Media

If It's Sunday, It's Conservative

A new report nails down what we knew all along: If you're a guest on a TV talk show, you're probably a conservative.
Last week, Media Matters released a study demonstrating empirically what we all knew from experience: the Sunday politics shows -- Meet the Press, This Week with George Stephanopoulos and Face the Nation -- skewed heavily towards right-wing guests. The Sunday gasbag fests influence the conventional wisdom far more than their audience -- about 10 million people per week -- would suggest. They shape the way our media frames the news, and determine who is and who is not a credible voice. Pols, reporters and other shows follow their lead.

The study, which analyzed almost 7,000 guests on the three shows during Clinton's second term and George W's first, is of course heresy to many. It directly challenged conservatives' most cherished belief that the "mainstream media" is hostile to conservatives, and that therefore, despite controlling all of the branches of government, having a stranglehold on corporate power and generally dominating the discourse on outlets like Fox and MSNBC, they are the beleaguered underdogs, the perennial victims of a pseudo-Socialist "media elite."

The central finding in the study [PDF] was that:
The balance between Democrats/progressives and Republicans/conservatives was roughly equal during Clinton's second term, with a slight edge toward Republicans/conservatives: 52 percent of the ideologically identifiable guests were from the right, and 48 percent were from the left. But in Bush's first term, Republicans/conservatives held a dramatic advantage, outnumbering Democrats/progressives by 58 percent to 42 percent.
The study's author, Paul Waldman, is a former editor of mine, a colleague on the Gadflyer blog and an occasional contributor to AlterNet's Echo Chamber. On Wednesday, I caught up with him over at Media Matters to get some followup on the study.

"Immediately, NBC blasted out a press release [on behalf of Meet the Press]," Waldman said. "What they did was they went back in their files to look up who had been on their show in the period before our study started, to the first Clinton term, to try to argue that what happened during the first Clinton term was an imbalance equivalent to the imbalance during the first Bush term."

The release, which called the Media Matters study "incomplete and misleading," didn't stand up to scrutiny. "They basically proved our point," said Waldman. "It turns out that there were more Democrats than Republicans during that period, but the imbalance was much larger during the first Bush term. So it's not just a matter of who's in power, there's something else going on."

ABC didn't respond to the study, but CBS's Vaughn Ververs jumped on Media Matters methodology on CBS's blog, the Public Eye.

Ververs wrote that "the most obvious and troubling" problem with Media Matters' methodology is "the intra-party dynamic. For example, while Media Matters says it classified former Democratic Sen. Zell Miller as a "conservative" for his role as an outspoken critic of his own party, the study also makes much of the fact that Republican Sen. John McCain has appeared 174 times in the period covered." For Ververs, McCain's not suitably obedient to the party line to qualify as a consistent conservative. "There's no doubt whatsoever that Miller supported President Bush's reelection and appeared on these programs as an advocate of his policies, particularly on the war. There's also no doubt that John McCain has built his career largely on being a "maverick" within his own party and someone the media traditionally turns to for Republican-on-Republican criticism."

He adds, "And when it comes to categorizing journalists on the panels, I'm not sure how that works. I'll certainly buy columnist Bob Novak as a conservative, but I think you'd get some real arguments from Republicans by classifying David Broder as a 'centrist.'"

Waldman concedes that it's impossible to set up a study like this without having one or two people's labels being ripe for debate. "It doesn't matter with a database this big," he says.

As for Ververs' specific examples, Waldman delivered a blistering riposte:
Your comparison of Miller to McCain can only be described as laughable. When McCain endorses a Democratic presidential candidate, delivers a blistering attack on the Republican Party from the podium of the Democratic National Convention, and writes a book-length polemic attacking the Republican Party (followed by a polemic attacking conservatism), then we can talk. Until then, he's a Republican.
As for David Broder being a liberal, that only underscores the study's point. Waldman wrote, "Here, you have inadvertently revealed just the kind of bias we worked to avoid. You might indeed 'get some real arguments' from some Republicans on categorizing Broder as a centrist, but those arguments would be ridiculous." He added: "You might also 'get some real arguments' from some Republicans claiming that George Will is a communist stooge, but that doesn't mean those arguments should be taken seriously."

Of course some of the wingnuts came out against the study. RightMarch.com -- "Patriotism in action" -- called the study "skewed" and "obviously wrong" without actually critiquing Media Matters' methodology, data or conclusions. They asked their Bushbot followers to write letters to their newspapers' editors demanding that they "report on media's left-wing bias."

One bunch that has been curiously silent is what one might call the professional liberal media bias conspiracy theorists -- the folks at the Media Research Center and Accuracy in Media. According to Waldman, "They haven't said anything, which suggests to me that they've decided that the best thing to do is ignore it."
Joshua Holland is a staff writer at AlterNet.