CBS News Lamely Defends Anti-Liberal Bias

Over at CBS news’ “Public Eye” blog , Vaughn Ververs (what a great name!) has produced an argument so remarkably bad I just have to comment on it, even though I normally avoid blogging about partisan politics. Responding to a Media Matters study which showed, statistically, that Sunday network news panels are consistently tilted to the right (i.e., right-wing guests outnumber left-wing guests), Ververs writes:

This reminds me of the complaints we received about a “Face The Nation” broadcast last October. Critics were outraged that the broadcast featured only three Republicans and no Democrats. As I argued then, it was hardly a comfortable show for any Republican to do considering that the topic was the then-new indictment of former GOP Majority Leader Tom DeLay and a host of other problems plaguing the Republican Party. It’s hard for even the best talking points to spin that into any kind of good news. Sure, it added three more GOPers to the Media Matter list, but the content wasn’t exactly helping the country’s move to the right.

But the question isn’t just “did it help the country’s move to the right,” but “was it balanced?”

Yes, the GOP would have preferred that the Tom DeLay story had never existed at all. But since the story did exist, CBS’s decision to use a panel consisting exclusively of GOP spinners was exactly how the GOP wanted the story covered. Meanwhile, Democrats – who obviously would have preferred to be able to comment – were not allowed to speak at all. How can Ververs consider that balanced?

By Ververs’ standards, it would be impossible for CBS to ever be unbalanced – even if 100% of their guests were GOP loyalists, as long as they were asked uncomfortable questions some of the time that would be balanced.

It’s a sign of how completely the media’s pro-Republican bias has been absorbed, that a CBS spokesman sees nothing unbalanced about a panel discussion consisting of nothing but Republicans. (Had liberals been given an equal chance to speak, would CBS News consider that anti-GOP bias?)

In a brief aside at the end of his post, Ververs agrees with Media Matters that progressive and “true liberal” viewpoints are now considered too “fringe” to appear on network TV – but he doesn’t seem to consider this admitted lack of balance as an important problem. Why would he? For mainstream TV news, a pro-conservative bias is considered balanced.

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22 Responses to CBS News Lamely Defends Anti-Liberal Bias

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  2. 2
    Polymath says:

    hmmmmm….your deconstruction of bad arguments is usually quite good. but i’m not sure i agree with you here, from a strictly logical point of view anyway (though i confess i would politically prefer that more liberals had had a chance to speak). if republicans are the ones disproportionately controlling the government, then they are probably creating a disproportionate amount of the news, and should therefore be questioned about it a disproportionate number of times. i think merely taking republicans to task for tom delay’s troubles is a liberal statement in itself, and i’m pretty sure the democrats’ responses would be pretty obvious.

    in fact, i might even argue that having democrats present could have turned that discussion into partisan squabbling. it’s more credible when a neutralish newscaster questions the validity of a republican’s claims than when a clearly partisan democrat does. seeing delay’s supporters ripped apart by harry reid is less dramatic than if they’re ripped apart by, say, ted koppol.

    the real fallacy might be the study’s original argument, which is that the presence of more republican guests is evidence of a tilt towards right-wing thought. i could imagine a scathing news show that has nothing but republican guests–they’ve certainly done enough crap to be grilled over.

  3. 3
    Polymath says:

    hmmmm, that was supposed to link to a blog post of mine about delay…i feel so stupid when i get that wrong. *rolls eyes at self*

  4. 4
    rev. quitter says:

    i think you hit the nail on the head. Ampersand. lame. lame. lame.

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    Brandon Berg says:

    The tilt really isn’t that severe: 52/48 during the second Clinton term, and 58/42 in the first Bush term, with 50-70% of all panels being neutral. And they get those numbers by throwing out all guests who were not “ideologically identifiable.” 58% of the journalists featured on these shows fell into that category.

    I wonder how much of the alleged bias is due simply to the inability of members of a left-wing think tank to distinguish between centrists and moderate leftists. People on either fringe of the political spectrum tend to have depth perception issues. For example, look at the “Blogs on the Right” section of your blogroll.

  6. 6
    Ampersand says:

    Polymath, I don’t think the “they just quote people in power” argument in any way rescues the idiotic argument I quoted, and so I don’t see it as relevant. Just because there are good arguments for proposition X, doesn’t make a bad argument for proposition X any less bad.

    And while I do see a good reason to interview newsmakers more, and understand that newsmakers during a time of Republican power will naturally tend to be Republicans, that’s no reason to include right-wing journalists on panels more than left-wing journalists are included – and especially not on the Sunday shows, many of which claim to be providing debate, not straight news reporting.

