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Thursday, February 16, 2006
Answering the Challenge

Peter Daou has a challenge for right-wing bloggers.

I know the assertion that [supposedly neutral or liberal] reporters favor rightwing narratives blows your mind; after all, the liberal media fiction is hard-wired into the right's political nervous system. But why should I believe your foregone conclusion that these people are left-leaning? Just because you say it with such conviction? Give me concrete examples of bias, not of negative coverage. (How can there not be negative coverage of the mess in Iraq? Or Katrina? Or the Plame outing? Or the NSA fiasco? Or do you want our media to simply fawn over the government? Is anything less than total pro-Bush propaganda considered media bias?)

Left-leaning is a tricky term. I'd rather just look at whether they're voting for Democrats. And there the evidence is pretty strong. For example, consider the online magazine Slate. They have been around for two election cycles, and they are the only media outlet I can think of that has their staff declare for whom they're voting. Here are the votes for 2004:

Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Bush (intern!), Kerry, Kerry, Bush (economic writer), Kerry, Not Voting (Canadian), Bush, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, David Cobb (?), Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Badnarik (Libertarian), Kerry, Bush, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry.

That's 43 Kerry Votes, 4 Bush votes, and 2 for others. Just a fluke because Seattle's a windsurfing kind of town and Kerry's a windsurfing kind of guy? Nope; in 2000 here were the votes:

Gore, Bush, Nader, Gore, Gore, Gore, Gore, Gore, Gore, Gore, Gore, Gore, Gore, Gore, Bush, Browne (Libertarian), Bush, Gore, Gore, Nader, Gore, Gore, Not Voting (Canadian), Not Voting (foreign not specified), Gore, Gore, Browne, Gore, Gore, Gore, Gore, Gore, Gore, Not Voting (British), Gore, Gore, Gore, Gore, Gore, Bush, Gore.

That's 31 Gore votes, 4 for Bush, and 4 for others.

I'd love to be able to tell you whom the New York Times reporters vote for, and the ABC News Team, and the staff of 60 Minutes, but they won't tell us. So the one media organization that was willing to reveal its votes turned out to be overwhelmingly voting for the Democrats.

Peter goes on to document examples of what he obviously considers "conservative media bias":

ISSUE: Cheney shooting incident --- NARRATIVE: Bush and Cheney are infallible --- EXAMPLE: ABC News covered the Cheney hunting incident by downplaying the significance of the weapon itself. ABC reported that "the vice president accidentally shot prominent Texas lawyer Harry Whittington with a pellet gun while hunting for quail." Cheney used a shotgun, not a pellet gun. ABC later altered the story to read, "a shotgun loaded with birdshot." (Which is why we maintain screenshots of all print stories we reference.) This exemplifies a common tendency of the media, namely, to play defense for Bush and his team, downplaying negative news or polls.

Can we say the obvious here? This was a mistake, plain and simple, that probably indicates that the reporter involved doesn't know jack about guns? He (or she, there's no byline on the piece) heard that Whittington had been hit with pellets, and logically but mistakenly assumed that meant he'd been shot by a pellet gun. What value is there to the reporter or news organization to getting this wrong? Was anybody really fooled by the story? And how in the world does this suit the narrative that Bush and Cheney are infallible?

ISSUE: Cheney shooting incident --- NARRATIVE: Bush strong, Dems weak --- EXAMPLE: CNN's Bruce Morton used the VP's shooting to repeat the tired GOP spin that Republicans are tougher than Democrats, and specifically tougher than war hero John Kerry. Morton commented that Bush and Cheney are avid hunters, and contrasted the observation with 2004 Bush campaign talking points by saying Sen. John Kerry "spent time posing with guns" two years ago, and that "voters probably saw more of him pursuing exotic sports, windsurfing and so on." The truth is Kerry has been hunting since the age of 12. As Media Matters points out, "Morton's jab echoed language Cheney used during the 2004 campaign to attack Kerry as effete and elitist."

Anybody remember Kerry's explanation of his method of hunting deer?

"I'd have to say deer," said the senator. "I go out with my trusty 12-gauge double-barrel, crawl around on my stomach... That's hunting."

Of course, you don't shoot deer with a shotgun, you shoot them with a rifle (correction: Apparently shotgun hunting for deer is common in Massachusetts), and you certainly don't crawl around on your stomach. Deer have amazingly sensitive hearing, so the key is to be absolutely silent and still; you have to let the deer come to you, not try to crawl to it. So I'd say that it's pretty obvious that Kerry was posing with guns, and we did see a lot more photos of him windsurfing and the like than him actually hunting. In terms of narrative, doesn't this play more to the "Bush genuine, Kerry phony" meme?

