Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Newsbusters & Me, Part 1

For the last few weeks, I've been spending some time over at Newsbusters, the big blog of the Media Research Center (MRC), reading the work and posting in the comments section. The MRC has always portrayed itself as a media watchdog with a conservative bent but it would be a big mistake to put it in the same pound as liberal media watchdogs like Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), and Media Matters For America (MMFA) and not just because the MRC is extremely conservative. The MRC isn't just a different breed of watchdog. It's an entirely different species from its liberal counterparts.

Media Matters For America lists as its mission "comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media." Part of the mission of FAIR can be found in its name--the "A" stands for "Accuracy," Fairness & Accuracy In Media. These groups are centrally concerned with, among other things, correcting misinformation. Keeping the record straight. The MRC has a very different mission. The legend of Newsbusters reads "Exposing & Combating Liberal Media Bias." Their more detailed "About" page tells the same story. They're about "bias," not accuracy.

It shows in their work. An incredible amount of misinformation flows forth from Newsbusters, just as it has always flowed forth from the MRC. Newsbusters is afflicted with a depressingly common ailment of the American right, one about which I've written a great deal over the years; they see politics as a simple contest between good and evil--themselves being good, the "liberals" being evil--and embrace the idea that reality itself can be subservient to and defined by their own momentary political passions. Much of the American rightist elite has, for years, waged open war on the notion that there is any such thing as an objective set of facts about anything. If there are no universally agreed-upon yardsticks, there's nothing against which to measure rightists, nothing that can be used to judge them unambiguously wrong. The elite indoctrinates its followers in the idea that what they, themselves, believe and want and do is, by definition, that which is true and proper and right and that the reverse is true of their enemies. The reason accuracy isn't listed as a concern of Newsbusters is because, for the conservatives and reactionaries who toil away at it and (most especially) for those who uncritically groove on its work, "liberal" equals, by definition, "misinformation." After years of providing their audience with this conditioning, the Newsbusters don't have to prove something is false; they just have to make some case that it comes from a liberal or aids liberalism (often just defined as anything that disagrees with or could hinder the right) and in their world, that means it's wrong, misleading, inaccurate and/or an outright lie. The Newsbusters will sometimes make a show of trying to actually prove something is genuinely inaccurate and they sometimes find genuine examples but for the most part, their efforts in this vein are laughably superficial.

A perfect case-in-point is the newest Brent Bozell column. Bozell is the head of the MRC and, like a lot of emperors, apparently doesn't like it when someone comes along and points out his lack of clothing. I've been pointing it out for a long time though, and last night when, shortly after Bozell posted that column, I did it again in the comments section, my Newsbusters account was suspended and the reply I'd written was consigned to a Memory Hole as if it had never even existed.

Bozell was writing about an appearance by comedian Jon Stewart on "Fox News Sunday" wherein Stewart was interviewed by Chris Wallace. The interview happened over two weeks ago but a whole lot of conservative commentators just keep bringing it up. It has become one of their temporary obsessions because Stewart said some things about Fox News that righties like Bozell find extremely inconvenient. That, for example, Fox News is very different from legitimate news organizations because it's really just a massive propaganda project for the Republican party, its content and tone tightly dictated by the committed partisans who run it. Stewart admitted his own bias but said his show's focus wasn't on conveying it--it was on making people laugh. Whereas news orgs are centrally concerned with offering news and information, Fox is centrally concerned with spreading propaganda, in the most negative sense of the word. The thing that assured Stewart would get plenty of attention from conservatives though, is that he said, "And in polls, who are the most consistently misinformed media viewers? The most consistently misinformed? Fox. Fox viewers. Consistently. Every poll."

Like a lot of the righties who have written about the Stewart interview, Bozell was particularly unhappy about those remarks:

"In the real world--outside Stewart’s smug bubble--this is garbage."

By way of demonstrating its status as merit-free refuse, Bozell immediately begins extolling a 2008 survey by the Pew Research Center, one that asked respondents to name the Secretary of State, the prime minister of Britain and to identify which party controls congress. Viewers of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes show "were better informed than Stewart’s 'Daily Show' gigglers" on these points. But, of course, Stewart hadn't said Fox viewers were uninformed; he said they were misinformed. Neither Stewart nor anyone else has ever even alleged that Fox News misleads its viewers about things like the identity of the British prime minister. In short, Bozell is "refuting" a claim Stewart never even made rather than dealing with the one he had made.

He gets a bit closer to the mark when he writes about the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), which, in 2010, conducted a survey that showed Fox News viewers were significantly more likely to be misinformed about a wide range of subjects.