    As the study writers wrote:

    Some might argue that since Republicans controlled Congress during the second Clinton term and have held both the executive and legislative branches since 2001, the results of this study are consistent with time on the Sunday shows being assigned in direct proportion to the power held by the two parties. However, that assertion presumes that the purpose of the Sunday shows is not to air a balanced debate but to serve as a mouthpiece for whichever party is in power at a particular moment. If that were to be the principle guiding the shows’ booking decisions, then no Democrats should appear on the shows at all (and of course, should the Democrats take control of Congress and the White House, the same would apply to Republicans). But such a system would be consistent neither with the need in a democratic society for complete exploration of issues, nor with the networks’ public interest obligations.

    Brandon, my depth perception is fine; my describing moderate liberals like Kevin Drum as “on the right” is tongue-in-cheek. (Maybe I should change the category title back to “Blogs to Amp’s Right,” which is what it was originally called).

    From the study:

    We understand that because we are a progressive organization, some on the right will seek to undercut the credibility of our findings, perhaps charging that we have stacked the deck by classifying too many guests as conservative. Partly for that reason, when a guest’s ideology or partisan affiliation was ambiguous, we erred on the side of identifying a guest to the left. Consequently, one can assume that, if anything, our figures underestimate the conservative slant to the Sunday shows.

    From what I’ve seen, they were careful to be conventional in how they categorized folks. DINOs who are hated by progressives, like Joe Klein and Joe Lieberman, were classified as left by this study, and so was Richard Clarke. One Democrat who was counted as a conservative was Zell Miller, but very few people – right or less – would disagree with that classification.

  7. 7
    Charlie says:

    I wouldn’t even mind the partisan news stories if they’d just come out and admit that was what they were doing. The real harm comes in allowing their audience to continue to believe they are being netural.

    (Maybe I should change the category title back to “Blogs to Amp’s Right,” which is what it was originally called).

    I’m not sure if I should admit this, but seeing the old category title on your site was what originally made me stop trying to classify writers as on “the Left” or “the Right.” Just seeing that on your blogroll made me suddenly aware that those two categories are really something relative to yourself. That’s my $.02 on that.

  8. 8
    Robert says:

    Regarding political taxonomy:

    There are only three classifications.

    “Those treasonous moonbat lunatics to my left.”

    “The relative handful of sane people who understand reality.”

    “The barking fascist wingnuts to my right.”

    If you want to find out where someone falls ideologically, just find out what portion of the population (whether the general populace, newscasters, bloggers, whatever) they put in each group.

  9. 9
    reddecca says:

    What does it mean if I don’t have anyone in the first category?

  10. 10
    rose says:

    Whitewashes are harder than investigations because Republicans have to do them. See?

  11. 11
    Polymath says:

    okay, i’m going to concede the point about “the people in power are more likely to appear on a news show”. you’re right that they should not be the only ones allowed to answer questions.

    but i still think there’s something to my other point, although i’m not sure i’ve completely worked out how i think it ought to play out in a country where capitalist control the media. the other point being that when gore or kerry or kennedy speaks out against bush, they’re automatically going to get tuned out by people on the right. i mean, if i hear an attack on a democratic politician from pat robertson, tom delay, dick cheney, or karl rove, i’m going to look at it reeeeeeeallllll hard before i agree with it. harder than if it came from a newscaster that i’ve previously judged to be fair-minded.

    so in theory, if the news shows could be fairly consistently politically neutral, then questioning politicians themselves (instead of inviting the opposition to do so) might be more likely to convince someone that the line of questioning is legitimate and not simply a partisan attack. which means i think there might be some instances where an absence of democratic guests on a talk show might not show bias towards the right.

    but i certainly agree that if the news anchors and producers are themselves showing political bias without acknowledging it, there’s a serious problem.

  12. 12
    Brandon Berg says:

    I thought that the “Blogs to the Right” thing might be a joke, but I wasn’t sure. I do think that lack of political depth perception is a real phenomenon, though.

    Anyway, I’m not questioning the classification of elected and appointed officials who appeared on the shows. I assume they probably did a pretty good job of that, and I do think it was reasonable to classify Miller as conservative. Verver’s point about McCain coming on to criticize the administration made sense to me, and I found MMFA’s response unconvincing, but I’m really not sure what to think about that because I don’t know what he actually said on the shows.

