The Right’s Echo Chamber Reverberates on ‘Reliable Sources’

Reliable Sources host Howard Kurtz (5/3/09) seemed startled when the New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza argued that “just because Bush or some previous president didn’t garner as much coverage as Michelle and Barack Obama did doesn’t tell you anything about press bias one way or another.”

“Are you kidding?” Kurtz exclaimed.

He didn’t express any similar surprise when CNN in-house conservative Amy Holmes came up with this “little-known fact”:

The Washington Times reported this last week…. Actually, at this point in his presidency, Barack Obama is the fourth least popular of the past five presidents. You wouldn’t know that from the press coverage, and you wouldn’t know that George Bush…at this point in his presidency, in 2001, after having had the recount, not even winning the popular vote, in fact had higher Gallup approvals than Barack Obama does right now.

Well, no, you wouldn’t know those things, because they aren’t true. At the 100-day mark, Gallup found a job approval rating for Obama of 65 percent–three percentage points higher than the 62 percent that George W. Bush had at the same point in his first term. Gallup’s polling found that Obama had a higher 100th-day approval rating than Bill Clinton, George Bush Sr., Jimmy Carter or Richard Nixon as well. Of the last seven presidents, only Ronald Reagan, at 68 percent, had a higher job-approval rating–and Reagan, as Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert pointed out (4/29/09), had just survived an assassination attempt in March 2001.

So how could the Washington Times have gotten it so wrong? A commenter on Media Matters’ website traced this right-wing talking point back to a blog post by Judith Apter Klinghoffer on the History News Network (3/24/09). Klinghoffer declared that “Obama’s Poll Numbers Trail Those of W.”–a conclusion she reached by comparing Bush’s job-approval rating to a number she calculated by combining the ratings of “excellent” and “good” received by Obama when people were asked what kind of job they thought he was doing.

Needless to say, you can’t directly compare the answers to two different polling questions–particularly not when you can compare the results of the same question being asked. But the apples-to-oranges comparison produced results that were appealing to the right, so you soon saw James Pinkerton citing this bogus finding on Fox News Channel (4/25/09): “Judith Klinghoffer, writing for the History News Network, made the point that Obama ranked seventh out of the last nine presidents in Gallup poll opinion ratings. So seventh out of nine is not so good.” Three days later, the Washington Times was making the same argument–and then it ends up on the not-so-well-named Reliable Sources.

Kurtz did take issue, sort of, with Holmes’ claim, which ran counter to a wealth of polling data on Obama’s approval ratings: “Although his numbers, we have to say, are pretty good.” But when Holmes retorted: “They’re pretty good, but comparatively. You’re asking comparatively, how does the press treat these politicians different, and they do,” Kurtz conceded: “OK. Fair enough.”

Actually, that doesn’t seem very fair at all.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.