Public Nuisance

Random commentary and senseless acts of blogging.

The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
-Ronald Reagan

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Thursday, May 09, 2002
The meme of liberal media bias continues to march on, unimpeded by lack of evidence. Andrew Sullivan in a post Wednesday (links to specific postings don't seem to be available for his site) pretends to find it in coverage of the murder of Pim Fortuyn by the New York Times. The Times story as Sullivan quotes read: "Dutch political leaders decided today to go ahead with the general elections next week, even after the killing of Pim Fortuyn, a right-wing politician who had stood a chance to become the country's next prime minister. The police confirmed today that they were holding the assassination suspect, a 32-year-old Dutch environmental activist."

Sully's exegesis: "Notice how a socially libertarian maverick is `right-wing` but an ideological assassin is just an `environmental activist.` Even the Dutch police have described the murderer as an enviro-radical. But extremes, in the Time's p.c. world, only exist on the right." Of course the actual problem with the Times' description of the assassin as an 'environmental activist' is precisely the opposite: it smears millions of law-abiding green activists by lumping them in with a murderous psychopath and precisely because it doesn't label the murderer as an extremist or terrorist leaves the implication that assassination is a normal method of environmental activism.

If the times were to describe Mohammed Atta as 'a religious conservative supportive of traditional family values' it would be blasted, quite properly, for smearing religious conservatives in the comparison. When it does the same thing to liberals, it gets blasted for smearing - conservatives!

On another front, Zonitics tries to actually round up some evidence for the existence of liberal bias. The pseudonymous Mr Boyd has done extensive Lexis searches to demonstrate that the word 'conservative' is attached to the names of conservative politicians more frequently than the word 'liberal' is attached to their opposites. He may well be right, at least for the 5 major papers he looks at, although the numbers he gives aren't totally convincing - if you simply pull out Tom Harkin, who is indeed quite liberal, but is labelled as such only 3 time in 212 mentions, 1/3 of the statistical gap disappears.

The more basic problem is the lack of any evidence for the underlying assumption that a count of labels actually tells you anything about bias. Conservatives often label themselves as conservatives, while most liberals don't actually apply the term to themselves. The reason liberals shy away from the L word is, of course, that the very media which is supposedly so biased in their favor has made it untouchable. Journalists generally use the same descriptive language that their subjects use, such as describing the sides of the abortion controversy as 'pro-life' or 'pro-choice', the terms that the activists generally apply to themselves. Since all the right-wing politicians listed by Nunberg (who started all this) frequently use conservative to describe themselves - and in fact some of the mentions listed are by the politicians themselves or their allies, making them rather poor evidence for liberal bias - and some of the leftists prefer terms like 'progressive' , this is reflected in the count.

Back in March, Patrick Ruffini, yet another conservative blogger, sought to prove the existence of liberal bias by counting the relative frequency of terms like 'right-wing extremist' versus 'left-wing extremist' in, once again, the New York Times. Having found the former far more common he triumphantly announced, like a Sasquatch searcher holding up a plaster footprint, that the existence of the famous liberal bias was now proven. Sullivan enthusiastically endorsed Ruffini's position. Unfortunately, this nonsense attracted the notice of Bob Somersby, probably the best media analyst on the Net. Somersby ran the same test on the Moonie propaganda sheet the Washington Times and found that by the Ruffini test the 'Times' had more liberal bias in Washington than in New York!

If the Zonitics test was run again on undisputed conservative papers such as the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, and Scaife-owned Pittsburgh Tribune showing the opposite results, it would at least have some evidentiary value. As it is, I find it odd that the 2nd most 'biased' paper in Boyd's analysis is the Chicago Tribune. I could well be out of date on this one, but the Tribune for decades has been famous as the voice of Midwestern conservatism. Absent a drastic change, calling it liberal is rather a stretch.

Another point Boyd neglects to mention: the conservatives are simply mentioned more often in his sample - a striking 150% more. This could be explained by the fact that Republicans were in the majority for most of his sample period, and therefore held committee chairs and other perks of leadership. But the sample does include several months after Jeffords switched the Senate back to Democratic control. It would be interesting to know if since then that ratio has changed. I think there are very few politicians who would consider being labeled in newspapers more offensive than not being named at all.

Also, this story, like all other discussions of the famed 'liberal bias' gets around the very large portion of the media - talk radio, Fox, etc - that is unabashedly conservative agit-prop with little more than the barest glance at balance by simply ignoring it. But the idea that the semiotic imbalances the critics claim to find in newspapers - a shrinking portion of the media universe - outweighs the opinion-making influnce of the 24 Hour Hate heard in so much talk radio is questionable at best.

In the last election, undoubtedly the most celebrated sound bite, repeated thousands of times and plaguing Gore through the entire campaign, was that Gore claimed to have 'invented the internet'. Possibly the next most famous was the story that Gore said that 'Love Story' was about himself and Tipper. Gore never made either statement, yet both were routinely repeated throughout the campaign, producing an image of him as an habitual liar. And we're still talking about liberal bias? Give me a break.