    What I do think is suspicious is the classification of 58% of journalist guests as neutral. We don’t really know what’s in there, and it could potentially swamp any difference in ideologically classified journalists. How many supposedly rightward-tilted panels consisted of, say, two Republicans, a Democrat, and two “neutral” journalists siding against the Republicans?

    Also, if you look at the show-by-show breakdown, most of the discrepancy comes from This Week. It’s misleading to say that “Sunday network news panels are consistently tilted to the right” when the report itself admits that panels were balanced or tilted to the left about 80-85% of the time on two of the three shows, and about two-thirds of the time on This Week. I know what you meant, and I’m not accusing you of being dishonest, but the natural (to me) interpretation of that sentence doesn’t give an accurate impression.

  13. 13
    Nick Kiddle says:

    On what Robert said: I had a disconcerting experience a few weeks back. I was reading the Guardian (UK newspaper with a reputation for being very leftist) and I started thinking “What a load of right-wing tripe this is”. Apparently, I am now somewhere to the left of the Guardian. There’s no hope for me.

  14. 14
    Jake Squid says:

    How come the “moonbats” to the left are treasonous while the “wingnuts” to the right are not?

  15. 15
    Robert says:

    Jake –

    Because in the popular imagination, left-wingers tend to be internationalists, while right-wingers tend to be nationalists. And thus, while factually there are left-wing traitors (the Rosenbergs) and right-wing traitors (Timothy McVeigh), the popular perception is that it’s the liberal guy who’s likely to sell you out, albeit perhaps for idealistic reasons. Cf. Baltar on BSG.

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    Kim (basement variety!) says:

    I would think because of the capitalistic notion about right winger’s that they would be more inclined to sell you out. Left winger’s would be more inclined to be duped into giving you up via the idealism you refer to.

    On another note, I read the comment about Z. Miller and suffered the occassional twitch that I get when thinking about the democratic party. In essence, it’s a party trying to convince two extraordinarily different sets of people that they are on the same side (southern democrats, city liberals). It always boggles me when I think about some blue collar worker in the deep south who just wants a union being tied to liberals in the city that while supporting unions, have HUGELY different agenda’s.

  17. 17
    Robert says:

    Kim –

    Re: Zell. Yeah.

    “I’m a gay black childless gun-hating urban software analyst.”
    “And I’m a white fundamentalist farmer with 5 kids who hunts for food and fun. Git ‘r done!”
    “We pretty much think that the other one is what’s wrong with America, but we’re both reluctantly voting for Al Gore. Won’t you reluctantly vote for Al Gore, too?”

    The Republicans are not much more coherent; all we really have in common is a shared concern about you lot getting your fingers on the button again. Not that we’re worried you’d use it; more that you’d stick it in the closet behind a new welfare entitlement program for Jewish lesbian toddlers, or something, and then we couldn’t find it the next time we needed to nuke Japan.

    But seriously, Alsis is on to something; if the Democratic coalition would splinter, the Republicans would follow suit in about thirty minutes. Some broadly-left-wing causes would probably get a major boost from the new centrist governing coalition that would form; others, of course, would get the shaft. Bye-bye gay marriage; hello single payer.

    Come on, splinter! It’ll be fun! I promise.

  18. 18
    Robert says:

    What does it mean if I don’t have anyone in the first category?

    It means that you’re a huge filthy communist.

    But you probably knew that already.

  19. 19
    reddecca says:

    Nick Kiddle – I just wrote a whole post on my frustration at the Guardian weekly. But congratulations, the left of the Guardian is the best place to be.

    Robert I have a principle of neither confirming or denying if I was now or have ever been.

  20. 20
    Robert says:

    Yeah, red, it’s a big secret. (rolls eyes) :)

  21. 21
    FormerlyLarry says:

    I imagine the very tiny conservative tilt on Sunday panels is a feeble attempt to convince the viewers that they are trying to balance out the rest of the major news media left wing tilt. Journalists always vote something like 90:10 (or worse) democrat. They are much more likely to hold the liberal positions and that filters into news editorial decisions and coverage.

  22. 22
    Barry says:

    “However, that assertion presumes that the purpose of the Sunday shows is not to air a balanced debate but to serve as a mouthpiece for whichever party is in power at a particular moment. If that were to be the principle guiding the shows’ booking decisions, then no Democrats should appear on the shows at all (and of course, should the Democrats take control of Congress and the White House, the same would apply to Republicans). ”

    If that policy were a guide to the Sunday shows, then there should have been no Republicans appearing on them during the first two years of the first Clinton administration. For some reason, I doubt that that was the case.