not Fox News vs. CNN. It's Fox News vs. CNN...MSNBC...NBC...ABC...CBS...PBS...

It's not the Wall Street Journal (and even with the Journal it's really only their editorial page and other editorial comment that identifies the newspaper as conservative) vs. The New York Times. It's the WSJ vs. the WP, LAT, CT, MH, BG... (in other words, when it comes to the big nationwide/regional newspapers those on the left far outnumber those on the right).

At best right-wing radio, FNC, conservative blogs, etc., serve to provide SOME balance to the steady drumbeat of liberalism Americans get from our schools and the mainstream media. Rush and conservative radio made the first inroads. FNC came next. The blogs came next. But basically, Brad, the liberal side of the media spectrum still controls the agenda.

Anyway... whether you "buy" the assumptions I base my claims on or not, I hope I've given you a clearer idea of where I'm coming from.

Anonymous said...

Hey Cath... did you happen to catch Meet The Press yesterday? Senator Barack Obama was one of Russert's one-on-one interviews.

You wouldn't consider Obama a radical, would you? I wouldn't. The Senator strikes me as a civil, serious, responsible Democratic Senator; liberal, but not a "bomb-thrower" or ideologue. Indeed, I'd give him a good shot at becoming America's first black president one day.

Are we on the same page, Cath?

Now... you think Pat Robertson is nuts, right? He says all sort of outrageous, hurtful things, right? He's certainly not a "mainstream" figure, someone Americans should look up to, right? (I'm not trying to put words in your mouth, I'm trying to clarify and make sure I understand your position - do I?)

David Duke is beyond the pale. Hopefully everyone agrees with that statement. I personally wouldn't put "nutty Pat" in the Duke category, but some would - maybe you would - I don't know. Let me ask you, though... think back to the craziest, most hateful thing Pat Robertson has ever said and ask yourself what you'd think of a politician - a respected Republican national figure let's say - who refused to condemn whatever that remark might be if asked to.

You're familiar with some of the looney - and frankly hateful and vicious - attacks Harry Belafonte has been launching at President Bush lately - attacks made abroad in support of the anti-American leader (dictator?) Hugo Chavez and attacks made at home comparing Homeland Security to the Gestopo? Right?

Anyway... Russert went through a few of Belafonte's recent comments and tried to get Obama to denouce the worst of them. This was the result:

MR. RUSSERT: Is it appropriate to call the President of the United States the greatest terrorist in the world?

SEN. OBAMA: I don’t think it’s appropriate. That’s not language that I would use. But keep in mind that, you know, one of the great things about the United States is all of our citizens have the right to, you know, speak our minds about what’s going on politically.

Now I'm curious... let's say that Pat Robertson - or... comparing apples to apples, a conservative entertainer, Tom Selleck maybe - had been going around the country and the world during a Democratic administration leveling the kind of charges Belafonte routinely makes against Bush at a past or future Democratic president... do you think the MSM would give the behavior - and a high-profile Republican Senator who refused to outright condemn it - the kind of pass that is given to Obama and even largely to Belafonte?

Sure... Fox News (especially O'Reilly) and conservative talk radio have been hammering Belafonte, but has he been hammered by the MSM to the extent that Robertson was after his Sharon remarks?

And imagine... imagine Robertson (or a Tom Selleck or in the old days a Charlton Heston) throwing around the Nazi/Gestapo/World's Biggest Terrorist charges both at home and abroad and a Republican Senator - pick an "equivilant" to Obama - being questioned about it on Meet The Press and refusing to point blank denounce the charges... do you think such a thing would escape the MSM's attention as Obama's refusal to denounce Belafonte's outrageous charges has? (And as for Obama... I haven't listened to any right wing radio today, but I'd be surprised if Rush or Hannity pick up on the Obama non-condemnation and I'd also be surprised if O'Reilly picks up on it.)

Listen... maybe I'm off base... after all, I'm talking "would/could/might" and all I'm doing is guessing and questioning. I have no crystal ball. Even so... I'd be interested in hearing your reaction - your best guess or contention - concerning such a senario.

*** Note... I welcome anyone and everyone to chime in - I'm just especially curious about what Cathy thinks.

Maybe you think Obama's appearance on Meet The Press and his finessing of Russert's questioning regarding Belafonte's recent string of anti-Bush comments is unremarkable and not worthy of wider media attention. If that's your view I'm not gonna argue... I'm just curious whether it is your view.

Also... if you think the MSM non-reaction to Obama's non-denounciation of Belafonte's extreme invective would be equally "non-reactionary" to a similar situation involving a conservative personality/entertainer/activist and a Republican Senator under questioning refusing to denounce such invective... I'd be curious to know whether that's your guess or not.

Maybe you think I'm reaching. Maybe you think my cynical attitude towards the MSM is unwarranted. I guess what I'm asking is... what do you think?

Revenant said...

You ask us to imagine what would happen if a Republican was asked the same thing about Robertson. But (and correct me if I’m wrong, since I don’t watch that many of these shows), the fact is that we do have to imagine.

No we don't; the White House is regularly asked questions about Robertson's latest crazy remarks. It is usually the press secretary (rather than Bush) giving the response, though. And the Venezuelan government demanded a White House repudiation of Robertson's call for the assassination of Hugo Chavez.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the thoughtful response. We're coming at this from slightly different angles, but bottom line, I "get" where you're coming from and you "get" where I'm coming from.

It's a pleasure "conversing" with you.

Any thoughts on my Obama post?


P.S. - Good point, Rev, concerning your Tuesday, Jan. 24, 02:29:43 PM EST post.

P.P.S. - Cathy... are you out there? I'd really like to hear your thoughts since you're the one who started the thread.

Anonymous said...

Brad wrote...

I'm also not sure about the claim that Obama was "refusing to denounce" anything. Russert asked him a point blank question (Is this appropriate?) and Obama gave a point blank response:
"I don't think it's appropriate. That's not language that I would use." The rest of his answer, basically, points out that Belafonte is a private citizen, capable of the same goofy opinions as anyone else.

What would the followup question to that be? "Can you restate that more vehemently?" or "What do you, sir, intend to do about these comments?"


Yeah... something along those lines! I would suggest:

"But Senator Obama, would you agree that such sentiments - referring to the President of the United States as the world's greatest tyrant and likening the Department of Homeland Security - which the Democratic Party claims as one of its major contributions to the war on terror - to the Nazi Gestapo are repugnant, wrong, beyond the pale and frankly contemptable? As a United States Senator and role model to millions do you denounce such sentiments, Senator Obama?

See, Brad? I have no problem answering your questions. (Damn... maybe NBC should consider changing their Sunday morning flagship news program to: Meet the Press with Tim Russert and Bill Barker.) (*GRIN*) Heck... I'd sign on for a tenth of Russert's salary! (*SMILE*)


Brad continued...

I guess my answer is, yes, I think if Tom Selleck made a ridiculous statement, and someone asked Dennis Hastert and got that response, the question would be over. There really isn't much to follow up on there.


Fair enough! I asked you for your guess and you gave it to me. My guess is to the contrary and beyond that, assuming my guess as correct, I'd further guess that the "news" of a non-denouciation by Hastart (or Lott or DeLay or any other "name" conservative Republican officeholder) under a simlar scenario would reverbarate across the MSM for days to come after the initial interview.

Just my guess! (*SMILE*)