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Framing the Flag

The Media Research Center, a right-wing media thinktank, is rating the patriotic credentials of top broadcast news reporters. And getting a lot of press for it.
 
 
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One month after the first U.S. bombing of Kabul, Fox News correspondent Brit Hume delivered a short but stinging report on his nightly broadcast. "Over at ABC News, where the wearing of American flag lapel pins is banned," said Hume, his own pin firmly in place, "Peter Jennings and his team have devoted far more time to the coverage of civilian casualties in Afghanistan than either of their broadcast network competitors."

Citing a new study, Hume said that ABC spent exactly fifteen minutes, forty-four seconds covering these casualties over the previous several weeks, nearly twice the time spent at NBC and about four times as much as CBS. The implication was clear: war coverage on ABC, free of patriotic accoutrements, was quite possibly drifting from the national interest.

For the Media Research Center, the conservative watchdog that authored the report, Hume's dispatch represented yet another success in its campaign to hew reporters to open support for the war. Already the nation's most vocal critic of the media's perceived liberal bias, the center took on a "new and vital mission" in the months following the attacks on Washington and New York, according to its founder, L. Brent Bozell III. "We are training our guns on any media outlet or any reporter interfering with America's war on terrorism or trying to undermine the authority of President Bush," he wrote in a recent fundraising letter.

In terms of mainstream media exposure, the center has enjoyed significant success in its new role, often framing the discussions of journalistic objectivity. Between September 11 and December 31, MRC reports and staff members were quoted eighty separate times by major news outlets in the Nexis database. This included eleven interviews and citations on Fox News, CNN, and CNNfn. Bozell even made it onto Imus in the Morning in February.

"The fact that we have been received reasonably well during this period is good for us," says Rich Noyes, the center's director of media research. "I think you can tell when we are raising good questions."

Those questions often concerned the patriotic credentials of top broadcast news reporters, producers, and executives. The center praised Rather, Brokaw, and Russert for editorializing their support of the war; it chastised journalists who kept a greater editorial distance. "What we were looking for was home-team sports reporting," Noyes explains.

In practice, the center defined the home team as the Bush administration and its policies. Journalists and pundits who challenged them were tarred with the epithet "political activist," or in the case of the cartoonist Aaron McGruder, "America-hater." In one report, the center took Peter Jennings to task for suggesting on a talk show that Americans respect different views of patriotism. The center's editorial response: "Unlike Jennings, who is still a Canadian citizen, we are Americans."

After CNN submitted six questions to an alleged representative of Osama bin Laden, the Los Angeles Times quoted Bozell calling the questions a "slap in the face of the American people." The Boston Globe and The Christian Science Monitor reported on the center's criticism of Reuters and the BBC for swearing off the term "terrorist." The center also spread the word about ABC News president David Westin's equivocation over whether the Pentagon had been a "legitimate military target," eliciting a prompt apology from the network chief and a flurry of embarrassing press coverage. "They put stuff out there and either it speaks for itself or it doesn't," said Hume, who worked at ABC News for twenty-three years before joining Fox. "The value of these people is their research."

Some media watchers agree. "Senior network executives tend to dismiss the center a bit too reflexively," said Howard Kurtz, media reporter for CNN and The Washington Post. "This is clearly because the organization has such a conservative agenda, but that doesn't mean their barbs aren't hitting the mark sometimes."

In many ways, Bozell's group has continued the mission begun in 1969 by Reed Irvine's Accuracy in Media, which helped found MRC in 1987 by sharing its mailing list. But Bozell, a syndicated columnist who served as finance director in Patrick Buchanan's 1992 presidential campaign, has developed a much larger organization. Funded by such conservative groups as the Sarah Scaife Foundation, his center boasted an income of $15 million in 2000, more than eighteen times as much as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the largest liberal media watchdog.

From September 11 until Christmas, a staff of eight full-time researchers recorded and reviewed all the broadcasts on CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, said Noyes. Any possible evidence of "liberal bias" or wavering support of the military mission was flagged for distribution through the group's Web page, e-mail list, and "Notable Quotables," a biweekly newsletter delivered free to many of the nation's newsrooms.

While the center's direct impact on those newsrooms is difficult to measure, television coverage has been far more supportive of the Bush administration's policies than have newspaper reports. In November, for instance, a new study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that 54 percent of broadcast segments "entirely" supported official U.S. viewpoints, compared with 23 percent of applicable newspaper coverage.

At CNN, NBC, MSNBC, and ABC, reporters and producers said that while they are aware of the center's criticisms, they keep partisan assaults from influencing their news judgment. Still, says Tom Nagorski, the foreign news editor at ABC, "I suppose in a subtle way it's in the back of your mind." For supporters of the Media Research Center, that may be all they can ask.

Republished with permission from Columbia Journalism Review March/April 2002; © 2002 Columbia Journalism Review