Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Phony Balance, A Phony Study & A Phony Crisis

The current debt ceiling "crisis" has thrown a spotlight on a particularly damnable practice of the corporate press, the elevation of "balance" over accuracy. Columnist Paul Krugman issued an appropriately impassioned complaint about this yesterday:
"Think about what’s happening right now. We have a crisis in which the right is making insane demands, while the president and Democrats in Congress are bending over backward to be accommodating--offering plans that are all spending cuts and no taxes, plans that are far to the right of public opinion.

"So what do most news reports say? They portray it as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent--because news reports always do that."
Krugman argues that the press and pundits need to "break with the convention that both sides are equally at fault" in this matter because holding to it amounts to affirmatively misleading the public.

Over at Newsbusters, associate editor Noel Sheppard isn't about to touch the merits of that argument, offering, instead, the fanciful interpretation of it as a condemnation by Krugman of "balance and centrism," a call to "censor conservative views about the debt ceiling," an insistence that "the news media... only report the side he [Krugman] agrees with." Sheppard is both a profoundly brainless man and a chronically deceitful one--I leave it to the reader to judge which of these defects are at play here.

Sheppard seeks to refute Krugman by arguing that, actually, the big three network newscasts "have consistently cast the GOP as the villains in this debate," and he has a study to cite that shows it, or so he says. Except it turns out to be just another phony "study" by his Media Research Center of the kind the MRC is notorious for grinding out, and it neither refutes Krugman nor backs Sheppard's characterization of it.

The MRC's "About" page asserts that the organization aims to prove the liberal bias of the press "through sound scientific research." It mentions science a few times, actually. Makes them sound serious. In practice, the MRC gang treats "sound scientific research" as some sort of liberal trick and steers well clear of it. Their standard game, when it comes to assembling a "study," is to invent some ridiculous, phony, completely subjective standard, one they engineer specifically for the purpose of having the press fall short of it, then collect all of the examples of the press falling short of it and report these as "findings." The aim is partisan distortion and obfuscation.

Their current "study," the one Sheppard cites, follows in this dismal tradition.[1] As they tell it, they looked at every story about the debt ceiling from the three networks' morning and evening programs from July 1 to July 22. They report their methodology thusly:
"Analysts reviewed each story, then tallied all reporter statements and soundbites which clearly assigned responsibility to Republicans or Democrats. If the majority of statements within that story assigned blame to one party or the other, it was scored as 'blaming Republicans' or 'blaming Democrats.' If the story contained a balanced number of statements, it was recorded as 'balanced.'"
While Sheppard used the results generated by this methodology to refute Krugman, a glaringly obvious hole in it--more like a gaping chasm--is the very one Krugman identified; the assumption that both sides are to blame for the current situation. If they aren't, then the reports the "study" identifies as "balanced" are, in fact, a complete misrepresentation of reality.

And to be crystal clear, when it comes to the matter of the debt ceiling, Republicans are solely and entirely responsible for making it a "crisis" and keeping it one. Not just partially responsible or even mostly responsible. 100% responsible.

Raising the debt ceiling is a routine housekeeping matter for the government.[2] Failure to do so, however, would result in a disastrous default and because of this, Republicans, primarily those in the House of Representatives, have attempted to use it for blackmail, refusing to support any effort to raise the ceiling unless they're granted extraordinary budgetary concessions, concessions they wouldn't be able to get under the normal budget process. In their insistence on linking the current debt ceiling to the future budget process,[3] they assumed full responsibility for the present situation. The "crisis" is their arbitrary creation and they can end it at any moment, merely by passing a single sheet of paper containing a single sentence that alters a single number.

The Obama and congressional Democrats chose, very unwisely, to negotiate with the hostage-takers and have offered up to the Republicans deep spending cuts, including cuts in "entitlement" programs but because the Obama's plan also involved some increased revenue from Big Money, Republican House speaker John Boehner abandoned the negotiations (while, in the Bizarro world of the nut right, the far-right press has loudly, repeatedly and falsely asserted the Obama has offered Republicans nothing). Democrats hold the White House and the majority in the Senate and the cuts offered by the Obama are absolutely anathema to the Democratic base and to the overwhelming majority of the public as well, yet they were still offered as part of a compromise. As Peter Hart put it over on the FAIR blog yesterday, "by any reasonable standard, the White House and the Democratic leadership have made an array of drastic compromises in order to win favor with Republicans." The only reason there isn't a deal is that Republicans have been unwilling to compromise on anything on their end. They control one part of one house of congress but are demanding a capitulation by everyone else so complete that they've walked away from proposals so heavily stacked in their favor that even offering them could spell political doom for the Obama. Again, the Republicans are entirely responsible for the lack of a deal.

So when the MRC comes along and does their little "study" and pretends as if a "balanced" report on the matter must equally blame both sides, they're shoveling the same rancid fecal matter they always have.

And there's more stink on it.

