Posted by: ethurman | July 20, 2009

Tax Day Tea Party Protests According to Media Matters and NewsBusters

With claims of bias in national news coming from both liberals and conservatives comes a need for outside sources to monitor not only what is being reported but also how it is being reported.  These media watchdogs examine what is being reported by the media and consider if they are too heavily influenced by either a liberal or conservative bias.  This is not an attempt to prevent citizens from accessing biased news but rather to help a person understand the facts behind what is being reported.  At their best, a watchdog would eliminate the biased aspects of a report so that a person could differentiate between the truth and the bias in coverage and ideally understand the issues more completely.  Problems can arise when these watchdogs reveal their own political leanings and state that they are working to eliminate only conservative or only liberal bias from the news.  It can be argued that both biases exist in mainstream media and to only combat one is not sufficient to reach bias free media as a whole.  In covering controversial issues, news networks will have different reports and in all likelihood, the media watchdogs will have different criticisms of those reports.  This is evident in the examination of two media watchdogs, Media Matters for America (www.mediamatters.org) and NewsBusters (www.newsbusters.org) and their coverage of the Tax Day tea party protests that occurred on and around April 15, 2009.

Both Media Matters and NewsBusters align themselves with specific political ideologies.  Both appear to be more intent on taking the opposing ideology’s bias out of the news and than they are on providing people with completely unbiased news.  Media Matters describes itself as a “Web-based, not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media.”  Media Matters defines “conservative misinformation” as news or commentary that is not accurate, reliable, or credible and that forwards the conservative agenda. This misinformation distorts the public dialogue on important issues and obscures the truth.  (www.mediamatters.org/p/about_us/).  Media Matters is left with the task of determining what news is biased and finding the errors in the news that conservative media have reported.  This allows for a different kind of bias and continued disagreement over what news is accurate and how those stories can be reported in the least biased and most informative manner.

Similarly, NewsBusters is not discrete about which end of the political spectrum they support as their homepage tagline reads “Exposing & Combating Liberal Media Bias.”  NewsBusters describes itself as “a project of the Media Research Center (MRC), the leader in documenting, exposing and neutralizing liberal media bias.”  NewsBusters is a blog intended to “provide immediate exposure of liberal media bias, insightful analysis, constructive criticism and timely corrections of news media reporting” (www.newsbusters.org/about).  This leads to the same problems as those faced by Media Matters and therefore, the news found on any watchdog site may not be entirely unbiased.  Other than their political leanings, the primary differences between Media Matters and NewsBusters lie largely in the manner in which their writers “correct” the biases they find and the presentation of the website itself.  For example, NewsBusters claims to “not accept ads that advocate for/against political campaigns, politicians or specific legislation” (http://newsbusters.org/newsbusters-faq).  However, their homepage contains the following ads:

Presumably, a minority of NewsBusters readers will find these ads offensive.  However, it seems unforgivably hypocritical to say specifically that ads may not support political agendas when these so clearly do.  Media Matters’ homepage is devoid of advertisements, most likely because it is a not-for-profit organization.  While Media Matters headlines reveal a more liberal leaning, there is little content that is overly combative as compared to those on NewsBusters.  Three headlines found on NewsBusters read: “Liberals Uncommitted? Cronkite claimed liberals had no fixed point of view,” “40 Years Since Chappaquiddick Remembering just hoe fervent Ted Kennedy defenses can get” and “‘The Age of Stupid’ NY Times critics love bashing humans over global warming.”  On the same day, three headlines found on Media Matters read: “Buchanan: ‘This Has Been A Country Built, Basically, By White Folks,’” “After Being Flagged By Media Matters, WaPo Corrects Misleading G8 photo” and “Media Matters: Charting A Misleading Course On Health Care.”  Because the media already sensationalizes so much of their news, it seems to detract from the legitimacy of a watchdog site if they do use headlines intending to draw readers in rather than simply reporting the facts.

The issue of Tax Day tea parties will be used to more closely examine the reporting style and accuracy found on Media Matters and NewsBusters.  As suggested by the other content found on the websites, the coverage and criticism differed significantly.  The more liberal Media Matters took the approach that Fox News had overstepped boundaries with their excessive coverage and promotion of the events.  In contrast, NewsBusters did not assess whether or not Fox News was correct in their support.  Instead, they focused on the fact that Fox News was more or less the only network that gave significant and serious airtime to the tea parties.

The majority of articles found on Media Matters took issue with Fox’s coverage of the protests because it so clearly showed a strong political bias.  This comes amid Fox’s claim to be “fair and balanced” and against biased media.  According to Media Matters, “Fox News has frequently aired segments encouraging viewers to get involved with ‘tea party’ protests across the country, which the channel has described as primarily a response to President Obama’s fiscal policies” (http://mediamatters.org/research/200904140024).  The fact that many reporters saw these protests as a direct attack at Obama made the situation even more politically charged and Fox’s support of the cause more problematic.

