“Left” Out of Media Coverage

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For years complaints of liberal media bias were dismissed with a simpledemand: “Prove it.” But thanks to Lexis-Nexis, that’s becoming easier to do.These days anyone with a computer can perform media searches that revealwith unsettling precision the slanted nature of news coverage.

Consider the Republican and Democratic conventions. The anecdotal evidenceof bias was compelling enough, such as the reporter who claimed that if Bush’snational security adviser didn’t mention her support for abortion rightsin her speech, it would call into question the image of an inclusiveconvention. Abortion rights. In a speech by the national security adviser.But Lexis-Nexis confirms that the media viewed the GOP gathering as a paradeof political fringe dwellers while the Democratic convention abounded withsafe, sensible centrists.

By the numbers, the news media labeled Republicans “right-wing” 373 timesduring their convention but found only 120 occasions to refer to “left-wing”Democrats during theirs. The disparity was more pronounced among majornewspapers: The New York Times labeled Republicans “right-wing” 14 times,Democrats “left-wing” only twice. Major papers as a group tilted against theRepublicans 142-37 on this score.

What about even harsher terms? The major networks called Republicans “farright” 22 times and “hard right” six times, but Democrats were “far left”only five times and were never “hard left.” All news sources labeled theRepublicans “far right” or “hard right” 188 times, but found only 52occasions to label Democrats “far left” and “hard left.” And don’t forget,many of the latter labels referred to protesters outside the Democraticconvention, not to Al Gore, Joseph Lieberman, or other party leaders.

The conservative Media Research Center confirms that this is nothing new. A1985 study conducted for the group by professor William C. Adams found thatin 1984 “both CBS News and NBC News called the Republican party, itsplatform, or its dominant leaders by conservative labels 113 times. Theycalled the Democrats by liberal labels 21 times” -- even though that was theyear popular Republican incumbent Ronald Reagan won 60 percent of the votewhile the Democratic convention in San Francisco seemed to strike mostAmericans as too far to the left. Similar bias remained in 1988 and 1992.

Why does this happen? Why do journalists consistently portray Republicansand conservatives as more ideological than Democrats and liberals? One easyanswer is that most journalists are left of center politically. But sincetheir own views tend to be shared by their coworkers and friends, they thinkof themselves as moderates. Thus Democratic activists and candidates seemsensible and moderate to them, while conservatives seem foreign andideological. That’s not intentional bias, just a natural inclination.

Another possible answer, of course, is that Republicans are farther to theright than Democrats are to the left. That would be a difficult propositionto prove or disprove, because it depends on how one defines the center. Butif we take four presidential elections, from 1984 to 1996, in whichDemocrats and Republicans each won the presidency twice, with theRepublicans getting more total votes over that period, it seems hard toclaim that the Republicans are farther from the center than the Democrats.As for 2000, can anyone seriously claim that Bush and Cheney are farther tothe right than Gore and Lieberman are to the left? Gore, after all, haswritten a book advocating the abolition of the internal combustion engine,which would seem a fairly left-wing position, and Lieberman -- for all hisshort-lived flirtation with new ideas like school choice and Social Securityreform -- has compiled a lifetime liberal rating of 95 from Americans forDemocratic Action.

If Dick Cheney can be called “far right,” then it’s ridiculous not to callDemocratic National Convention featured speakers such as Hillary Clinton,Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, abortion-rights hardliner Kate Michelman, andgay-rights activist Elizabeth Birch “left-wing.” If Phyllis Schlafly is the“doyenne of the far right,” as The Washington Post put it in a news story,then who was the doyenne of the far left at the Democratic convention?

Print and especially television media are the filter through which votersreceive information about politics and elections. As conveyors of thatinformation, journalists have a responsibility to their patrons and theirprofession to resist news reporting that is wittingly or unwittingly biased.

  All News Sources* Major Newspapers New York Times Washington Post
Republicans labeled as        
Right wing 373 142 14 6
Far right 144 46 1 1
Hard right 44 13 2 3
Religious right 141 44 0 1
Conservative 3170 1093 63 61



  All News Sources* Major Newspapers New York Times Washington Post
Democrats labeled as        
Left wing 120 37 2 2
Far left 49 17 1 0
Hard left 7 3 1 0
Religious left 4 3 0 0
Secular left 2 1 0 0
Liberal 1589 374 36 25

SOURCE: Lexis-Nexis search, Republicans during period July 30-August 4, Democrats August 13-18.
*All sources included in Lexis-Nexis news.