April 21, 2002


Label Whores : Bernard Goldberg may not be wrong about the presence of bias in the
media -- he's just wrong that it's "liberal."
(Geoffrey Nunberg, 5.6.02. American Prospect)
Listening to people complain about bias in the media, you're reminded that there is more than one paranoid style in American politics. While the left has busied itself unpacking interlocking directorates and corporate ownership, the right has made a specialty of close reading, with an extraordinary attentiveness to the nuances of usage and address.

There's no better example of this than Bernard Goldberg's claim, in his bestseller Bias, that TV broadcasters "pointedly identify conservative politicians as conservatives" but rarely use the word "liberal" to describe liberals. As Goldberg explained the difference: "In the world of the Jennings and Brokaws and Rathers, conservatives are out of the mainstream and have to be identified. Liberals, on the other hand, are the mainstream and don't have to be identified."

To tell the truth, Goldberg's claim about the use of labels didn't sound that implausible to me -- not because I assumed the media were biased, but because the word liberal itself has become an embarrassment to so many people. Two decades of conservative derision have turned it into "the L-word," to the point where some Democrats won't own up to the label and others are careful to prefix it with "neo-," so as to distance themselves from those "unreconstructed" tax-and-spend stereotypes. And on the left, where suspicion of liberals has always run deep, most people have thrown the word over the side in favor of "progressive." But no one ever talks about "the C-word," and conservatives invariably wear that label proudly. So it wouldn't be surprising to find that the media, too, were more diffident about calling people liberals than about calling them conservatives.

Still, the psychology journals are full of studies that remind us just how deceptive our subjective estimations of statistical tendencies can be. And Goldberg is offering an empirical claim, even if he couldn't be troubled to back it up with any research. Granted, it isn't a simple matter to survey the language of TV newscasts, but the language of the press is readily available online. So I went to a Dialog Corporation database that has the contents of more than 20 major US dailies, including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Miami Herald, Newsday, and the San Francisco Chronicle. I took the names of 10 well-known politicians, five liberals, and five conservatives. On the liberal side were Senators Barbara Boxer, Paul Wellstone, Tom Harkin, and Ted Kennedy, and Representative Barney Frank, all with lifetime Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) ratings greater than 90 percent. On the conservative side were Senators Trent Lott and Jesse Helms, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Representatives Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, all with lifetime ADA averages less than 15 percent. Then I looked to see how often each of those names occurred within seven words of "liberal" or "conservative," whichever was appropriate, a test that picks out ascriptions of political views with better than 85 percent accuracy. [For more complete results click here.]

And indeed, there was a discrepancy in the frequency of labeling, but not in the way Goldberg -- or for that matter, I -- assumed. On the contrary, the average liberal legislator has a better than 30 percent greater likelihood of being given a political label than the average conservative does. The press describes Frank as a liberal two-and-a-half times as frequently as it describes Armey as a conservative. It labels Boxer almost twice as often as it labels Lott, and labels Wellstone more often than Helms. And the proportions of labeling of liberals and conservatives are virtually unchanged when you exclude opinions and letters to the editor. What's more, the discrepancy is almost as high even if you restrict the search to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, those pillars of the "liberal press."

I've not yet read Mr. Goldberg's book, but heard Mr. Nunberg's NPR commentary and was struck immediately by his choices : Senators Barbara Boxer, Paul Wellstone, Tom Harkin, and Ted Kennedy, and Representative Barney Frank vs. Senators Trent Lott and Jesse Helms, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Representatives Dick Armey and Tom DeLay. On the Left he's chosen mainly marginal figures (other than Kennedy) who are known for nothing except their extreme liberalism. On the Right, he's chosen the Attorney General of the United States and the House and Senate leadership. In order for the test to be fair he should have chosen people who were similarly situated on both sides. Instead, he's comparing Democrat extremists to what are, by definition, mainstream Republicans. Let's see someone rerun the numbers using Janet Reno, Tom Daschle, Joe Biden, Dick Gephardt, and whoever the Democratic whip is in the House (maybe Nancy Pelosi). If the Democrats are labeled Liberal, which must be the name for people who have the opposite view from the Conservatives on every major issue, at anywhere near the rate of their GOP counterparts I'll gnaw the "w" off of my keyboard.

This error on Mr. Nunberg's part actually illustrates one of the points I've heard Mr. Goldberg make in interviews. Liberal bias in the media is not usually intentional; it's more a matter of the fact that because most journalists are liberal they are blind to the partisan nature of their own positions. If you are a liberal yourself, Tom Daschle seems like a moderate (maybe even a conservative, if he still opposes abortion) and Trent Lott seems like a nut. So when Mr. Nunberg went looking for liberals, he looked for the real lefties, and when he went looking for conservatives he apparently chose the first five Republicans he could name. That's the kind of unintentional bias that is even more dangerous in the media than their more obvious tendencies.

UPDATE : In a response to his critics, We've Settled That -- Now We're Haggling, Mr. Nunberg writes :

[Bernard Goldberg] points out that "the Los Angeles Times ran only 98 stories about the Concerned Women for America and identified the group as conservative 28 times. But The LA Times ran more than 1,000 stories on the National Organization for Women and labeled NOW liberal only seven times."

But that's meretricious, in every sense of the term. Concerned Women of America is a self-identified conservative Christian group (it opposes, among other things, abortion, homosexual adoption, hate-crime legislation, the AmeriCorps volunteer program, and the teaching of "ill-conceived Darwinian theory" in the schools). Whereas NOW makes a point of rejecting explicitly partisan labels -- the appropriate description of the group is "feminist." To insist on labeling it as liberal would be to assume that to be pro-choice makes you by definition a liberal, by which criterion Goldberg ought to be equally indignant that the press doesn't use the "liberal" label for Christine Todd Whitman or Tom Ridge.

Of course, Ridge and Whitman were deemed unacceptable Vice-Presidential nominees precisely because of their liberalism on social issues. So it would be appropriate to label them "liberal Republicans". But even more astounding is Mr. Nunberg's comparison of Concerned Women of America to the National Organization for Women.

As far as I could find on their website, CWA nowhere identifies itself as specifically "Christian". What they do say is that their mission is to "protect and promote Biblical values among all citizens". Note Mr. Nunberg's parenthetical, where he lists the things that CWA shockingly opposes. Mr. Nunberg might equally well have listed the opposites under NOW (it opposes, among other things, any restrictions whatsoever on abortion, even partial birth abortion or gender choice abortions; limits on homosexual adoption; First Amendment protection against prosecution for thought crimes; and teaching creation along with evolution in schools). He's apparently unfamiliar with polling data that shows most Americans agree with CWA more than they do with NOW on these issues (click highlighted texts above). So, if one of these groups is more outside the mainstream than the other, isn't it the one that the public generally disagrees with? (Although I would contend that both are too partisan to be considered mainstream.)

Mr. Nunberg's blind acceptance of NOW's politically motivated assertion that it is nonpartisan is presumably just more innocent internal bias on his part, rather than an actual attempt to mislead his readers. But it is bias nonetheless. And I'm not aware of any political analyst who would seriously debate the point that organized feminism is part and parcel of modern liberalism. Liberalism contains more than feminism, but it contains all of feminism.

N.B. : For a good look at what has become of feminism (as defined by NOW), we recommend Tammy Bruce's book The New Thought Police (see Orrin's review).

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 21, 2002 9:58 AM
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