Jul 1 1998

Meet the Myth-Makers

Right-Wing Media Groups Provide Ammo for "Liberal Media" Claims

While the main proponents of the liberal media myth are conservative commentators and talkshow hosts (who themselves are the dominant opinion voices in the media), the ammunition for such arguments usually comes from one of three well-funded groups.

Two of the groups–Accuracy In Media (AIM) and the Media Research Center (MRC)–are openly conservative, while the Center for Media & Public Affairs (CMPA) presents itself as an objective, nonpartisan research group. AIM does relatively little research, while the plentiful “research” produced by the other two groups is frequently marred by methodological flaws or unsupportable assumptions. Despite the weak foundations of their arguments, these groups have developed impressive media profiles.

Accuracy In Media

Accuracy in Media (AIM), launched in 1969, is closely associated with founder Reed Irvine. In AIM’s first year, Irvine advocated that Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers and the Progressive Labor Party be charged with sedition during the Vietnam War. “If you’re going to halt treason, you’ve got to do it while it’s small,” Irvine said at the time (Village Voice, 1/21/86).

Much of AIM’s work is dedicated to getting those they disagree with fired. In 1982, AIM engaged in a campaign against Raymond Bonner of the New York Times, criticizing the Central America correspondent for reporting that U.S.-trained troops had massacred civilians at the Salvadoran village of El Mozote. AIM and its media allies (notably the Wall Street Journal editorial page) were successful in getting Bonner removed from his beat; years later, U.N. excavations at the site confirmed his story (Extra!, 1-2/93).

This censorious attitude is linked to the group’s disdain for the First Amendment: AIM used to offer as a premium the book Target America, by AIM board member James L. Tyson, which proposed that mandatory government “ombudsmen” be placed at each of the major networks to ensure “accuracy” and “fairness” when dealing with “large, difficult questions.”

AIM has frequently criticized media coverage of its corporate backers (for example, oil and chemical interests), but much of Irvine’s advocacy has little or nothing to do with media. In the 1990s, he urged the use of napalm against Salvadoran guerrillas (AIM Report, 3/90), as well as encouraging the use of nuclear weapons against Iraq during the Persian Gulf crisis (Seattle Times, 1/16/91).

In recent years, exposing alleged Clinton conspiracies (and Republican complicity in the plots) has been the major focus of AIM’s work, including the conclusion that independent counsel Kenneth Starr has suppressed evidence in the Vince Foster case. Dismissing Hillary Rodham Clinton’s charges of a right-wing conspiracy, Irvine retorted (AIM Report, 2/98) that “the only conspiracy I knew of was the conspiracy of the Republican leadership to protect Bill Clinton.”

Media Research Center

The Media Research Center is headed by L. Brent Bozell III, the former director of the National Conservative Political Action Committee. In 1992, he took a brief time-out from the MRC to serve as finance chair for Patrick Buchanan’s primary challenge to George Bush.

Bozell’s 1990 book, And That’s the Way It Isn’t, co-edited with Brent Baker, offers numerous examples of the caliber of research conducted or endorsed by the MRC. One study, “Selective Eye on Central America,” criticized media for giving more coverage in 1984 to government death squads in El Salvador than to government death squads in Nicaragua–a bit like complaining that the basketball talents of Michael Jordan get more coverage than those of Woody Allen. (Amnesty International’s 1985 annual report noted that, in El Salvador, “many of the estimated 40,000 people killed in political violence [from 1979 to 1984] had been murdered by government forces who openly dumped mutilated corpses in an apparent attempt to terrorize the public”; in Nicaragua, while there were some instances of arbitrary killings by government forces, “most such reported abuses led to the public trial and conviction of military personnel found responsible.”)

The same book includes a feature titled “The Revolving Door,” which purports to track “the movement of people between political and media positions.” The sample group appears to be anyone the MRC could think of, and the thinking appears to be selective: Mona Charen, for example, is nowhere to be found–though if you turn the book over, you find her blurbing the book, identified as a “syndicated columnist and former speechwriter for President Reagan.”

The MRC’s main publication is MediaWatch. It also publishes the MediaNomics newsletter, part of MRC’s Free Market Project, devoted to explaining “what the media tell Americans about free enterprise.” Notable Quotables is the MRC’s “bi-weekly compilation of the most outrageous examples of bias,” but it often reads more like a collection of statements the MRC does not agree with.

