The Liberal Media Strike Again

Until recently, I've secretly applauded the attempts of right-wing ideologues to document "liberal media bias." Tallying up how often Katie Couric lauds Democrats, keeping tabs on "anti-gun" themes in prime-time television -- I can think of no better way to spend Richard Mellon Scaife's easily inherited millions than to employ an army of interns with click counters and remote controls.

With media ownership rapidly being consolidated and increasingly driven by explicitly pro-business, if not actually "conservative," aims, hunting for liberal bias among Survivor clones and the razzle-dazzle soft news of cable networks seemed like a waste of time.

Clearly, I was mistaken.

It turns out that arguing about media bias is pretty much the only argument one can have about media today. Witness the sustained electronic howl that met Tom Daschle's and Al Gore's remarks about the power of particularly right-wing media entities. Daschle makes some not particularly well-thought-out comments connecting high-pitched rhetoric to personal threats, then Gore makes some slightly more coherent observations about the link between Fox News and the GOP, and a thousand op-eds are born.

Never mind that, on a purely factual basis, neither one's comments are very controversial. Daschle has been threatened, but pundits asking Daschle for examples of violent speech were off the mark about the real flaw in Daschle's complaint. The true civil libertarian would be alarmed not by the implication that a journalists' commentary would incite violence, but by the implication that the journalist is responsible for that violence.

As for Gore's assertion that the Washington Times and Fox News hew to the marching orders of the White House's Mayberry Machiavellis (in the memorable phrasing of the very former Bush adviser John Dilulio) -- where is the debatable point in that? Tony Blankley, the Washington Times' opinion editor, has made much of his ties to Republican activists on the Hill, even used them as sources in editorials. And need we remind anyone that John "Let Me Call Florida" Ellis, the head of Fox's election coverage in 2000, is Dubya's cousin?

Even more troubling, if equally apparent, than the White House calling the shots at Fox, is Fox calling the shots at the White House, a matter raised almost tangentially in the Bob Woodward play-by-play, "Bush at War." Woodward reports that in the days after 9/11, Fox chairman Roger Ailes -- who had worked as a media adviser for the president's father -- wrote Bush a note on how to proceed. "The American public would tolerate waiting and would be patient, but only as long as they were convinced that Bush was using the harshest measures possible," Woodward writes, describing Ailes' memo. "Support would dissipate if the public did not see Bush acting harshly."

But facts never get in the way of a good bias debate. And a really good bias debate can obscure the facts. Carping on left-right tilt, for instance, somehow has become the focus of the Federal Communications Commission in their review of media ownership restrictions. The FCC -- after pressure was put on them by various public interest groups -- recently released the studies that will inform their decision on whether to loosen media consolidation guidelines.

One study takes as its mission to examine the "hypothesis" that fewer owners mean less diversity of opinions. Their examination consisted of looking at the stories produced during the last 15 days of the 2000 presidential campaign of different media outlets (television stations and newspapers) owned by the same corporations. These stories were then coded either "pro-Bush" or "pro-Gore" and totaled and averaged to give what the study's authors called a "slant coefficient." In finding that these different outlets did not produce the exact same ratio of pro-Bush and pro-Gore stories, the authors concluded that "common ownership of a newspaper and a television station in a community does not result in a predictable patter of news coverage and commentary."

Well, it's nice to know that with billions of dollars and an entire free press at stake, the federal government will be basing their opinion on one two-week study of dubious authority. The logical errors contained in the study would keep battalions of Scaife interns busy, were they to turn their attention away from Phil Donahue. That it equated "anti-Bush" and "pro-Gore," as well as "anti-Gore" and "pro-Bush" (which it did) is nothing compared to their de facto equating of Bush and Gore to a real contest or real choice. And there's no room at all on their scorecard for anyone who's not Bush or Gore.

This is the kind of thinking that pervades the FCC. Chairman Michael Powell recently told the New York Times: "Common ownership can lead to more diversity. What does the owner get for having duplicative products? I don't know why you'd want to have two newspapers that say the same thing. I would say, 'Let's make one Democratic, let's make one Republican.' "

That this in itself represents a narrowing of options doesn't seem to have occurred to him.

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