Deception & Misdirection

Media bias: 8 types [a classic, kinda]

[Continuing our series on deception in politics and policy.]

News media bias has been a hot topic lately, brought into sharp focus by the media’s desperate attempts to make Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton look mainstream and moderate, and to make sensible, mainstream Americans look bigoted and extreme.

The bias may be worse than we’ve seen before—due, I think, to the near-elimination of diversity in the nation’s top newsrooms—but the problem is not new.

Evidence of that: a draft chapter I wrote, roughly 23 years ago, for a book that was to be published by the Media Research Center, a watchdog group.

As I did recently with a 25-year-old column on Global Warming ( ), I present it to you, dear reader, exactly as I found it in my files. It ends abruptly; I’m sure I was supposed to write a conclusion. In a couple of instances, I would phrase things differently if I were writing it today. (For example, despite my expectations, Nelson Mandela turned out to be a peacemaker, seeking reconciliation in his country and preventing  the bloodbath that could have taken place. He’s dead, and his country has resumed its march toward disaster, but at least he held it off for a while. Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that, as I reported back in 1993, he had been a revolutionary communist and an advocate of violence, changing his attitude later.)

Anyway… Here it is, like Oliver Cromwell, warts and all: my look at the eight types of media bias.



Media bias takes several form. Here are the major categories:

1) Bias by commission: a pattern of unfounded assumptions and uncorrected errors that tend to support a left-wing or liberal view. The national media regularly report “facts” that don’t stand up to scrutiny: that the Reagan and Bush Administrations cut funding for social programs, when in fact social spending rose dramatically in both administrations; that the rich grew richer and the poor grew poorer during the Reagan years, when all income groups grew richer; and perhaps most scandalously, that there are three million homeless people in the United States. This statistic didn’t come from a government report or an academic study with a strict methodology. It came from homeless activist Mitch Snyder in 1983. How did Snyder count the homeless? He called up shelter providers and asked them.

Examples of bias by commission abound. During a March 1991 “Face the Nation,” host Lesley Stahl blamed an increase in the number of cases of measles on Reagan-era cuts in the federal immunization budget. The budget actually went from $32 million in 1980 to $186 million in 1990. She claimed that infant mortality is increasing in the United States; in fact, it has not increased since at least 1960, it has declined an average 2.5 percent a year since 1980. Between 1989 and 1990, it fell six percent.

A few days earlier, Dan Rather began a broadcast of the CBS Evening News with these words: “A startling number of American children are in danger of starving….Good evening. One out of eight American children is going hungry tonight.” But the report on which Rather based his report made no such claim. Robert Fersh, head of the liberal group issuing the hunger “study,” the liberal Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), The Christian Science Monitor: “I wasn’t asked much [by reporters] to clarify it.” To this day, no one knows where Rather got the assertion about “starving” children.

In fact, the national media are sometimes more impressed with (and less skeptical of) reports by liberal interest groups than government reports. Marianna Spicer-Brooks, Executive Producer of Face the Nation, told an MRC analyst that “studies” from the liberal Children’s Defense Fund, which aren’t original research but reworked data from government agencies like the Census Bureau, are more reliable than the Census Bureau itself. She asserted: “This is my own peculiar feeling about the Census Bureau. It has proved itself to be unreliable on a number of various issues, but the Children’s Defense Fund has made it their business to check out the statistics. They’re specialized.”

To find bias by commission often requires research. Unfortunately, while reputable books and studies have no credibility without footnotes, the media (especially television reporters) often ask you simply to believe them. But when reporters cite a specific group or study, get a copy of the original report. You may even find (as we have with the FRAC report) that liberal reporters exaggerate liberal groups’ research. Find experts in the field, and ask them if a story’s statistics ring true.


2) Bias by omission: a pattern of ignoring facts that tend to disprove liberal or left-wing claims, or that support conservative beliefs. This can be the most damaging bias, especially when the media build a crisis, and then refuse to report facts that oppose their earlier reporting.

