Bias, What Bias?

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

A veteran newsman now teaching a university course in news media bias does not see a liberal tilt in reporting by networks and print outlets.

“I don’t buy that there is an ideological bias,” Frank Sesno said at the National Press Club. “It’s more of an institutional bias.” Sesno formerly worked as the Washington bureau chief at CNN.

The press corps attacks incumbents of both parties, argues Sesno, who now teaches at George Mason University(GMU) in Fairfax, Virginia. His findings run counter to some of the research produced by one of his colleagues.

Scholar Robert Lichter, who also works at GMU, pointed out that in the election of 1996, the incumbent Democrat, President Bill Clinton, got better coverage than his Republican challenger, Sen. Robert Dole. “There the anti-incumbent thesis breaks down,” Lichter notes.

The University of Missouri’s Geneva Overholser says, “We in the media always raise up a new guy only to bring him down later on.” Overholser served as The Washington Post’s ombudsman from 1995 to 1998. While not directly acknowledging a political bias in news coverage in the mass media, Overholser does admit, “There is more interpretive reporting that comes across as loaded.”

According to Lichter’s research, the letdown Overholser talked about has not yet occurred for the Democratic candidate. His analysis of political campaign coverage shows that President Bush only got positive press reviews during his own convention.

Lichter heads the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) at GMU. Currently, Lichter is analyzing news coverage in this year’s presidential campaign.

Lichter found that Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the Democratic presidential candidate, has received more favorable media coverage than any White House aspirant in the past 20 years. The CMPA has been tracking news media coverage of presidential candidates since 1988.

Interestingly, according to the CMPA’s most recent study, the imbalance is most acute when measuring sound bites provided by sources on network news programs. The identifiably partisan sources get roughly equal time and split 50-50 in their positive evaluations of the presidential candidates. The so-called non-partisan sources, though, support Senator Kerry by a three-to-one margin.

This distinction is significant. “Studies show that non-partisans are more effective in moving public opinion than partisans,” says Lichter.

Surprisingly, Lichter found that Fox News beamed as much negative coverage of the President as the other broadcast networks. The difference in the Fox Network’s coverage of the presidential race is that the comparatively fledgling news operation delivered more overwhelmingly negative coverage of the Democratic challenger than any of its electronic competitors.

“Fox News Channel was about as negative towards Bush as the broadcast networks, but Kerry’s evaluations were negative by a five-to-one margin,” Lichter’s study concluded.

“There was little difference in the evaluations of party- and campaign-based partisan sources; but Bush fared over four times better among non-partisan sources.”
Lichter’s study, Election Newswatch, only looked at Britt Hume’s nightly newscast and not at the more contentious political talk shows on the network hosted by, more or less, identifiable conservatives.

Surveying the sum total of network and print coverage of the campaign, Lichter
observed, albeit cautiously, that “the longtime argument that liberals get better press than conservatives would seem to be validated.”