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.
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
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
"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 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.
 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.
 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.