Take the reporting of environmental “crises.” Recently, we’ve learned that a ten-year government study has found that acid rain has caused no discernible damage to forests and lakes. We also learned that the dioxin scare that caused the evacuation of Times Beach, Missouri, was highly exaggerated. But neither of these stories were covered by all of the national media. To date, the acid rain study has been ignored by the networks (except for 60 Minutes). Some TV reporters continue to report on acid rain as if the report never happened. The Times Beach story aired only on ABC.

Go back in time to the 1990 “budget summit,” when President Bush agreed to break his “no new taxes” pledge. Not one network reporter managed to compare the overall budgets of 1990 and 1991 (which showed a $100 billion increase despite those crushing “budget cuts.”) Not one network reporter pointed out the obvious — that spending “cuts” are often only cuts in projected increases.

When South African revolutionary Nelson Mandela visited America in June 1990, we found that none of the networks mentioned his communist past. None reported that he welcomed to his New York City platform three of the four Puerto Rican terrorists who shot and wounded five U.S. congressmen in 1954. When Mandela went to Cuba to celebrate the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution with Fidel Castro in July 1991, the networks did no story.

News refuting the promise of “socialist brotherhood” — such as the murder of millions of people in the Ukraine or in Cambodia is often ignored, sometimes for years or decades. During the years the Khmer Rouge murdered millions of people, the networks devoted less than thirty seconds per month per network to the human rights situation in Cambodia. When and if such news is reported, the role of the Left is played down or ignored. In the case of Cambodia, some reporters still place the majority of blame on the United States.

In early 1992, CBS reporter Betsy Aaron warned about bias by omission: “The largest opinion is what we leave out. I mean, it sounds simplistic, but I always say worry about what you’re not seeing. What you are seeing you can really criticizing because you’re smart and you have opinions. But if we don’t tell you anything, and we leave whole areas uncovered, that’s the danger.”


3) Bias by story selection: a pattern of highlighting news stories that coincide with the agenda of the Left while ignoring stories that coincide with the agenda of the Right.

Contrast the media’s treatment of ethical charges against Ed Meese when he was Attorney General and Jim Wright when he was Speaker of the House (and second-in-line? for the presidency). We compared the number of stories about Meese in January and February 1988 and stories about Wright between January 1987 and February 1988. The media covered charges against Meese in 17 times as many stories in just one-seventh the time. The nightly newscasts on ABC, NBC, and CBS carried 26 reports of charges against Meese in just two months, compared to zero stories against Wright in 14 months.

As it turned out, none of the charges against Meese were sustained, while the charges against Wright drove him from office in disgrace. Anti-Meese charges were considered news, regardless of whether the charges were justified, but accusations against Wright (mostly by Congressman Newt Gingrich of Georgia) were ignored month after month — until the liberal group Common Cause joined in the criticism.

When White House Chief of Staff John Sununu was investigated by The Washington Post for his extensive government travel habits, the Post devoted 27 stories to the supposed scandal. But at the same time, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin had also flown in a lot of government planes, including a flight back from a ski vacation in Colorado. The Post did no story on Aspin (Until we held a press conference and called them on it. Then they did one.)

Often, charges made by conservatives are (at least initially) written off as the product of paranoia. Charges made by the Left — that the Korean airliner shot down by the Soviets in 1983 was on a spy mission, or that the Reagan campaign negotiated to delay the release of the Iranian hostages in 1980 — are taken seriously, regardless of the strength of the evidence.

After the Korean airliner shootdown, in which a U.S. Congressman was killed, major news outlets promoted the theory that the airliner was on a spy mission for the CIA; more than three times as many stories promoted the theory rather than rebutting it, according to a study of six top media organizations. In a supreme irony, it was Russian reporters who later exposed the fact that the Soviet government found the plane’s black boxes, covered up the discovery, and lied about it — strong evidence that the Soviets knew they were shooting down an unarmed civilian aircraft.