Bozell labels the PIPA gang "liberal pranksters masquerading as pollsters"--when liberal = misinformation, it's important to get that label in place up front, even if, as is the case here, there's absolutely no real reason for applying it--and he challenges the premise of two of their examples of misinformation held by Fox viewers. The first was that Fox viewers, in high numbers, thought most economists had concluded the health care law would increase the deficit; the second was that they thought most economists had concluded the Obama stimulus caused job losses. Whether it's fair to judge people harshly based on their impression of the opinion of most economists on a given issue is a matter that could be legitimately debated but Bozell isn't interested in that sort of debate. He writes that the idea that Obamacare will reduce deficits is "a patently ridiculous claim that doesn’t acknowledge the real world" and asserts that "Fox News viewers are tagged as the 'misinformed' dummies, because their opinions are grounded in logic."

Notice the sleight-of-hand? The survey, on that question, wasn't asking respondents their opinion of the effect of the health care law; it was asking respondents to offer their impression of the opinion of most economists who have studied the matter. The two are not the same nor were respondents likely to confuse the two because, before this question, they were first asked to offer their own impressions of the effect of the law. Bozell, of course, declines to share this fact with his readers when he's doing his little dance.

In limiting his remarks to these two questions, Bozell grossly misrepresents the overall survey. Most of the items on which Fox News viewers was shown to be misinformed were not subject to being "interpreted" away as nebulous abstractions. They were straightforward factual matters, ones about which Fox viewers were radically wrong. In huge numbers, Fox viewers believed the Obama administration had initiated the auto bailout (it hadn't), that most congressional Republicans had voted against TARP (most voted in favor of it), that the Obama stimulus contained no tax cuts (about 40% of it was tax cuts), that their own income taxes had gone up during the Obama administration (they hadn't) and so on.[1]

Bozell also fails to address or even acknowledge the existence of other surveys touching on Stewart's claim, which leaves his readers with the misimpression that the claim is based on a single poll, the one Bozell falsely suggested was fatally flawed. In reality, multiple surveys going back nearly a decade have concluded that Fox News viewers are among the most misinformed news consumers. PIPA had reached that conclusion in a poll from 2003 that tested respondents' knowledge of issues related to the Iraq war and War On Terror [tm]. Media Matters cited four other polls from recent years that show the same thing. If a single poll has ever reached a contrary conclusion, neither I nor any of the conservative commentators who have written about this in the last few weeks have been able to find it. Bozell, like everyone else who has labored to refute Stewart, was forced to rely on--and to misrepresent--that Pew survey, the one that doesn't even address the question.

This was the game PolitiFact played when it entered into the fray; using Pew surveys that measured whether news consumers were uninformed rather than misinformed to muddy the water then use the mud to rule Stewart's claim "false" while ignoring the existence of most of the surveys that did touch on--and that unanimously supported--Stewart's claim. Many of PolitiFact's readers nailed PolitiFact on this but though the PolitiFact gang acknowledged this criticism, they have so far declined to withdraw their bogus "false" rating of Stewart's claim and it continues to be used by conservatives as a club against Stewart.

That club was used to bash Stewart into offering a response, in which he said "I defer to (PolitiFact's) judgment and apologize for my mistake. To not do so would be irresponsible," at which point he broke into a litany of claims made on Fox News that PolitiFact itself had rated as "false"--so many items that the texts of them literally blotted out the screen. Bozell referenced this in wrapping up his column:

"Jon Stewart did the right thing and conceded he was the one misinforming people on Fox News."

Of course, if Bozell thinks that's what Stewart actually did, he's just as clueless as he's always seemed[2] and if he thought such a concession was "the right thing" to do, he's probably among those who think the Obama administration initiated the auto bailout, included no tax cuts in the stimulus, and raised his income taxes.

As is usually the case with Bozell, his new column consists of accusing people of being "liberals" and offering a superficial analysis built on misinformation that completely collapses under even cursory scrutiny. It's aimed at stoking the prejudices of those already predisposed to dismiss as useless anything from "liberals" and is woefully short on much anyone else would find particularly convincing. Last night, I wrote up a more compact version of the criticism of it I've offered here and it led to my being banned by Newsbusters, a place where substantive criticism, like serious thought itself, is most definitely not welcome.



[1] Bozell does offer one potentially legitimate criticism of the 2010 PIPA survey; that its sample of Fox viewers is too small to render a definitive judgment on all Fox viewers. The PIPA pollsters were looking for consumers of a broad range of news sources, not just Fox viewers, and their judgment of Fox viewers is based on about 145 people. While the relatively small sample size is a legitimate criticism, it really doesn't touch on the issue of Stewart's claim, which was that polls show Fox viewers to be the most misinformed. The 2010 PIPA poll--like all the others--did show that to be the case.

[2] PolitiFact showed itself to be equally clueless about what Stewart had actually done and wrote that the comic had "accepted our False verdict and apologized." Newsbusters' Noel Sheppard didn't get it, either and whined that "this is how a child admits a mistake, not a grown man..." No, Noel, it's the way a comedian makes an important point.