Saturday, February 03, 2007

Media Bias 101

Even the most wild-eyed radical has to acknowledge this example of bias. Check out the first line of this AP story: "The House passed a $463.5 billion spending bill Wednesday that covers about one-sixth of the federal budget as Democrats cleared away the financial mess they inherited from Republicans."


Robert C. said...

I'm no wide-eyed radical, but I think "financial mess" is, if anything, too kind an assessment of the last Congress's gross negligence in not passing a budget.

So if by bias you mean "too kind to the Republicans," yeah, I guess I can see that. But I appreciate that the AP attempts to use some less inflammatory language than I would personally. :)

Rep. David Obey, D-Wisconsin, called the failure to finalize the budget last year "a blatant admission of abject failure by the most useless Congress in modern times."

I'll agree. But I don't see left-wing bias here, Steve. (I'd also be surprised if you didn't agree that the Dems inherited a financial mess from the last Congress.)

For the record, I see lots of liberal media bias, mostly in the coverage of certain issues (there was an amazingly biased article on affirmative action in the NYT last week).

But sometimes media go to far in trying not to appear biased; then they end up whitewashing the news. I like my media to call a spade a spade (or a fig a fig, if you'd rather).

Stephen said...

Now that the financial mess has been cleared away I guess we're in good shape. That certainly didn't take long.

Robert C. said...

Maybe "financial mess" isn't a precise enough term; here it means "failure of the Republican Congress to pass new budgets for the current fiscal year."

That is one mess. One among many, maybe--but pointing that out wouldn't make the lede less critical of the Republicans.

Stephen said...

The story doesn't say that. It says that the Democrats inherited a financial mess and they cleaned it up.

Robert C. said...

What the story says is true. The Democrats did inherit a financial mess, and they did clean it up.

The lede can't tell the whole story. So they expand on the idea later, noting that "the overall feeling was simply relief that the uncertainty of last year's unresolved budget soon will vanish." I wish they more specifically pointed out that the mess was the unresolved budget--but that's the clear implication. (What other mess could this spending bill, in which "spending levels for most agencies and programs are the same as in last year's budget" be cleaning up except last year's lack of a budget?)

If they'd spent more time detailing why it's a "mess," would that make the story more generous to Republicans?

As I mentioned above, I do think that the MSM has some big problems. Sometimes they're biased, and often they just don't go a good enough job of explaining complex and important ideas.

I just don't see bias in this instance.

Anonymous said...

Democrats inherited a financial mess they were partly responsible for creating through obstructionism.

Why should they get credit for cleaning up a mess they were 50% responsible for creating?

Robert said...


The Republicans didn't pass a budget because they wanted to gum up the works in the new, Democratic-controlled Congress. (Source: AP Article) They created a financial mess on purpose to pass on to the new Congress.

They should be held accountable for abrogating that responsibility. The reporting is accurate. This mess, at least, is the Republicans' fault. Those are the facts.

Stephen said...

The article you cited says: "The decision to drop so much unfinished work in Democrats' laps demonstrates both division within Republicans ranks and the difficulty in resolving so many knotty questions in so short a time. GOP leaders promised their House and Senate members the December lame duck session would last no more than two weeks, or until Dec. 16 at the latest."

It doesn't say: "The Republicans didn't pass a budget because they wanted to gum up the works in the new, Democratic-controlled Congress."

Writing that the mess has been cleaned up in the first line implies that there aren't any more messes in the federal budget. That is not true and it is not true in a way that makes Democrats look better.

If you don't see it, when we are looking at the same evidence, I don't know that I could explain it to you.

Robert said...

Stephen, you know I think you're a smart guy. I feel the need to establish some good will here. I enjoy us arguing in person, and on the internet, but on the internet it's more quarrelsome, there's a greater chance of bad blood... so in the spirit of mutual edification, let's continue to argue.

I hope that we can explain things to each other successfully.


The article I cited actually does use the term "gum up."

From the article I linked:


Some Republicans also look forward to using unfinished budget work to gum up an early Democratic agenda that includes raising the minimum wage, negotiating lower drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries, cutting interest rates on college loans and repealing some tax breaks for oil companies.

"Other stuff may get pushed off the table," said GOP lobbyist Hazen Marshall, a former longtime Capitol Hill aide. "It kills (Democrats') message."