4) Bias by placement: a pattern of placing news stories so as to downplay information supportive of conservative views. Does a story appear across the top half of the front page, or is it buried back with the obituaries and the horoscope? News editors (or whichever staffers lay out a given newspaper) exercise great discretion in their placement of stories. The news they consider most important and/or most likely to sell papers goes “above the fold” on the front page, where it can be read as the newspaper sits on the rack. Less important stories go on the bottom half of the first page, on the first page of other sections of the paper, on page two or three, and so on. The (supposedly) least important stories appear in the back pages.

There are limitations on an editor’s discretion, of course.  They must fit stories together in an attractive way, a job that is like assembling a giant jigsaw puzzle. They must use graphic elements such as charts, graphs, and color photos effectively.  But as a general rule story placement is a measure of how important the editor considers the story.

When The Washington Post was investigating the travel habits of Sununu and reported 27 stories in 68 days, they put the Sununu story on the front page eleven times, guaranteeing that the story would remain on the front pages of other papers and early in radio and television newscasts.

Another form of placement is the placement of facts within a story. News stories are usually written in a “pyramid” style — that is, the most important facts are supposed to appear early in the story, with each paragraph a little less important that the previous paragraph. Newspapers use that style for two reasons: (a) so that editors, editing a story to fit the available space, can cut from the bottom up, and (b) so that the average reader will get the most important facts. Editors know that, the farther down you go in a news story, the fewer readers you have.

When the liberals at People for the American Way released a report questioning the travel habits of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, The Boston Globe broke the story on its front page, but didn’t mention People for the American Way until the eighth paragraph, after the story had jumped from page 1 to page 17. The Washington Post story the next day put the group’s name at the very beginning of the report.

Studies have shown that, in the case of the average newspaper reader and the average news story, most people read only the headline. Some read just the first paragraph, some just the first two paragraphs, and some read just to the bottom of the column and don’t bother to read the continuation. Very few people read the average story all the way through to the end, especially if it is continued in another section of the paper.

Robert Rector, a poverty expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, laughs at his regular “slot” in Washington Post news stories on studies released by liberal groups. Rector regularly appears in the second-to-last paragraph of Post stories, which the Post then calls balanced. Rector’s own studies are regularly ignored by the Post.

One of the most obvious expressions of bias by placement came in The Washington Post’s coverage of abortion rallies in 1990. Post ombudsman Richard Harwood took his own paper to task, noting the NOW pro-abortion rally dominated the front page, generating a dozen stories taking up 15 columns of space. The pro-life rally received two stories in the “Metro” section.


5) Bias by the selection of “experts”: the use of such phrases as “most experts believe” and “observers say,” or a reporter’s deliberate selection of experts who share his point of view. When a reporter says “most experts believe…,” he often means, “I believe…” Quoting an expert by name does not necessarily add to the credibility of a story, because the reporter may choose any expert he wants. Often a reporter picks an expert who will provide him with a quote supporting his (the reporter’s) personal opinion.

Experts in news stories are like expert witnesses in trials.  If you know whether the defense or the prosecution called a particular expert witness to the stand, you know which way the witness will testify. And when a news story only presents one side, it is obviously the side the reporter supports.

Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution is one of the most quoted experts in Washington. So he knows how journalists often go looking for quotes to fit their favorite argument into a news story. Hess wrote in The Washington Post: “If I don’t respond appropriately, they say they’ll get back to me. Which means they won’t. This is a big city and someone else is sure to have the magic words they are looking for…TV news is increasingly dishonest in that increasingly its stories are gatherings of quotes or other material to fit a hypothesis.”    On the CBS Evening News on January 22, 1990, anchor Dan Rather introduced a story on the latest events in the Soviet Union with the sentence: “Bruce Morton sampled the debate in this country.” But Morton’s sampling ranged from left to left: Ellen Mickiewicz of the Jimmy Carter Center, Ed Hewett of the Brookings Institution, William Hyland of the liberal-leaning journal Foreign Affairs, and CBS consultant Stephen Cohen.

