False Balance, TV Critic Style
Trying to make the case that Fox News and MSNBC are (in media analyst Tom Rosenstiel’s words) “reverse images of each other,” New York Times TV reporter Jim Rutenberg (11/2/08) offered quotes from each channel to demonstrate this supposed parallelism—first, Ann Coulter on Fox (10/30/08): “I feel like we are talking to the Germans after Hitler comes to power, saying, ‘Oh, well, I didn’t know.'” And then Chris Matthews on MSNBC (10/29/08), addressing those who wouldn’t vote for Obama because he’s black: “He’s been a good father, a good citizen, he’s paid attention to his country. . . . Give the guy a break and at least think about voting for him.” Yes, on one channel they argue that you shouldn’t vote against a candidate based on his race, and on the other they compare that candidate to a genocidal dictator. . . . The similarity is uncanny.
Looking Like a Journalist
In a New York Times online opinion piece (11/2/08), former Robert Dole adviser Douglas MacKinnon offered a theory to explain “the Obama phenomenon and the media fascination with him”: “The pressure within the news business to diversify and be politically correct means more minorities, women and young people are being hired. And young and ethnically diverse reporters and editors go easier on candidates who look more like them, are closer to their age or represent their ideal of a presidential candidate.” Of course, since newsrooms are still overwhelmingly white and male—86 percent and 63 percent, respectively (ASNE, 4/13/08)—that argument would better explain a pro-McCain bias than one favoring Obama. So maybe it’s that those young, female and/or minority reporters and editors just can’t control their instinct to “go easier on candidates who look more like them”—while all the old, white, male journalists can?
Obama’s ‘Complicated’ Family
New York Times reporter Michael Powell (10/22/08) reported that Sen. Jim Webb (D.-Va.), “a red-haired, proudly Scots-Irish pol . . . offered a complicated formula” to tell Virginia voters that candidate Barack Obama was “one of you.” Powell wrote that it “involved putting to the side Mr. Obama’s Kenyan father, then tracing the lineage of Mr. Obama’s white mother, who was born in Kansas to parents whose grandparents came from Kentucky and whose ancestors somewhere in their wanderings from Ireland and Scotland presumably settled for a spell in southwestern Virginia.” Powell concluded the anecdote: “Mr. Webb finished with a broad smile. He has divined the backwoods white bona fides of an urbane, mixed-race Chicagoan. . . . The crowd puzzled for a second, then clapped at his effort.” If John McCain’s maternal line passed through Virginia, and a Virginia politician mentioned this as a reason his state’s voters should identify with him, would Powell see this as at all complicated or puzzling? Probably not—because noting McCain’s ancestral roots in a given state wouldn’t involve “putting to the side” any “Kenyan father.” It’s only with a mixed-race candidate like Obama that acknowledging that he had a mother can be portrayed as a slick feat of misdirection.
Fact-checking isn’t really fact-checking when journalists strain to find equivalent falsehoods on both sides. Take NBC‘s Andrea Mitchell (NBC Nightly News, 10/3/08), who came up with this in an effort to find roughly the same number of gotchas for vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin: “Biden suggested most Americans would be worse off under John McCain’s healthcare plan. . . . Biden didn’t mention that many of the self-insured would benefit under McCain’s proposal.” Mitchell didn’t mention that only 8.9 percent of Americans have private health insurance that isn’t provided by their employer (U.S. Census, “Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2007″)—so even if “many of the self-insured” would have benefited from McCain’s plan, it’s entirely unclear what this would have to do with its impact on “most Americans.”
Is Sexy TV an Effective Form of Birth Control?
A study in the journal Pediatrics (11/08) got plenty of corporate media pickup: “Sex on TV Increases Teen Pregnancy, Says Report” (Time, 11/3/08); “Teen Pregnancies Tied to Viewing Sexy TV Shows” (AP, 11/3/08); “Study First to Link TV Sex To Real Teen Pregnancies” (Washington Post, 11/3/08). The study found that teenage girls who get pregnant watch sexier TV shows than their non-pregnant counterparts. The interesting question, though, is whether watching sexy TV makes you more likely to get pregnant—and that seems unlikely, despite the tendency of journalists writing up the study to assume that correlation proves causality (as when Time‘s Alice Park wrote that the study’s findings “may explain in part why the U.S. teen pregnancy rate is double that of other industrialized nations”). The study’s lead researcher, Anita Chandra, is quoted in the Washington Post story: “Sexual content on television has doubled in the last few years, especially during the period of our research”—that is, 2001-04. But over that span, teen birthrates dropped every year—for teens 15-17, it went from 25.2 in 2001 to 22.1 in 2004 (National Vital Statistics Report, “Births: Final Data” for 2001 and 2004). If that’s what happens when you double the sex on TV, then it’s very unlikely that sex on TV has much influence on teen pregnancy rates. Or, if you work from the assumption that correlation means causality, then sexy TV might be a very effective form of birth control.