Bias Debate: Civil Discourse -- Who Knew?

It certainly wasn't surprising that we kicked off a rowdy conversation by wading into the Media Research Center's criticism of the CBS "Evening News." What did come as a pleasant surprise, at least to me, was the lack of vitriol and personal attacks in the course of that conversation. Apparently it is possible to have a rational conversation about media bias that is dominated (mostly) by strong opinions voiced in a (mostly) courteous, thoughtful manner.

Who knew?

I'll try to maintain those standards in continuing the discussion (with some of these obviously unbalanced people). First off, MRC's Tim Graham was kind enough to weigh in, here's part of his post:

"Vaughn, this item is very instructional. If your objective is for CBS employees to engage in dialogue with their critics, it's interesting that they can't seem to do it for long without going CAPITAL in their outrage at being questioned. A longer fuse would be a good idea, at least in engaging the public.

I appreciate your effort to engage Brent Baker's critique. It's fair enough to say it is our job to nitpick, and we feel the need to find something every day, and some days are better (worse) than others. I would not agree we always slant the material. Often, the material is slanted enough without the additional push. It's fair to say the MRC has a bias -- and we have never claimed otherwise. But you don't have to be objective to know what objectivity is, or isn't.

Murphy suggests that if he directed his "pointed" writing at Carter or Clinton, we wouldn't peep. I don't think that's true. It would be so odd, we might have to tell our readers about it. (We do acknowledge fairness or a willingness to be "pointed" with liberals on our website and have in our newsletters before that.)

I'll let "Evening News" Executive Producer Jim Murphy's words stand on their own. My observation on his response is just a theory but it would be understandable for people whose work, motives and character have been ceaselessly attacked for years and years to respond in a CAPITAL manner. Again, pure speculation on my part but I didn't think his comments out of line in any way. I think he deserves credit for responding; it's a good sign.

I think the topic of "objectivity" is loaded to the hilt and unfortunately often devolves into a semantics argument. I've written a little on our approach to it here. I'm not sure there is such a thing as pure objectivity and certainly reality looks far different from the perspective of a small business owner in New Orleans and that of someone watching the "Evening News" in Washington. I think you'd have two definitions of "slanted" there. At any rate, Tim, thanks for your thoughts, I look forward to more exchanges in the future.

On another point, newser posted this comment:

What is astonishing to me is all of you who sit in judgment of a seasoned correspondent who is actually there, reporting from the scene. Have any of you ever been to New Orleans? Have any of you been there over the past three weeks? Have any of you the cojones of this reporter who just returned from a month-long stint reporting from Baghdad?

This "debate" is a joke. It is, for the most part, a pathetic forum for ideologues who are not news consumers. Rather, their entire reason for being is to mount a continuous assault on anyone who dare raise questions about how poorly managed this crisis has been.

Even though they already have their own news channel, these pathetic, predictable blabbers will continue to drag you down, Murphy. Get out of their tar pit.

I thought the first point was an excellent one, and was part of what I think Murphy was trying to say. Being in a location certainly puts one in a better position to reflect the reality of the situation. At times it can be a handicap, in the sense that one can't see the forest for the tree they're in, but that's what editors are for.

However, the comment goes quickly downhill from there. How, exactly, are "ideologues" not "news consumers?" It's exactly that kind of statement that makes both sides of this debate resemble one another in their arrogant assumptions. And I think exchanges such as those we are having are a step toward eliminating that, not a tar pit.

I had to read this post from maimzini a couple of times before I got it, but it stands on its own:

Definition of an activist judge: a judge who gives a decision you don't like.

It's the same difference. And the same hypocrisy.

A liberal talk show host has been all over President Bush for his Katrina response, saying voters are finally figuring out he ain't quite the guy people voted for.

To get a reaction (Journalism 101), the media writer for the paper got a comment from a crosstown conservative host who said such criticisms were nothing more than opportunism on the part of the left.

Are you smirking or just shaking your head in resignation?

Finally, there seems to be a lively debate over my assertion that Media Matters is truly a counterpart to MRC. Here's MM's Paul Waldman:
Vaughn, based on what you've said, I'm guessing you've never actually visited the Media Matters for America website. You say of the MRC "Their business relies on taking excerpts, nuance, tone and characterizations and casting them in the most slanted light possible. If they haven't found a little liberal bias somewhere, real or imagined, they just haven't done a day's work." No argument here. But then you link to Media Matters for America and say we "operate in the same manner."

Wrong. Media Matters for America does not, repeat, NOT allege "bias." That requires reading minds, something of which none of us is capable. We document and correct misinformation, period. If we can not demonstrate that something that has been said is factually inaccurate or deceives by omission, we don't discuss it. I would encourage you and anyone else to read the MRC website, then read ours, and see if you believe them to be in any way comparable.

We have our political perspective, it's true. But we also take great pains to make sure that each and every item we post is based only on what we can prove, not on what we think lies in anyone's heart.

The constant cry that any story they don't like is "biased" is what makes the MRC such a ridiculous organization and so lacking in credibility. At Media Matters we are working hard to avoid their fate. So you should check us out before painting us with that brush.

Stephen Spruiell posted this response:
C'mon Paul ... what is the difference between the MRC item posted above and this item from Media Matters:

In a September 22 article on congressional plans to help fund Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts, USA Today suggested that a determination by Congress not to extend President Bush's tax cuts past their sunset date would constitute "raising taxes." But referring to letting a tax cut lapse as the equivalent of "raising taxes" is a tactic used by the GOP to tar its opponents. No less a partisan than House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) recently equated the two.

This article doesn't lie or deceive by omission. It just doesn't use the preferred language of the left. How is that any different from Ms. Alfonsi's game of gotcha with Bush?

And MRC's Graham added:
About the inveighing of Paul Waldman: our business is not about being psychic friends who read minds. It's about quoting what appears on the air. Brent Baker is calmly listing what Alfonsi did. The closest he came to judging her state of mind is calling her "sarcastic."

The mere fact that neither side wants to be equated with the other, I think, proves my characterization correct and I stand by it. You can look at both MRC and MM and judge for yourselves.

Thanks for the great conversation.