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The establishment media vs. conservatives

By Steve Lillienthal
web posted March 21, 2005

The opening sentence was among those not startling to read in The Washington Times. "The press produced three times more negative stories about President Bush than about Senator John Kerry during the 2004 campaign…" Conservatives certainly know that; plenty of The Washington Times columnists have written about the establishment news media's bias in reporting. By virtue of its uncommon status as a conservative newspaper, the Times does not shy away from reporting this.

What is unexpected is the source.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism and Princeton Survey Research Associates International in conjunction with several journalism schools and media institutes conducted a study that analyzed news coverage in sixteen newspapers, the nightly newscasts, morning news shows, cable news and on websites.

The report's "overview" section has a chapter on "content analysis," which makes a startling admission. Stating the war's coverage last year was slightly more negative than positive, the report assesses the coverage of the campaign. "When it came to the campaign, on the other hand, the criticism that George Bush got worse coverage than John Kerry is supported by the data," the report declares.

The analysis found that coverage of President Bush less likely was to be neutral. "Looking across all media [examined by the report], campaign coverage that focused on Bush was three times as negative as coverage of Kerry (36 per cent versus 12 per cent). It was also less likely to be positive (20 per cent positive Bush stories, 30 per cent for Kerry). That also meant Bush coverage was less likely to be neutral (44 per cent of Bush stories, 58 per cent for Kerry)," the analysis determined.

There it is in black and white for all to see. The news media demonstrated bias against a conservative president. What we have long known to be true was just confirmed. It is not just President George W. Bush who has been the target of the news media's negativism. President Reagan experienced it. President Bush's father experienced it when he served in the White House. At times it appeared that Jesse Helms (R-NC), during his years in the Senate, was not being covered by a reporter but the editorial page's cartoonist because the news stories and features so often caricatured him as a villain who stood for conservative beliefs.

The report is certainly no shill for conservatives; the establishment viewpoint of its authors is evident throughout. Nor do conservative outlets always do well in the analysis. Fox News is considered to be more one-sided in its news reporting than other cable news, the journalists faulted for their willingness to "offer their opinions, without attribution to any reporting, in seven out of ten stories." CNN reporters are said to do that in only ten percent of their stories. What needs to be admitted is that the selection of stories can demonstrate an act of bias. Think how rarely religion has been covered in recent decades in any serious, meaningful way.

There is also the sense that we have entered a new media era. The State of the News Media reminds us that the network television nightly news programs are approaching a moment of truth because their audience has shrunk and new anchors have taken over.

Dan RatherCBS Evening News was discredited for its flawed reporting of President Bush's service in the National Guard. The report reminds us that CBS is actually rethinking the network news program in its entirety. That the audience of the CBS Evening News was diminished during Rather's twenty-four-years as anchor is not damning. Other networks experienced declines, too. But none are as heavy as the CBS Evening News. Then, of course, there is the black eye suffered by the network this fall for its shoddy reporting.

The report makes clear that journalism must change. No doubt this partially is driven by the rise of new online technology, which is not proving to be a lucrative investment. In previous decades reports that aired on the CBS Evening News or were printed in The New York Times enjoyed the complete trust of most Americans. That changed in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Now, in the wake of scandals such as last fall's Rathergate and the falsifications of Times reporter Jayson Blair it may be imperative for news organizations to demonstrate the same transparency that they demand from the institutions they cover. "They may have to document their reporting process more openly so that audiences can decide for themselves whether to trust it." That would be a welcome development - and long overdue.

Steve Lilienthal is a policy analyst with the Free Congress Foundation.


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