In September 1990, The Washington Post reported on the Census Bureau’s annual measurement of poverty. Post reporters Spencer Rich and Barbara Vobejda wrote: “Economists across the political spectrum said yesterday the current economic picture could mean an even greater rise in poverty.” The Post followed this with two experts: Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institution and Isabel Sawhill of the Urban Institute, two indistinguishable liberals.


6) Spin: emphasizing certain aspects of a news story in the hope that other aspects will be ignored. Party spokesmen who talk with reporters after a presidential debate, seeking to convince them that their candidate won, are called “spin doctors.” One expert on the news media, Professor Michael Robinson, explains that “spin involves tone, the part of the reporting that extends beyond hard news.”

Our favorite example of spin control comes from CBS economics correspondent Ray Brady, the networks’ Prince of Darkness when it comes to negative news on the economy. On October 12, 1989, home prices were down. That’s great news for buyers, but not for sellers, so Brady focused on the sellers: “In the past, the American dream of owning your own home always had a sequel — live in it, then sell it at a huge profit…So another dream has faded.” Five months later, on March 16, 1990, home prices were rising, so the conclusion switched to the buyers: “So they keep looking. Thousands of young couples like the Wares, looking for that first house, looking for what used to be called the American dream.”

Two networks often put different spins on the same story. When President Bush decided to reconsider the definition of a “wetland,” ABC’s Ned Potter focused on critics of Bush: “George Bush gets reminded on days like this that he pledged to be the environmental President. He’s likely to face stiff opposition from some Congressmen who say he’s just caving in to business.”

But two days later, NBC had a different spin. Reporter Henry Champ described how many opponents of federal wetlands policy weren’t just greedy businessmen: “Suddenly, thousands of people who thought themselves bystanders saw themselves as victims: vacation homeowners, retirees, rural homeowners. For example, even though the Maryland coast is dotted with farms centuries old, building lots were now being reclassified as wetlands.” Comparing the differences in how different media outlets report the same story will often highlight the approaches and biases of each outlet on a range of issues.

Legal reporters use spin control by asserting that only liberal judges are interested in defending “individual rights.”   When liberal Supreme Court justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall resigned, reporters repeatedly warned that the conservative Court would repeal civil liberties. CNN’s Candy Crowley intoned: “Also at risk in a court without Brennan: the limits of individual freedom.”

As scandals go, the media can practice spin control by creating a media phenomenon over an issue, and then when information surfaces that challenges their theory, the story dies without retraction. Take, for example, the three networks’ response to the “October Surprise” theory, which suggested that the Reagan campaign bargained with the Iranians to delay the hostage release until after the 1980 election. The networks did 27 evening news stories on the theory in 1991. But when major exposés in Newsweek and The New Republic challenged the dubious sources behind the theory, the network evening news shows did nothing. (By early 1993, Senate and House reports had thoroughly discredited the October Surprise theory, but the networks failed to look at how they had been used.)


7) Bias by the labeling of activists, organizations, and ideas. The media’s power to label people is one of its most subtle, and potent. Responsible conservatives are sometimes stigmatized as “far right,” “ultra-conservative,” or “right-wing extremists,” while radicals, even Marxists, are called “progressives,” “liberals,” or “moderates.”

The paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould may be a Marxist, but one point he makes is certainly valid: that labels tell you as much about the person applying the labels as they tell about the subject being labeled. Gould wrote, “Taxonomy [the science of classification] is often regarded as the dullest of subjects, fit only for mindless ordering and sometimes denigrated within science as ‘stamp collecting’ . . . . If systems of classification were neutral hat racks for hanging the facts of the world, this disdain might be justified. But classifications both direct and reflect our thinking. The way we [put things in] order represents the way we think.” In other words, classifications, or labels, matter.

