Tag: media bias

NPR Story Was Hardly Biased, but the Headline?

Today’s NPR story, “Health Law Hardly At Fault For Rising Premiums,” was much fairer than its headline (and the sub-heads, if that’s what we call them).   ObamaCare is “hardly at fault for rising premiums?”  Really?  The story quotes an insurance-industry flack who well establishes what the Obama administration’s own regulations confirm: ObamaCare will be a major driver of premium increases for some health plans.  A sub-head calls such claims “misinformation.”  Oh?  The article does more to bolster those claims than the administration’s flack does to knock them down.  A more accurate headline would have been, “Health Law at Fault for Rising Premiums? In Some Cases, Yes.”

One wonders whether, in some posh Versailles salon, there’s an editor who already knows what the headline should be – never mind what the article says.

The ‘Tea Party’ Smear

One sign of the tea party movement’s success is that the term “tea party” is becoming an all-purpose smear term for any more-or-less right-wing person or activity that the writer doesn’t like. In fact, I think “Tea Party” is replacing “neocon” as an all-purpose word for “the people I hate.”

Take a look at this article, teased on the cover of Newsweek as “France’s Tea Party” and online as “What a Tea Party Looks Like in Europe.” When I saw the cover on the newsstand, I thought, “A tax revolt in France? Cool! And about time!” But what is the article actually about? It’s about the National Front party of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who

for decades has played on the inchoate fears, xenophobia, knee-jerk racism, and ill-disguised anti-Semitism of many of his supporters.

Is that Newsweek’s view of the “tea party”? The article went on to explain that at 82 Le Pen is yielding party leadership to his daughter, who is “a passionate advocate of its core message: strong French nationalism, relentless Euro-skepticism, and a lot of hard-nosed talk about fighting crime and immigration.” And lest that you think that such culturally conservative and unsavory attitudes simply go hand in hand with a belief in lower taxes and smaller government, the authors point out that

she’s also a big believer in the state’s ability and obligation to help its people. “We feel the state should have the means to intervene,” she says. “We are very attached to public services à la française as a way to limit the inequalities among regions and among the French,” including “access for all to the same level of health care.”

That combination of nativism and welfare statism seems very different from the mission of the tea party movement. The Tea Party Patriots website, the closest thing to a central focus for tea party activists, lists their values as “Fiscal Responsibility, Limited Government, Free Market.”  In fact, I note that writers Tracy McNicoll, Christopher Dickey, and Barbie Nadeau never use the term “tea party” in the body of the article. So maybe we should only blame Newsweek’s headline writers and front-page editor.

In another example, the Guardian newspaper of London wrote sensationally about “Lobbyists behind the rightwing Tea Party group in the US” arriving in London for “an event organised by the UK’s controversial Taxpayers’ Alliance.” (Why is it controversial? Apparently because it agitates for lower taxes.) These groups, it is said, have “close links to the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch” and “have lobbied … to maintain tax breaks for the rich” – and for everyone else, a point that author Phillip Inman inadvertently omitted. And, contrary to the article, Cato didn’t sponsor a taxpayers’ conference in London; we cosponsored the venerable European Resource Bank, a networking conference for free-market think tanks across Europe.

Inman writes, “The Cato Institute, which promotes its views on Fox News and other rightwing media, is one of the Tea Party’s main backers.” That’s sort of true, except for the point that our scholars have appeared more often on CNBC than on Fox. And that we don’t back any political or grass-roots movements, though many of our scholars have written generous – and sometimes more cautious – articles about the tea party movement.

My colleague Aaron Powell suggests that that many left-liberals, including many journalists, have a Manichean worldview that posits a fundamental conflict between corporations and government. And so if you dislike corporations, you perforce stand on the side of government. And when it’s energy corporations, like the Kochs, then anything they touch becomes The Enemy. And “Tea Party” is now, to some people, the generic name for The Enemy.

For more sensible views of the tea party movement from journalists, see this John Judis article that I praised before and a new analysis from Jonathan Rauch in National Journal.

Ideological Warning Labels

A story this morning on NPR’s “Morning Edition” reminded me of my continuing complaint that the mainstream (liberal) media regularly put an ideological label on conservative and libertarian organizations and interviewees, but not on liberal and leftist groups.  In a report about states accepting stimulus funds, reporter Kathy Lohr quoted “Jon Shure of the Washington D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities,” “Maurice Emsellem with the National Employment Law Project,” and “Tad DeHaven, a budget analyst with the fiscally conservative Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.” (Thanks! And I’d say the label is correct, even if I might prefer libertarian.)