The February 23, 1998 edition of Notable Quotables, for instance, includes two quotes from Al Hunt, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, appearing on CNN‘s Capital Gang. In one quote, Hunt said that House Speaker Newt Gingrich had “been accused of the same sort of moral turpitude that the president’s been accused of”; in the other, Hunt said of allegations of leaks from the independent counsel’s office: “For Ken Starr to say he’s going to investigate the leaks is as believable as O.J. Simpson looking for the real killer.” What seems most troubling to the Notable Quotables staff is the fact that non-conservative opinions are included in TV discussion programs.

Sometimes Notable Quotables seems to object to the reporting of news that it doesn’t like. Why else would it include this statement by CBS‘s Dan Rather (5/8/98)?: “In a CBS News poll out tonight, just 29 percent believe Starr is conducting an impartial investigation of President Clinton. And 57 percent want Starr to drop his investigation of the president’s personal life.”

The Center’s now defunct TV, Etc. newsletter tracked the allegedly leftist politics of entertainment industry figures–devoting considerable energy to publicizing the off-screen comments of people who make their living reading lines written by other people. (The project bore an uncomfortable resemblance to Red Channels, the McCarthy Era blacklisting journal.) Again, the intent seemed to be to curtail points of view the MRC objected to; for example, the publication urged viewers to write to sponsors of the program Miami Vice to voice their opposition to this “liberal programming” (Extra!, 10-11/89).

TV, Etc. seems to have been replaced by the Parents Television Council. The PTC, launched in 1995 and boasting Shirley Jones and Steve Allen as “national honorary co-chairs,” tracks programming content with its “Family Guide to Prime Time TV.”

Center for Media and Public Affairs

The Center for Media and Public Affairs likes to tout its founders’ academic credentials–husband-and-wife team S. Robert Lichter and Linda Lichter were teaching at George Washington University and publishing in scholarly journals (often of the conservative variety, like AEI’s Public Opinion) prior to the establishment of CMPA.

But the main analytical technique used by the Center–the counting of “thematic messages”–is extremely dubious, eliminating all messages that fail to make an explicit statement of opinion. Since sources who accept the status quo don’t need to explicitly state an opinion, this technique often produces highly distorted findings. For example, the CMPA report on Gulf War coverage (Media Monitor, 4/91) found that “nearly three out of five sources (59 percent) criticized U.S. government policies during the Gulf War.” This improbable result comes from throwing out 5,666 out of 5,915 messages, and looking only at what the remaining 249 said about U.S. policy.

Similarly, CMPA’s 1992 study of PBS broke down public TV documentaries–regular programs, like William F. Buckley’s Firing Line, the NewsHour and Wall $treet Week, were deliberately excluded–into 35,094 segments. Of these segments, only 614 were considered “thematic messages”–meaning that 98.3 percent of the sample was ignored.

Even the conclusions drawn from these relatively small samples can seem forced: The PBS study, for example, claims that “racial discrimination was described as a condition of American society 50 times without a single dissenting opinion.” In reality, in 37 of those cases racism was described as a past condition of American society–and among those who acknowledged that discrimination exists were those who “criticized efforts to increase integration.” (Read FAIR’s memo on the Lichter methodology for more information.)

Before founding the CMPA, the Lichters, along with co-author Stanley Rothman, did much to bolster the myth of the liberal media with their 1981 book The Media Elite, based on surveys of journalists’ private views. Curiously, the study frequently compares the attitudes of journalists to a survey of corporate managers–rather than providing data on general public opinion–apparently to make journalists appear more “liberal” than they otherwise might. The book has been widely criticized for its methodological flaws. (See Columbia Journalism Review, 11-12/85.)

While the CMPA is often described as “non-partisan,” it certainly seems to be a conservative project. Fundraising letters for the launch of the Center contained endorsements from the likes of Ronald Reagan, Pat Buchanan, Ed Meese and Pat Robertson. Support for the group comes from the most prominent right-wing foundations, like Olin, Coors and Scaife. While Robert Lichter has said that “it’s not in a scholar’s blood to have an ideology,” he’s also criticized journalist like Peter Arnett for “seeing themselves as citizens of the world” rather than as patriotic Americans, according to an AP report (4/27/91).

It’s unclear just how conservative the media would have to be to satisfy the Lichters. In Public Opinion (12/83-1/84), they cited research that “television programs reflect the liberal values of program creators on such topics as homosexuality, interracial marriage and the social position of women and minorities.” Do media have to include the view that interracial marriage is immoral in order to be considered “balanced”?