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The Bias Debate: Evening News Exec Producer Defends Piece To Conservative Critics

Imagine, CBS News being criticized by conservatives for being unfair to a Republican President. Never thought we'd see the day. Okay, I know this is about as newsy as announcing all the planes that land safely at La Guardia but it is part of what I've said we will address here at PE so, here goes.

The Media Research Center yesterday took issue with a story on Tuesday night's "Evening News" about recovery efforts in New Orleans, focused on small businesses. You can see the story by correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi by clicking on the player below.

And here's the heart of MRC's criticism:

"After reciting a list of problems people are having in New Orleans, reporter Sharyn Alfonsi jumped to a soundbite of Bush in Mississippi, declaring: 'Every time I come back here, I see progress.' Alfonsi gratuitously pointed out that Bush was 'speaking inside an air-conditioned tent' and noted how 'he toured a Folgers plant in Louisiana' but, she stressed, 'small business owners say this kind of progress is the exception.' Then, over video of a row of damaged and abandoned store fronts in New Orleans, she countered: 'This is the reality.' Alfonsi made it personal, holding Bush responsible for the frustrations of a French Quarter restaurant owner: 'After five visits in three weeks, they want the President to wake up and smell the coffee.'"

"Evening News" Executive Producer Jim Murphy responds:
"Please explain to me what's WRONG with pointing out the President spoke from an air-conditioned tent, which to most people on the gulf would be a more than welcome relief from their existence. It was not gratuitous, it was an interesting note.

And Sharyn's use of the well-known phrase, "wake up and smell the coffee," was attributed to the restaurant owners as THEIR feeling, NOT hers. It's just good, colorful, pointed writing.

My problem with many of the MRC's complaints is that it regularly exaggerates the impact of whatever it disagrees with. If a President Clinton or a President Carter were in the exact same situation as this President, the MRC wouldn't peep about this script. It is a much more biased organization than any institution in the MSM."

My take on this involves several factors:

First, the Media Research Center is a centerpiece in what has become an entire industry of partisan media criticism. 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. And they're quick to get their opinions out to an increasingly sophisticated network of activists. We'll be hearing plenty from and about them in the future and they have their counterparts on the left that operate in same manner.

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However, that's not to say there isn't occasionally some validity to their gripes.

In this case, they have a small, but overblown, point to make in my view (which, of course, is also subjective). Television is about more than words, it's about images of course but also tone, attitude and emotion. And all those things are open to interpretation. These are the edges at which partisan media criticism thrives. Whether or not the piece was "sarcastic," as the MRC claimed, is completely subjective. Any tone or "pointed" writing is bound to strike someone wrong.

Part of the reason PE exists is to give people like Murphy a chance to respond to such criticism, which he did. In fact, it spurred him to respond to MRC further:

"I'd like to say one more thing about MRC. Look at its website today. It has one headline saying 'CBS Promotes Carter's FEMA Criticism.' Another says 'CBS Lauds Carter's Criticism Of Bush Administration.' CBS News didn't LAUD or PROMOTE anything Jimmy Carter said. We simply reported it because the former President SAID it. That's what we DO -- report to viewers what is happening on a given day and what people are saying on a given day. The MRC chooses to like or dislike what is REPORTED based on how it FEELS. That is simply, purely, BIAS."

You've seen the Alfonsi piece in question above, you've heard the criticism and the response so we'll leave it up to you to decide.
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