ISSUE: Cheney shooting incident --- NARRATIVE: Bush and Cheney are infallible --- EXAMPLE: Jane Hamsher notes that CBS News ran a provocative news item on Monday, explaining that "Texas authorities are complaining that the Secret Service barred them from speaking to Cheney after the incident." For reasons that are still unexplained, CBS has scrubbed the report from its website without explanation.

Again, I'm not sure how this fits the narrative that Bush and Cheney are infallible. The most obvious explanation for the scrubbing is that CBS discovered that Texas authorities were not barred from speaking to Cheney after the incident.

ISSUE: Cheney shooting incident --- NARRATIVE: Bush and Cheney are infallible --- EXAMPLE: Shortly after the incident first made national news, MSNBC's Chris Matthews repeated White House spin without hesitation: "I can understand that in the urgency of the moment that the Vice President's concern was life and death and not [public relations]." The reality is, Cheney was deeply concerned about public relations and managed the controversy personally, overriding the suggestions of White House staff who urged public disclosure.

Obvious question: When did it become apparent that Cheney was deeply concerned and overrode the suggestions of White House staff? The story broke Sunday afternoon; assuming that Matthews reported it Sunday night (shortly after the incident first made national news), he may have just been going with the story as reported at the time. The Time Magazine piece that Peter points to as showing Cheney's involvement with the PR issue came out on Monday.

ISSUE: Cheney shooting incident --- NARRATIVE: Bush and Cheney are infallible --- EXAMPLE: NBC News quoted ranch owner Katharine Armstrong as saying Cheney's pre-hunt picnic may have included "a beer or two." The MSNBC website has since been scrubbed to remove the quote with no explanation for readers.

This seems a legitimate gripe, especially since the Veep acknowledged to Brit Hume last night that he had a beer with his lunch. Anytime there's an accident (hunting, car, slip and fall) it seems appropriate to ask whether alcohol was a factor. Given that MSNBC had a source who confirmed that alcohol was present, they probably should have let the story stand. This one also plays a little to the "narrative" that Peter seems obsessed with.

I could go on; Peter's got lots more examples. But he asks for examples of liberal bias in the news. Here's one in a New York Times article I stumbled across last night while looking through the archives.

To analyze Web log buzz, the study zeroed in on a few dozen political blogs, from left-leaning forums like Daily Kos and AmericaBlog to conservative ones like Instapundit and Power Line, as well as middle-of-the road sites like BuzzMachine and Wonkette. All were "filter blogs," or blogs that comment on - and link to - content found elsewhere on the Web, according to an emerging taxonomy of the form.

Don't you just love that? Kos and Aravosis are left-leaning, but Instapundit is conservative? And Jeff Jarvis and Wonkette are middle-of-the-road? That's absurd. Kos and Aravosis are left-wing, Jarvis and Wonkette are liberal (although Jarvis is more moderate) and Instapundit is libertarian. The only blog they've placed correctly on the political landscape is Power Line, which is indeed conservative (or right-wing if you prefer).

There's a fascination with "narrative" throughout Peter's piece. As I understand it, the theory here is that reporters unconsciously reinforce Republican themes. Let's look at the "narratives" that Peter sees:

NARRATIVE: Bush and Cheney are infallible. I know, try not to laugh. Peter acknowledges tough reporting on Katrina and Iraq; how that fits with selling the notion that Bush walks on water is beyond me.

NARRATIVE: Bush strong, Dems weak. Here's one that I think is valid, both as a media criticism and as a criticism of the Democrats.

NARRATIVE: Dems do bad things too. Of course, Peter would prefer a narrative that goes "Only Republicans do bad things." I mean, c'mon. He specifically points to the Abramoff scandal, which almost every commenter under the sun has said was mostly a Republican scandal, although it does involve some Democrats, including Harry Reid. I don't get why liberal bloggers become unhinged whenever anybody dares to mention that this is not solely a Republican scandal. (I know, I know, because it's selling the wrong "narrative".)

NARRATIVE: Dems are "angry". This again is legitimate both ways. The Dems are angry, and the media are reporting it. But note the example Peter provides:

The New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller pushed Ken Mehlman's latest meme -- Hillary is "angry" -- during an interview with DNC Chair Howard Dean. Bumiller asked Dean (twice) about Mehlman's charge that Hillary is "too angry and that Americans will not elect an angry candidate."

This is ridiculous. Mehlman put the story out there, and Bumiller asked the head of the DNC what he thought about it. Would he rather that Bumiller ignored the topic? Yesterday, Lawrence O'Donnell pushed a theory that Vice President Cheney was drunk when he shot his friend. Was Hugh Hewitt pushing that meme by having O'Donnell on his show yesterday afternoon?
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