End quote.

Now, as for this: "Writing that the mess has been cleaned up in the first line implies that there aren't any more messes in the federal budget. That is not true and it is not true in a way that makes Democrats look better."

So it is a mess. You're OK with that terminology. But you're uncomfortable with the implication that there aren't any more messes in the federal budget. It's very difficult to write without any ambiguity at all. Are you happy with the lede if we change "the financial mess" to "a financial mess"?

Since the scope of the "financial mess" they're talking about is limited and defined in the rest of the article, I feel pretty comfortable with the sentence.

I don't deny that the Democrats benefit from that lede. But the main thing they benefit from is the recognition that the mess in question is the fault of the Republicans. They only receive a small benefit from the idea that they've cleared up ALL financial messes relating to the budget. (Since that idea is a) almost impossible to imagine and b) cleared up later in the story, I don't think that benefit is really all that great).

Rewording the lede to clearly show and limit the "financial mess" to the lack of a budget for FY2007 (and indicate Republican responsibility for that lack) might be possible. But I don't think there's great harm here. I don't personally smell cheerleading. Again, the lede clearly helps Dems, but 99% of that help comes from the facts of the situation. 1% comes from the potential misconception that they've solved all financial crises in govt. In other words, I don't think this sentence is nearly as biased as you seem to think it is.

Can we talk a bit more? Here's my own example of cheerleading from the NYT on 1/26. Front page. The title of the article is Colleges Regroup After Voters Ban Race Preferences.

Here's the lede: With Michigan’s new ban on affirmative action going into effect, and similar ballot initiatives looming in other states, many public universities are scrambling to find race-blind ways to attract more blacks and Hispanics.

That sentence is an incredible feat of logic. Isn't it? The article goes two (online) pages to get to the second to last paragraph, when they note that there's any incongruity in universities trying to circumvent laws aimed directly at their affirmative action goals.

But now that I'm looking more closely at that article, maybe it's not as bad as I thought... I'm not sure. I wouldn't pick either of these articles for exhibit A in Media Bias 101.

I'm interested in media bias, and the failures of the media in general (and I think the media's central failing isn't bias). But I'm more interested in how difficult it is to change each other's minds on issues like this. This argument, for example. And our perceptions of bias in this example are very different, even though I don't feel particularly confident in the media's lack of bias in general. (I do dislike almost everything about the last Congress, so that might be affecting my judgment.)

dcat said...

The Wall Street Journal outsells either the Times or the WaPost.

More newspapers have supported the Republican GOP nominee in all but two presidential elections since 1932.

Liberals argue that the media was not suitably skeptical on the war. Conservatives say that the "mainstream Media" (the new meme for "liberal media" in conservative circles) is full of liberals and they thus make the astounding leap of logic that the end product of those journalists work must be liberal. Liberals return fire that the owners of papers are conservatives. The dance goes on, arguments by innuendo rather than arguments on merits.

We have had this argument a million times because it is easy to assert and impossible to prove, largely because it is not true in any meaningful way: Claims of liberal bias are almost always nonsense, especially when painted with a broad brush. Ditto claims of conservative media bias.

Here we have a specific example, and two people, neither appearing to be a raging liberal, cannot agree on whether the example is itself a case of bias.

Why is it that so many people refuse to argue issues on their merits and rather assert a chimerical "media bias" as if the media is one thing, monolithic, unbending, and prejudiced against everything for which [insert accuser's name here] stands.


Anonymous said...

I might add that the process of producing a story is not a one person job--editors assign them, reporters write, copy editors edit, and wire stories (which the original story liked on the blog is an ap story)are further chopped apart. Does a particular reporter's ideology influence a story--most likely--yes. But as Derek points out there is so much more to this than the reporter. Maybe the reporter wrote a different lead and it was the copy editor who had to fit the story in available space who changed the lead? We can't and don't know these things.


Stephen said...

I think I could rewrite that article in a non-biased way. I think I could rewrite it with a Republican bias. Jeff is right about the multiple eyes on the end product, but the end result looks suspect to me.

Jeff said...


Are you going to the AP reading in Louisville?

Stephen said...

I can't. I have to teach summer school that week. I am trying to decide what to do with my spring break though. Road trip anyone?

dcat said...

Two words: Odessa Texas.