(www.mediamatters.org/reports/20090408)

NewsBusters had little to no information or comment on Fox News’ coverage of the tea parties and the majority of their analysis was in response to the lack of attention given by networks other than Fox to the tea parties and the poor quality of little coverage the events did receive.  The coverage was characterized by NewsBusters as “disdainful dismissal of [the tea party protests’] nature, significance and import [and] outright hostility towards the events and individual participants [and] sexual innuendo-based full-on ridicule.”  Although there was limited coverage of the tea parties, the dissenting networks attempted to undermine the legitimacy of the protests by mocking the protestors and “disagreeing with the participants’ stated reasons for having them.”  NewsBusters acknowledged the controversy over Fox News’ promotion of the events but only to comment on the fact that the other networks were criticizing them for it.  (video: http://www.eyeblast.tv/public/checker.aspx?v=ydSU2GQuZu) NewsBusters specifically criticized CNN correspondent Susan Rosegen for interrupting and arguing with protestors.  The division between the networks’ views of these protests is perhaps most visible in Rosegen’s comment that the protests were “anti-CNN” and “highly promoted by the right-wing conservative network Fox.”  NewsBusters also emphasizes that other networks including MSNBC also directed criticism towards Fox for their promotion of the events (http://newsbusters.org/blogs/seton-motley/2009/04/20/summary-april-15-tea-parties-media-coverage).  Both Media Matters and NewsBusters are guilty of omitting some coverage and not deeply examining all aspects of the tea party protests.  While this is understandable, it potentially leaves a reader only partially informed about the true content of what is being reported.

(www.mediamatters.org/blog/200907160033)

Media Matters emphasizes that Fox is not only biased in their promotion of the tea parties but also in their lack of coverage of other protests.  According to their research, Fox “did not offer similarly promotional coverage of anti-war protests or other demonstrations in support of progressive positions. Instead, the network’s hosts, contributors, and guests often attacked participants in those protests.”  The ironic twist is that this is almost a mirror image of Fox News and NewsBusters criticism of other major news networks.  They suggest that while the more liberal news sources are eager to cover anti-war protests or gay rights demonstrations, they had no positive coverage of the tea parties.  (http://newsbusters.org/blogs/seton-motley/2009/04/20/summary-april-15-tea-parties-media-coverage).  In addition, Fox News rebuts the accusation that they gave unfair attention to the tea parties.  Fox host Neil Cavuto argued that “at Fox, we do not pick and choose these rallies and protests. We were there for the Million Man March, even though as I pointed out, it turned out to be well shy of a million men. We were there for the Iraq war protests and the protests against the Iraq war protests” (http://mediamatters.org/research/200904170036 Video: http://mediamatters.org/mmtv/200904110002)  The claims by both Media Matters and NewsBusters appear to be accurate (with the notable exception of the fact that the Million Man March occurred one year before Fox News went on air according to another media watchdog http://www.newshounds.us/2009/04/12/neil_cavuto_claims_fox_news_coverage_for_tea_parties_same_as_for_million_man_march_but_fnc_did_not_exist_at_time_of_million_man_march.php)   which reveals a bias found across media rather that only in the liberal or conservative camp.  However, as both sites clearly state in their self-description, their missions are to eliminate either conservative or liberal media, not both.  The majority of the criticism of network coverage of the tea parties proves that both Media Matters and NewsBusters are capable of finding fault in the news coverage that supports their opponents but also ignore some criticisms that hit closer to home.  Combined, the information found on the two sites suggests a larger problem: there is bias in all news networks particularly when covering controversial issues.  In the case of the tea parties, the bias was most apparent in how much or how little networks chose to cover an issue and the tone they used to address the issue in their reports.

The primary issue with the information found on the two websites is that it is incomplete.  Neither provided a complete criticism of the network coverage of the issue.  Certainly the information they provided was informative and useful but it did not tell the whole story.  Viewers who turn to Fox News for their primary source of news are unlikely to visit the website of a left-wing watchdog just as a viewer who prefers MSNBC is unlikely to turn to a right-wing watchdog.  What this leads to is liberals reading about the bad reporting done by conservatives and conservatives reading about the bad reporting done by liberals and a significantly increased partisan divide.  Despite this, it should not be argued that these watchdogs do not serve a purpose.  They are still doing their job by actively uncovering media bias.  However, there may need to be additional consideration put into the idea that these watchdogs should only target one kind of bias in the media.  Clearly, there are those who believe media suffers from both conservative and liberal bias so it would be most beneficial for watchdogs to uncover all bias in the media and aim for the centrist viewpoint to the best of their ability.  Although media watchdogs appear to be less biased than major network news channels and newspapers, there is still clear partisan bias.  Based on the two sites examined, it would be difficult to argue that these watchdogs do not have a specific agenda that they are trying to advance.  One could suggest that this simply calls for additional watchdogs, those to watch the sources who claim to be reporting the bias.  Unfortunately, it seems likely that such an approach will serve no benefit as there is little evidence to suggest that at some point reporters will find a way to cover news in an entirely unbiased manner.  There are too many factors that contribute to media bias, particularly on the personal level of a reporter or researcher, to assume that there will ever be a perfectly centrist media watchdog.  This serves as a reminder that we must be thorough in our consumption of news and refrain from only seeking out news that agrees with our personal beliefs.

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