Propaganda Clothed as Critique

By Brian Montopoli

We’d like to take Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center seriously. We really would. There are ideological biases in the press, overt and covert, and organizations like MRC can, theoretically, be an important resource in identifying and understanding them. Media Matters — MRC’s competitor on the left — is, for example, a consistently useful resource, largely because the organization tends to limit its criticisms to specific instances of media malfeasance, and then supports those criticisms with documented facts and clear, transparent reasoning.

Underlying every assertion by MRC, on the other hand, is the notion that the media are consciously and deliberately acting to distort the news, thanks to an overriding and all-consuming ideological bias.

That’s an untenable idea on several counts, not least of which is the fallacy of treating what has been erroneously dubbed “the mainstream media” as a monolithic entity with a single agenda instead of a diverse collection of organizations with their own interests. Then there’s the fact that in any rational accounting of the shortcomings of our currently beleaguered media, ideological bias falls pretty far down on the list. As we’ve noted before, if there’s an overriding bias that controls and corrupts news outlets, it’s a bias toward sensationalism and conflict at the expense of actual newsgathering — a bias that’s driven by pressures for profits and ratings, and one that rides roughshod over any given reporter’s personal ideology.

But MRC persists in pretending that there’s a vast conspiracy at hand, consistently portraying itself as a voice in the wilderness fighting against a corrupt system. The organization hands out bumper stickers and erects billboards that say “Tell the Truth — Don’t Believe The Liberal Media”; its founder writes books about “how the major TV, radio, and print news outlets not only distort the news, but try to dictate the national agenda”; and its leaders turn to the likes of Ann Coulter as a voice of reason in the debate over what constitutes fair and accurate journalism.

And that’s too bad, because MRC could do some real good. There’s a need for a serious critique of specific instances of liberal bias in the media, just as there is for instances of conservative bias. But because MRC is so insistent on pushing its overreaching and not-so-hidden ideological agenda, reasonable people have a hard time taking it seriously, even when the organization has a legitimate point to make.

That’s because, at its heart, MRC doesn’t exist to make the media better — it’s just one part of a wider movement by the far right to demonize corporate media. To some degree, that movement is not surprising, given that many on the right justifiably feel that a largely secular, blue-state media establishment doesn’t effectively serve their interests.

But that same movement also reflects a determination to convince Americans that news needs to be strained through an ideological filter that makes the facts themselves something to be debated. MRC, which has a $6 million annual budget, is funded by a number of right-wing foundations primarily interested in pushing conservative ideology, not in building a more honest media. It attacks the so-called MSM both because its backers have legitimate grievances with the establishment press and because those self-same backers want Americans to turn toward news outlets that won’t muddy their message with inconvenient context or dissenting voices.

Media bias warriors on both sides make a lot of noise about equal time for both sides. There’s something to be said for that: A panel discussion of President Bush’s performance in office shouldn’t, for example, be made up of all liberals — or of all conservatives. But they also demand equivalence when it is unwarranted. Many conservatives claim the press has turned a blind eye toward visible good news coming out of Iraq — one common complaint was that we weren’t hearing about all the schools being painted after Saddam’s fall. But a school painting is barely news even here in America, much less in a war zone where the carnage is mounting. As news directors well know, the sad truth is that they’re much more likely to get ratings with a report on a school shooting. It’s understandable that the “good” news stories coming out of Iraq didn’t get much play from reporters who often find themselves under lethal bombardment. News about such attacks is both more important and more sensational than the good news they might uncover. When consequential good news did occur, in the form of the movingly successful election, it dominated coverage. In either case, had news outlets been striving for the short-term equivalence that many called for, we would have seen both the consequential bad stories and the consequential good stories undercovered to make room for relatively trivial reports.

But false equivalence is at the very root of MRC’s beliefs. Have a look at this passage, which comes from How to Identify, Expose & Correct Liberal Media Bias, by Media Research Center’s Brent H. Baker:

To find bias by use of experts or sources, stay alert to the affiliations and political perspective of those quoted as experts or authorities in news stories. Not all stories will include experts, but in those that do, make sure about an equal number of conservatives and liberals are quoted. If a story quotes non-experts, such as those portrayed as average citizens, check to be sure that about an equal number come from both sides of the issue in question. Also check to see if a reporter’s generalization about how ‘economists across the political spectrum’ or ‘most health care specialists’ is supported by subsequently cited experts. If they are all or overwhelmingly from one side of the political spectrum, then you’ve come across bias by use of sources.

One can understand the impulse behind this advice. But to apply it to every story is absurd. Consider a hypothetical report on global warming. The overwhelming majority of the scientific community believes that global warming is happening and that human activity is contributing to it, but there is a small group on the right that consider it an unfounded myth. To give equal time to the vast majority and the tiny minority makes no sense — and yet that’s precisely what a reporter should do, if Baker is to be believed.

A recent incident concerning C-SPAN illustrated to what absurd lengths the quest for equivalence at all costs can lead. The network announced that it would balance its coverage of a lecture by a professor of Holocaust studies named Deborah E. Lipstadt with a speech by David Irving — who sued Lipstadt for calling him a Holocaust denier. A British court found for Lipstadt, finding that Irving was anti-Semitic, racist, and given to misrepresenting and misinterpreting historical evidence. “Falsifiers of history cannot ‘balance’ histories,” said a petition sent to C-SPAN that was signed by more than 200 historians. “Falsehoods cannot ‘balance’ the truth.”

There is important work to be done to combat instances of bias in the press. But it’s not being done at MRC. Unless the folks at Bozell’s organization decide that fixing the press is more important than undermining it, their critiques will continue to be met as so much rhetorical posturing.

That’s not good for the health of the press, and, in the long run, not so good for conservatives, either.

Correction: This article has been updated to specify that the case against Prof. Lipstadt was decided in her favor, rather than dismissed. The original description relied on a New York Times article that has been corrected by the Times.

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.