If Someone Offers An Independent Thought And No One Records It, Did It Happen?

The liberal media watchdog group Media Matters has responded to my take on their new study about the ideological makeup of guests and commentators on the Sunday morning shows. The study's author, Paul Waldman, writes:
You take issue with the fact that our study focused on the simple question of who gets on the Sunday shows, while ignoring "the intra-party dynamic" -- the fact that a few prominent moderates like Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT) make frequent appearances. While this may be an interesting topic to explore, it has no bearing on our fundamental findings: that Republicans outnumber Democrats, and that conservative pundits outnumber progressive pundits.
Please read Waldman's entire response and make your own judgment about the critique. He raises some interesting points that to me illustrate how some of the guests – like McCain – and some of the journalists – like columnist David Broder – may be viewed differently by those coming from different perspectives. While I don't think my views are "laughable" or "ridiculous," I'm certainly willing to acknowledge there is a difference of opinion.

It is that sort of subjective judgment that led me to question how much real value a study like this has in the debate over media bias and to what extent you can rely on it to assert that these shows have caused the "national debate" to be "pulled unmistakably to the right." It's a point that Waldman addresses in his response as well:

Since you see this as a methodological problem, I'm guessing you have never attempted to perform a content analysis that seeks objective, reliable ideological categorizations. I am not suggesting that you should be expected to have such experience, but if you're going to criticize a study's methodology, you should understand something about how that methodology works. Try to imagine for a moment what it would take to come up with a set of coding rules based on this objection that would achieve what is known as "reliability" -- different coders making the same judgments irrespective of their own biases. As you yourself ask, "Is David Brooks 90% conservative, 10% independent?" It is simply impossible [to] make that kind of judgment in a way that would be persuasive to readers from different ideological perspectives.

The alternative, then, is either not to do the study at all, or to do it in a way that answers some questions as comprehensively and objectively as possible with the understanding that it does not answer every question that could possibly be asked about the larger topic. We chose to do the latter.

Waldman is incorrect in guessing that I have never attempted to perform content analysis but he's dead-on about one other thing – it is simply impossible to "make that kind of judgment in a way that would be persuasive to readers from different ideological perspectives." My argument was simply that even the act of labeling each politician, journalist and commentator is subject to different ideological interpretations. One Republican's conservative is another Republican's squishy centrist. One Democrat's centrist is another's conservative. One columnist's position on health care may be ideologically out of step with their opinion of the war. What's the value of stripping away even the possibility of individual thought?

Without any idea of the actual content of the shows, what conclusions can be drawn from the basic fact that Republicans and "conservatives" appear more often than Democrats or "progressives?" This reminds me of the complaints we received about a "Face The Nation" broadcast last October. Critics were outraged that the broadcast featured only three Republicans and no Democrats. As I argued then, it was hardly a comfortable show for any Republican to do considering that the topic was the then-new indictment of former GOP Majority Leader Tom DeLay and a host of other problems plaguing the Republican Party. It's hard for even the best talking points to spin that into any kind of good news. Sure, it added three more GOPers to the Media Matter list, but the content wasn't exactly helping the country's move to the right.

That's but one example. Oftentimes administration or party officials appear with the express purpose of promoting one policy or another but just as often they're out trying to defend accusations or negative news. How, exactly, does it advance an ideological agenda to have someone on trying to answer questions about the response to Hurricane Katrina, massive intelligence failures or financial scandals? It calls to mind that old saw about Lyndon Johnson who supposedly told his press secretary to get a story in the newspaper about his opponent's carnal knowledge with a farm animal. When reminded the story wasn't true, he said that didn't matter, what was important was to have his opponent denying it. In other words, the topic, or content, of the story was what was important. And any politician appearing on "Meet The Press" to deny that accusation isn't forwarding an ideological agenda.

All that said, I do think Waldman makes a legitimate point about the lack of true liberal, or progressive, commentators on the Sunday shows. There was a time when anyone from The National Review not named Buckley would have been considered too "fringe" to appear, but now that seems to be a designation for outlets like The Nation. There is certainly room for a variety of voices from all over the ideological spectrum and it's perfectly acceptable to lobby for a particular viewpoint to be represented. That to me seems like stronger ground from which to fight than a content-free labeling exercise.