The article on the "study" by MRC Deputy Research Director Geoffrey Dickens asserts that, of the stories that assigned blame to someone for the current crisis, "the skew was lopsidedly anti-Republican," with 66% of stories "mainly assigning them the blame for the impasse," while 20% suggested Democrats "bore more responsibility" and 14% were "balanced."

Given that Republicans are demonstrably 100% responsible for the current mess, it would, indeed, be a scandal if 34% of press stories either blamed Democrats more or blamed both sides equally but there's no reason to believe these results bear any relationship to reality.

Relevant to Sheppard's attempt to use these results against Krugman is the fact that MRC isn't dividing reports that blame both sides from those that blame only one side. Those who carried out the study are, instead, dividing the reports into categories based on their subjective judgment of which side a report blames more than the other.

The few examples cited by the article as representative of an anti-Republican slant don't inspire any confidence in the subjective judgments that formed the basis of the results. Amy Robach and Ann Curry from the Today Show questioned whether Republicans were wasting time or putting on a show for their constituents by insisting on debating proposals everyone acknowledged had no chance of passing--merely by asking what seem like glaringly obvious questions, they were both judged to be blaming Republicans. CBS correspondent Nancy Cordes was judged as blaming Republicans based on a story in which she reported on Democratic complaints about House majority leader Eric Cantor, even though she asserted in that report that Cantor was being made a "fall guy" by the Democrats. Most hilariously, ABC News' Jake Tapper is said to have "used the words of former Republican Senator Alan Simpson to shame the GOP." Simpson is, of course, an extremely conservative fellow, a die-hard Republican and a hyper-partisan to the point of rather extreme obnoxiousness but because he is critical of what the congressional Republicans are doing and because Tapper reported it, Tapper is judged as blaming Republicans. And so on.

Grasping at straws, see?

Readers may also find it interesting that MRC threw out about 56% of its initial sample. While the "study" encompassed 202 stories, MRC's conclusions are based on only 85--always a huge warning sign. 56% of reports were judged as assigning no blame at all and even if we embarked upon the fool's errand of accepting these demonstrably flawed subjective judgments, this is hardly the mark of a press corps dedicated to blaming Republicans. That number alone is enough to put the lie to Sheppard's claim that the "study" shows the press has "consistently cast the GOP as the villains in this debate." If we accept the "study," the press hasn't consistently cast anyone as the villain.

With what does this leave us? A "crisis" manufactured by ill-intentioned dolts, a "media watchdog" that acts as propagandists for said dolts and a press corps that does things like this and faces only the complaints of lefty bloggers for it as it threatens to mislead the nation over a cliff.



[1] There apparently isn't any actual "study" to which I can link. The MRC analysts' results are recorded in that Geoffrey Dickens column and that seems to be the only reference.

[2] During the Junior Bush administration, it was raised 7 times.

[3] Raising the debt ceiling doesn't involve new spending; it merely allows the government to cover the spending congress has already authorized, a fact that, notably, is barely mentioned in press coverage.


scotterb said...

Yes, in this case President Obama should have said that budget negotiations are necessary, but will not be tied to the debt ceiling. He should have drawn a line in the sand that said the debt ceiling was not a vehicle for partisan posturing. That was his big mistake.

Niceguy Eddie said...

@scotterb - Obama wouldn't do that. (No balls.) (AT ALL.)

@Classic - It's like Stephen Colbert said: Reality has a well established Liberal bias.

This should be easy. Every democrat should be 'tellin it like it is' every second of every day. Every breath they draw should be dedicated to calling out these UNPATRIOTIC, UNAMERICAN, ROOTING-FOR-FAILUR SCUMBAGS in the media EVERY SECOND of EVERY DAY. (IOW - Doing what the Right usually does as a matter of course - only BEING right!)

But there aren't two balls in the whole bunch. None. Everyone one of them is John Kerry, Al Gore, Mike Dukakis and Walter Mondale: They simply refuse to COME OUT SWINGING.

Even when they're 100% right and the Right are 100% TREASONOUS SCUM. They're WIMPS, th elot of them. And American would rather have someone who strong and wrong than weak and right. (Mainly becuase about half of Americans are complete morons.)

It's embarassing. It really is.

classicliberal2 said...

Low-information citizens aren't "complete morons"; they just don't pay the close attention to these matters necessary to cut through the sort of press spin Krugman was discussing. That's one of the reasons that spin is so very damnable.

By even agreeing to "negotiate" with Republicans on this matter, Obama cost the public this fight. The time to take a firm stand would have been months ago. Even after Boehner walked out on the talks and Obama addressed the nation on television, he could have raked Republicans over the coals for what they've done, refused to grant them anything, and, in the end, he--and, by extension, the public--would have won. The public is NOT on the side of what the Republicans are advocating in this matter. By not drawing a clear line in the sand and challenging them, and challenging this BS press narrative about "partisan rancor" on both sides, Obama has made this a sinking ship, one he and his party are riding.