Media Matters

Yes, We Have No Biases

Is using the tragedy of September 11th to advance a liberal foreign policy agenda "unconscionable" and "disgusting"?

By 3.14.04

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I'm not sure exactly when, but a few months ago, I happened to catch the last half of a televised debate on the question of whether there is a liberal bias in the mainstream American media. The entirety of the case for the negative was, apparently, that (a) conservatives dominate talk radio (yes, but Rush Limbaugh doesn't pretend to be an unbiased source of news -- CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, the New York Times, etc. do), and (b) the mainstream media could not possibly have a liberal bias because before the war with Iraq, most members of the media believed the Bush "line" that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. The team for the affirmative was Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson. In the portion I saw, Laura Ingraham didn't say much of anything, and Tucker Carlson spent most of his time either simply guffawing (not an effective debating tactic) or actually agreeing with Al Franken. It was a disappointing display.

I was reminded of this recently when I happened across one of the more blatant liberal hack jobs that I had seen in awhile. This one was courtesy of CBSNEWS.com reporter Jarrett Murphy. Since this "news story" was printed in the "Politics" section, apparently Mr. Murphy and his editors at CBS didn't think that standards of "fair and balanced" needed to apply.

You could tell that this article, entitled "Bush Team's Fuzzy Math," was not going to be remotely even-handed by the accompanying, obviously doctored, "photo" of President Bush. Bush's coloration was a greenish-gray, his mouth set in a frown. Behind him was a black background on which you can faintly make out math equations. The article itself was nothing more than a recitation of critics' charges regarding Bush's budget and job growth projections, and sought to question Bush's honesty because the OMB and CBO (each using different assumptions) have different cost projections for the Medicare expansion bill. The one sacrifice to fair play was the line: "There's often debate in Washington over numbers, and past administrations have also been accused of fudging it." But that was immediately followed by: "But the Bush team's math seems unusually sloppy to some long-time observers." No one outside of those "some long-time observers" got any say in the article. Mr. Murphy, however, did manage to throw this in:

"Numbers have always been key to Mr. Bush's image. He lost the 2000 popular vote by 540,000 votes, but won Florida by 537. He based his case for war in Iraq partly on 25,000 liters of anthrax for which Iraq allegedly failed to account; they haven't been found."

These "numbers" had nothing to do with Mr. Murphy's article, but he managed a contortion to make these swipes "relevant." And Saddam "allegedly" failed to account for his anthrax? Was Mr. Murphy suggesting that perhaps Saddam actually did account for it, but that his accounting has been suppressed by some Bush-U.N. conspiracy? Well at least the not-so-subtle attack on Bush's legitimacy didn't read that he "allegedly" won Florida. I guess we can be thankful for that.

NEWS BIAS IS USUALLY more subtle. It's usually manifested in what stories make the cut and which don't. And, of course, how they are presented. How many times have you seen a newspaper article or a news anchor lead a story with something like this: "Bush policies are designed to kill all poor people, starting with women, children, and minorities," then continuing "that, according to a new study by Physicians against Capitalism." And somehow studies done by liberal groups -- Physicians for Social Responsibility, Citizens for Tax Justice, People for the American Way -- always seem to make the news. How many times have you seen a study by the Cato Institute or the Heritage Foundation be the focus of a news story in the mainstream media?

The news media's fascination with the charges concerning president Bush's National Guard service was also telling. John Kerry's 1971 false testimony to Congress accusing American soldiers of committing war crimes in Vietnam is not news because it is old, but charges of Bush being AWOL at roughly the same time is news because it is a new accusation. Well, actually it was an old accusation that was dealt with during the 2000 race. But the media loved it. I remember watching CNN's cute Rudi Bakhtiar exclaim with glee to the CNN reporter on the story, something like: "And Bush's commander says he never saw him! Isn't that so?!" It turns out to have been a hollow story, but she was very excited for a while.

I also remember CNN Headline News' treatment of the Republicans' 30-hour-long House floor debate designed to bring attention to the Democrats' stonewalling of Bush judicial nominees. CNN previewed the story with the subtext "Master Debaters." Take out the "De" and you know what the ever so clever producers of CNN Headline News think of Republicans.

And now, of course, we have the example of the treatment of the Bush campaign ads. You know, the ones with brief images of the destruction wrought on September 11th while the voice over talks about challenges that we have faced, and met, over the past few years. After just one day the news media was full of "outraged" relatives of 9/11 victims, and, of course, the excoriating words of Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, accusing Bush of exploiting the tragedy of 9/11 for political gain.

That these people found their way to the airwaves so quickly is testimony to the fact that they had their "outrage" and their press conferences primed for the ready, knowing that Bush would likely have some reference to 9/11 in his upcoming ads. And the media were more than willing to accept them as representatives of most 9/11 families.

A typical headline was "Sept. 11 Families Disgusted by Bush Campaign Ads" (Reuters, March 4th). Most all stories carried Harold Schaitberger's comments, and did identify him as a strong and vocal Kerry backer and his union as having endorsed Kerry. The presented "outraged 9/11 family members" were usually members of a group called "September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows." Many articles, however, did not mention this fact, including the Reuters piece which quoted Colleen Kelly, but neglected to mention that she runs Peaceful Tomorrows. But was this just a meaningless oversight?

None of the news stories (as far as I could find) that did report a Peaceful Tomorrows connection ever said anything about the organization, other than that it is a group of relatives of September 11 victims. (A Fox News story, however, did contain a link to its website, showing why Fox is reviled by liberals.) None of the stories, for instance, reported that Peaceful Tomorrows has been accusing president Bush of "exploiting the tragedy of September 11 for political gain" ever since it came into existence about two years ago, long before any Bush political ads were even in the works. Nor did they report that Peaceful Tomorrows is an anti-Bush political organization that "seeks effective nonviolent responses to terrorism" and accuses the Bush administration of pursuing "unilateral and unpopular policies that turned the world against the United States and made us less secure." Is it odd that almost no news organizations thought that these facts were relevant when reporting on the "outrage"? These stories should have more correctly been headlined "Liberal Anti-Bush Groups Disgusted by Bush Campaign Ads."

I WONDER IF USING THE tragedy of September 11th to advance a liberal foreign policy agenda is "disgusting." I also wonder if disingenuously claiming "offense" and "outrage" to references of 9/11 for the purpose of damaging a political rival qualifies as "exploiting the tragedy of September 11." Is it "unconscionable" for Bush to use muted images of 9/11 in a commercial but okay for others to use 9/11 to attack Bush?

Apparently the major media outlets that have fallen over themselves to book Kristen Breitweiser think so. Breitweiser, a harsh anti-Bush firebrand, September 11th widow, and friend of the "Bush Knew" kooks, uses her appearances, in which she is ostensibly supposed to represent a 9/11 victim's view of the "inappropriateness" of Bush's ads, to launch into her trademark Bush-bashing calumnies like: "Three thousand people were murdered on president Bush's watch," and "[I]n the early morning hours when this country was under attack our Commander in Chief was drinking milk and eating cookies with second graders." If a group of 9/11 families holds a news conference in the near future criticizing John Kerry's foreign policy and his history of voting to cut intelligence budgets, I wonder if Reuters and other news organizations will cover it as they have covered this episode.

Though Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson couldn't quite effectively make the argument that there is a liberal bias in the mainstream American media, it nonetheless is there. And every presidential election year it bursts so uncontrollably out into the open that even Al Franken should be able to recognize it.

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About the Author
Brandon Crocker is the chief financial officer of a commercial real estate development and management company in San Diego.