Those are all legitimate sources for the story. But only one of them gets an ideological label – even though the other two groups are clearly on the left. They’re to the left of the Obama administration; indeed, they’re probably part of what the White House press secretary calls the “professional left.” So why not alert listeners that you might be getting a “liberal” or “leftist” perspective from those two sources, just as you warned them that the Cato Institute was speaking from a fiscally conservative perspective?

Back on March 23, I noted but did not blog about references on “Morning Edition” to “the libertarian Cato Institute,” the “conservative American Enterprise Institute,” and “the Brookings Institution.” No label needed for Brookings, of course. Just folks there. (A bit of Googling reveals that the Brookings reference came from Marketplace Radio, heard on WAMU as an insert into “Morning Edition.” But NPR never labels it either.)

NPR’s ombudsman noted in July that NPR uses the term “ultra-conservative” a lot more than “ultra-liberal.”

It’s all too typical of the mainstream-liberal media: They put ideological warning labels on libertarians and conservatives, lest readers and listeners be unaware of the potential for bias, but very rarely label liberals and leftists. Note the absence of labels on NPR in frequent references to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Journalists should be more even-handed: label all your sources ideologically, or none of them. It’s stacking the deck to label those on the right but not those on the left.

Topics:

If We Don’t Admit That Taxes Are an Issue, Can We Make the Issue Go Away?

The Washington Post devotes most of a page to summarizing the views of Virginia gubernatorial candidates Bob McDonnell and Creigh Deeds on the major issues of the election. (The article seems to have no real headline online, and isn’t linked from anywhere obvious, but in the actual paper, it dominates page C4 under the headline “Where do they stand on the issues? A Rundown of Competing 4-Year Agendas for Virginia.”)

And what are the issues the Post thinks are important? Education, transportation, energy and environment, abortion, gun control, health care, and labor. All fine issues to debate.

But what about taxes? Or government spending? Or the size and scope of government? McDonnell’s television ads focus heavily on Deeds’s apparent willingness to raise taxes, and he’s been rising in the polls as those ads have run. Could it be that the voters think taxes are an important issue?

Turn to a front-page story on New York’s special congressional election, and you’ll find Todd Harris, who has been a media adviser to John McCain, Jeb Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and now Marco Rubio, making this point: “A lot of the establishment Republicans underestimated the grass-roots anger across the country about spending and the expansion of the federal government.”

The Post wishes that taxes weren’t an issue in Virginia. In fact, the Post wishes that voters wanted their taxes raised. But wishing won’t make it so.

The Misuse of “Reform”

When Samuel Johnson said that ”patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” he overlooked the value of the word “reform.” (I didn’t say this first, but I can’t discover who did.) Webster’s says that “reform” means “to put or change into an improved form or condition [or] to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses.” So in political terms, a reform is a change for the better. But whether a particular policy change would actually improve things is often controversial. Unfortunately, the mainstream media typically use the word “reform” to mean “change in a liberal direction.”

It’s bad enough that they constantly use the phrase “campaign finance reform” to refer to laws that restrict individuals’ ability to spend their money to advance their political ideas. And of course every day we hear and read the term “health care reform” used to mean new subsidies, mandates, regulations, taxes, and restrictions on how health care is provided. Needless to say, there’s heated debate in the country as to whether such laws would constitute reform.

And now the Washington Post gives us this prominent headline (page 3, upper right):

450 Mayors Petition Obama
To Adopt Broad Gun Reform

The story makes clear that what the mayors want is what used to be called “gun control” – more power for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the creation of an “Interstate Firearms Trafficking Unit,” more restrictions on gun shows, more data collection on individuals.  No doubt anti-gun strategists have discovered that “gun control” is an unpopular term, so they advise advocates to use terms like “gun reform”; and reporters, headline writers, and editors at the Post go along with it.

Now try to imagine this story in the Washington Post:

450 Mayors Petition Obama
To Adopt Broad Media Reform

A new report from a national coalition of mayors urges President Obama to adopt dozens of reforms to help curb media excesses, including steps to crack down on problems with unauthorized leaks, the creation of a federal interstate media monitoring unit, new rules on media concentration, a federal database of people who use hateful language in letters to the editor and online comments.

Hard to imagine the Post would blithely accept the term “reform” in that case, isn’t it? And I don’t think the Post and other mainstream media called President Reagan’s tax cuts “tax reform.” (They did use the term “tax reform” when the proposed policy involved eliminating loopholes and thus taxing more activities, along with a reduction of rates.) Nor, I think, did they call President Bush’s proposed Social Security private accounts “Social Security reform.” They should be equally careful when liberal activists dub their proposals “reform.”

Meanwhile, kudos to Mara Liasson of NPR, who in this story from Friday uses the terms “health care legislation” and “health care overhaul,” but never “health care reform.” I hope that was a conscious choice, in recognition of the fact that about half of Americans don’t think the current subsidy-regulation-mandate legislation is in fact reform.