Friday, July 29, 2011

More on Phony Balance, the Phony Crisis & the Phony Study

Yesterday, liberal columnist Paul Krugman returned to his theme of the perils of false "balance" in the press, particularly in coverage of the current debt "crisis," where, in the name of "balance," news reports have repeatedly presented both the Democrats and the Republicans as being at fault for a problem that is, in fact, entirely the fault of the Republicans:
"Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. As you may know, President Obama initially tried to strike a 'Grand Bargain' with Republicans over taxes and spending. To do so, he not only chose not to make an issue of G.O.P. extortion, he offered extraordinary concessions on Democratic priorities: an increase in the age of Medicare eligibility, sharp spending cuts and only small revenue increases. As The [New York] Times’s Nate Silver pointed out, Mr. Obama effectively staked out a position that was not only far to the right of the average voter’s preferences, it was if anything a bit to the right of the average Republican voter’s preferences.

"But Republicans rejected the deal. So what was the headline on an Associated Press analysis of that breakdown in negotiations? 'Obama, Republicans Trapped by Inflexible Rhetoric.' A Democratic president who bends over backward to accommodate the other side--or, if you prefer, who leans so far to the right that he’s in danger of falling over--is treated as being just the same as his utterly intransigent opponents. Balance!"
Krugman sees the obvious problem with this:
"...this is no laughing matter: The cult of balance has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster. For when reporting on political disputes always implies that both sides are to blame, there is no penalty for extremism. Voters won’t punish you for outrageous behavior if all they ever hear is that both sides are at fault."
Krugman had written about this same problem earlier this week and his comments drew a typically stupid retort from Newsbusters' Noel Sheppard, who completely misrepresented them as a condemnation of a balanced press and even as a call to censor conservative views about the debt "crisis."

It seems at least part of this misrepresentation--put more bluntly, a direct and blatant lie--is, like so many others, official policy over at Newsbusters: Krugman's latest remarks on the subject have drawn another retort from one of the Media Research Center's muck-merchants, one that repeats the lie. This time, it's from Scott Whitlock, MRC senior news analyst. In Whitlock's telling Krugman "urges more bias" in the press, and is "complaining about too much fairness."

Like Sheppard, Whitlock tries to refute Krugman's characterization of press coverage of the debt ceiling by referencing a phony MRC "study" on the subject and like Sheppard, he misrepresents that "study":
"In fact, as a July 26 Media Research Center report found, journalists have not made an effort to be 'centrist.' The MRC found that 66 percent of network stories mainly blamed the Republicans for the debt ceiling impasse. Only 20 percent found the Democrats at fault."
This writer slashed that "study" into bloody, quivering sausages Wednesday when Sheppard first pulled it out of his hat; in brief, it's a phony bit of ill-conceived propaganda in the worst sense of that word, entirely dependent for its conclusions on wholly subjective judgments that are, to the extent that people are allowed to read them, demonstrably absurd.

Even if one accepts it on its own terms, however--and that includes pretending as if it exists--it neither refutes Krugman's analysis of the press coverage nor supports Whitlock's assertions about it. Krugman's complaint is that too many press reports are portraying both sides as "equally intransigent." The "study" merely asserts that press reports are blaming Republicans more than Democrats, adding up attributions of blame within a report and grading who was the target of the most such attributions. That doesn't even address Krugman's point, much less refute it. Whitlock's claim that the "study" shows that "only 20 percent [of press reports] found the Democrats at fault" is a misrepresentation--the actual finding was that only 20% of reports were judged to have blamed Democrats more than Republicans. Whitlock's assertion that the "study" shows that "journalists have not made an effort to be 'centrist'" is, likewise, false: of 202 stories about the debt ceiling mess, 56% were judged, by the authors, as assigning no blame at all to either side (their "conclusions" were based on only 44% of the initial sample). That, alone, is enough to falsify Whitlock's claim on its own terms.

But one can play with the offered numbers in an entertaining way: when that big, discarded sample is included, over 73% of the news stories examined were judged to blame no one, to mostly blame Democrats, or to blame both sides equally--146 out of 202 stories are judged by the authors as not mainly blaming Republicans for a problem that is, as I wrote in that earlier blog, 100% the fault of the Republicans.

And that's if one grants the absurd, subjective judgments of the "study" any merit (and that it hasn't any is rather painfully evident). Not only is the MRC gang unable to manufacture a phony study that convincingly poses as a real one, they can't even properly represent the findings of the one they do cull together. One could almost feel sorry for them, if they weren't such bastards.


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