Think about that the next time you hear a TV reporter, when you hear the hard-line Communist coup plotters in the USSR called “conservatives.” Terms like “right-wing” are used to describe hard- line communists and staunch capitalists, Israeli Zionists and Soviet anti-Semites, apartheid-loving bigots and Clarence Thomas supporters. And liberals complain about conservatives being “simplistic.”

Meg Greenfield, editorial page editor of The Washington Post, notes that “every time there is a confrontation somewhere in the world, we manage to dub the good guys liberals and the bad guys conservatives and pretty soon that is the common currency.”

Sometimes labeling bias takes the form of not labeling people and organizations in ideological terms. For example, conservative groups are almost always identified as conservative, while liberal groups are described in neutral terms such as “women’s group” or “civil rights group,” or favorable terms such as “children’s rights supporters,” “free-speech activists,” or “clean-air advocates.”

Consider the two major women’s political organizations in the United States — the conservative Concerned Women for America and the liberal National Organization for Women. By all measures, NOW is at least as far to the left as CWA is to the right. But an MRC study of three newspapers (Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post) and the three news magazines showed that NOW was labeled liberal in only 10 of 421 newspaper stories (or 2.4 percent of the time) in 1987 and 1988. CWA, with three times the membership of NOW, was only mentioned in 61 stories in the same time period, but was labeled conservative 25 times (41 percent).

Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), consistently rated by various groups as one of the three or four most liberal U.S. Senators, rarely receives an ideological label in news stories, while Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) is consistently referred to as “conservative,” “right-wing,” or “far-right.” One study showed that Helms was labeled ten times as often as Kennedy.

The same pattern holds true for comparisons of the conservative Heritage Foundation and the liberal Brookings Institution, conservative civil rights expert Pat McGuigan and liberal Ralph Neas, and various other similar pairings. The conservative organization or individual is almost always labeled, but the liberal counterpart is not. Why? Because the national media see liberal groups as “us” and conservative groups as “them.”

The examples we have listed are from the national media, but the same principles apply to local media. It is up to you to examine the media in your area and determine the extent to which labeling and other types of bias appear. Once you have acquainted yourself with the above examples, you should find it easy to spot local bias.


8) Bias by policy recommendation. As we have mentioned, when reporters list possible solutions to society’s problems, the solutions are almost always on the agenda of the Left (“raise taxes,” “cut defense,” “have taxpayers pay for abortions,” “issue more government regulations.”)

Most news stories simply relate a sequence of events, but an increasing number mix reporting with specific recommendations for government policy. Time magazine’s “Planet of the Year” story at the end of 1988 included — as examples of the actions government “must” take to avoid ecological catastrophe — a wish list of liberal and ultraliberal ideas. Time has recommended a raising the tax on gasoline at least 24 times in the last four years. On August 8, 1990, Detroit reporter S.C. Gwynne asked for the biggest tax hike: “The most effective solution, many experts say, would be a combination of market incentives and somewhat higher fuel-efficiency standards. A stiff gasoline tax of $1 per gal. would encourage consumers to choose more economical autos.”

For several years ABC’s World News Tonight has run a nightly series of reports called the “American Agenda.” These are essentially essays in which reporters highlight various proposals for solving the nation’s problems. While some reports have publicized creative private solutions to social problems, often the reports endorse the same old government “solutions.”

On December 3, 1991, ABC reporter Carole Simpson promoted the programs of France’s socialist prime minister, Francois Mitterand, as more efficient and caring than the United States:

“When you see how France cares for its children, you can’t help but wonder why the United States won’t do the same for our children. Americans continue to study and debate what to do about poor children, but the French decided long ago. Their system of social welfare is based on the belief that investing in the children of France is investing in the future of France.”


Dr. Steven J. Allen

A journalist with 45 years’ experience, Dr. Allen served as press secretary to U.S. Senator Jeremiah Denton and as senior researcher for Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign. He earned a master’s…
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