To analyze articles, you must read them

Looking at headlines just isn't enough


September 15, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

People who want to find ideological bias in the media are almost assured of doing so. The catch is, they may be scooping up only the evidence that bears out their starting assumptions.

On Monday, the American Enterprise Institute - a conservative Washington think tank - released a study said to prove the media's systematic bias against Republicans and toward Democrats by reviewing coverage of four kinds of economic issues.

The seemingly impressive econometrics study by John R. Lott Jr. and Kevin A. Hassett is replete with regression points and dummy variables.

As it turns out, however, those who take the report too seriously may well be the variables, if you get my drift. The two scholars looked at the headlines above articles in newspapers over the past two decades and assigned positive or negative values in how they treated economic developments. Then they compared how such news was presented under Democratic presidents (that would be Bill Clinton) to similar articles under Republican presidents (Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush). Long story short: Clinton largely did better than the other guys.

But that's taking it too seriously. To boil this study down to its core: the researchers looked only at the headlines, and not at any of the news articles themselves.

Why, that would be just as reasonable - or unreasonable - as judging Hassett's most famous book by its predictive cover title: Dow 36,000: The New Strategy for Profiting from the Coming Rise in the Stock Market. (Published in 1999, the book was co-written with the financial commentator James K. Glassman.) At this writing, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is limping along a bit above 10,300, well below its historical highs. But hey - I haven't read the book. And I wouldn't dream of judging the merits of Hassett's argument by that title alone.

A headline, admittedly, is the first, and for some readers the only, look at a story. But it does not reflect the full force of the coverage that newspapers provide, especially major papers that devote significant numbers of inches to important issues. Often headlines have just six or eight words, sometimes even fewer, to summarize countervailing trends or ambiguous data.

Headlines are an attempt to give readers a taste of the information to follow, but that's all they are. To try to dress up such flimsy evidence into hard data doesn't make for a serious study.

There are plenty of legitimate questions about bias. For instance, surveys of reporters - especially those in Washington - suggest a social liberalism and an economic conservatism. For decades, newspapers were dismissive of blacks, patronizing toward women, spiteful toward gays. There are some lucid critics - Daniel Okrent, public editor of The New York Times, among them - who argue that gays are now viewed through the prism of the civil rights movement and that evangelical Christians, who make up a sizable portion of the population, are treated as though they are curious aliens.

Over in the opinion-slinging world, online, on radio and on TV, conservatives have attacked CNN for allowing Paul Begala and James Carville to remain daily presences on Crossfire while assuming new roles as unpaid advisers to the presidential campaign of Democratic Sen. John Kerry. In a syndicated column, Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, wrote that his employer, which is often accused of a conservative tilt, would have been pilloried had he taken on a role with President Bush's re-election campaign. But the media have given Begala and Carville a pass, he said.

"There's a fox in the henhouse all right, it's called the left-wing press allowing their brothers to slide," O'Reilly wrote.

"Crossfire is the steel cage death-match for politics and opinion," said David Bohrman, Washington bureau chief of CNN. "I don't think they come off as newsmen or journalists. They are Democratic strategists and they are venting their minds."

That alone doesn't prove CNN is liberal. CNN analyst Victoria Clarke is the former spokeswoman for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. During the Abu Ghraib military prison scandal, Rumsfeld drew extensively on her counsel.

And Mary Matalin, a former Crossfire host married to Carville, worked in the administrations of both Bushes. A frequent CNN guest, she is now a strategist on the Bush-Cheney campaign.

Bohrman said he draws a distinction between Crossfire, which is nearly all high-decible opinionated chatter, and the straighter news programs that appear on his channel.

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