Posted by: jeanmurin | July 20, 2009

News Hounds vs. News Busters in the case of Specter (D-PA)

The arguments for media bias are some of the most heated debates in the realm of media and politics today. Both sides have legitimate reasons and evidence for believing the media possesses a liberal or conservative bias. Media are constantly striving to obtain fair and impartial coverage, but ultimately it difficult to convince all audience members that they are successfully doing so. Fact checking websites, such as News Busters on the right and News Hounds on the left, are in place to ensure the media is providing unbiased coverage of issues. However, sometimes it is necessary to investigate whether or not the fact checkers must be fact checked themselves. For the purpose of this exercise, horizontal media bias must be examined. Horizontal media bias is a comparative media bias, as opposed to vertical media bias which is media bias throughout history.

One particular type of media bias that conservatives argue proves the media leans toward the left is the coverage and reporting surrounding political candidates who switch parties. Republicans would argue that a Republican politician who switches to the Democratic party is portrayed in a favorable light by the media, while a Democratic candidate who switches parties is treated differently. Carl Cannon of Politics Daily writes, “When Republicans morph into Democrats, we tend to act like they finally saw the light, and quote them ad nauseam about how the Republican Party has gotten too narrow…but when a Democrat joins the GOP, we concentrate on the tactical advantage to the party switcher.” When I learned of this supposed liberal media bias, I immediately thought of a United States Senator from Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter. Being a Pennsylvania native, Senator Specter’s party switch in April of 2009 was headline news in my home town for quite some time. Despite the large amount of media attention his announcement garnered, I never thought to analyze the manner in which the issue was framed by the media at the time.

Specter announced that he was switching to the Democratic party on April 28, 2009 and released this statement: “As the Republican Party has moved farther and farther to the right, I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more in line with the philosophy of the Democratic Party.” Both News Busters and News Hounds covered the announcements, yet in noticeably different fashions.

News Hounds, a left wing watchdog news organization (with a tagline proclaiming, “We watch FOX so you don’t have to”), immediately denounced FOX for its harsh coverage of Specter’s political decision. My initial search of coverage actually contradicted the so-called “liberal media bias” discussed in class. FOX was in no way hailing Specter as a hero for switching parties; in fact, the FOX coverage did nothing but reaffirm the popular belief that FOX is a right wing, conservative news network. Although it claims to be “Fair and Balanced,” its coverage of Specter’s party switch was anything but fair. For example, News Hounds posted a link to an article soon after Specter announced the switch. Below is the image that appeared on FOX’s homepage which directed viewers to coverage on the Specter issue:

FOX News Coverage

The FOX News headline uses inflammatory language such as “turns back” and “jump(s) Republican ship,” insinuating that Senator Specter is a traitor and a coward. The actual article itself focuses on Specter’s decision to switch political parties as a self-help tactic to gain re-election in 2010. The article fails to mention Specter’s main reasons for the Democratic switch, which were clearly stated as ideological. Specter no longer felt he aligned with the extreme conservative views of his fellow Republican congressmen, and therefore he decided to make a decision he felt best suited the state of Pennsylvania as well as the United States. FOX was caught red-handed using the same biased journalistic tactics many conservatives argue the liberal media uses when a Democrat switches political parties. Somewhat hypocritical, in my opinion.

Despite FOX’s blatant and unwarranted criticism of Specter’s party switch, the fact still remains that News Hounds’ fervent defense of Senator Specter reveals its obvious liberal bias. I find it unsettling that News Hounds would come to Specter’s defense so quickly, considering it had criticized Specter previously (when he was a Republican).

As a comparative example of coverage from a media source often criticized for being liberal and left wing, I turned to The Huffington Post. I was not only shocked, but pleased to find its article about Specter’s party switch to be an excellent example of unbiased and impartial reporting. The article reports the straight facts, without an ounce of bias to be found or even implied.

As for the right wing fact checkers, I researched coverage on the same issue on News Busters. News Busters, much like News Hounds, criticized the media’s coverage of Specter’s announcement, only this time the network in question was CNN and not FOX. In the article, media researcher for News Busters Matthew Balan argues that CNN commentators were attempting to paint Specter’s decision to switch parties as a matter of party re-alignment. The author cited senior political analyst Bill Schneider’s use of the term “center” as an example, because he used it often throughout the interview while making claims that the Republican party was in trouble and the Democrats were trying to reclaim moderate votes. According to Balan, coining the term “center” as a synonym for Democrat demonstrates the liberal media bias. In response, a commenter on the News Busters article posted this video of CNN host Rick Sanchez because it “perfectly illustrates liberal/media bias…and stupidity for that matter.  seriously.”

After watching the clip, I can understand why the viewer could misinterpret the interview as liberally biased. However, my view is that Sanchez is merely posing tough questions in order to illicit a response from a disgruntled member of Specter’s “deserted” party. The language Sanchez uses does not near the intensity used in the FOX news headline examined earlier.

A poll on the News Busters website also reveals that the majority of its subscribers, 43% (39% responded ‘no’ and the other 18% ‘other’) believe Specter switched parties to be with the majority party in congress. This leads me to believe that the majority of News Busters readers also agree with the FOX reports that denounced Specter as a self-important traitor.

Overall, I believe that both News Hounds and News Busters do not provide an accurate or truthful account of Specter’s party switch earlier this year. Each fact checking source is associated with either the left or the right, making it impossible to gather an unbiased opinion on the issue from either source. Fact checking websites are a good method of ensuring that media outlets are being held accountable for reports that may be incorrect, exaggerated or biased. However, if fact checking websites are relied upon as a main source of news, especially if you only follow all right wing or left wing fact checking sites, you will be provided with grossly biased coverage of issues.

Essentially, the debate about whether or not fact checking websites need to be fact checked themselves extends to the greater debate and surrounding issue of whether or not a national media bias exists. Is it truly possible for journalists and the media to report on issues in a strictly impartial and unbiased fashion? One can only hope that those who deliver our news strive to do so to the best of their ability, and when they slip up fact checking sites such as News Hounds and News Busters are there to uncover the truth. In order to ensure all angles of media bias are considered, it is beneficial to observe fact checking from both the left and the right and THEN form an educated opinion based on the coverage from both view points.


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