Two new studies released this week examine the news media, in quite different ways and with vastly different efficacy. The Center for American Progress and Free Press teamed up to release The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio, and MSNBC posted a report about political contributions made by journalists.
Conservative media critics, eager as always to discuss what is in the hearts and minds of journalists rather than what is actually in newspapers and on television, have seized on MSNBC's list of 144 journalists who "made campaign contributions from 2004 through the first quarter of 2007."
Matt Drudge hyped the article with his lead headline: "THE GREAT DIVIDE: REPORTERS GIVE DEMS MONEY OVER REPUBLICANS 9 TO 1!" On Fox & Friends, hosts Steve Doocy and Gretchen Carlson agreed that the study shows a "media bias in the country" and that it also showed there isn't one at Fox News:
DOOCY: And so what it comes down to ultimately is, you think there's a media bias in the country? Just look at the statistics from the FEC itself. And people -- reporters gave to Democrats nine times more often than the reporters would give to the GOP.- Advertisement -
CARLSON: Yeah, but you know what I got out of the story, Steve? Was that actually coming home right here to Fox News Channel, I liked the fact that they did this report and showed that people who work here at Fox gave to Democrats. Because so often, we are accused of only being a Republican or conservative news channel.
DOOCY: It just goes to show you.
CARLSON: Fair and balanced.- Advertisement -
DOOCY: Absolutely. Fair and balanced.
Any study that Fox News uses to demonstrate that it is "fair and balanced" probably has a flaw or two.
For starters, MSNBC found fewer than 150 journalists who have made political contributions. There were more than 116,000 working journalists in America as of 2002. The 144 who made contributions not only constitute a tiny fraction of American journalists, they cannot be considered a representative sample of the whole. Indeed, we know that they are un-representative of all journalists: They made reported campaign contributions, and their colleagues did not.
Furthermore, 144 journalists may be a tiny number, but it is also a grossly inflated one. As Matthew Yglesias noted:
This effort at ginning up controversy by revealing political contributions made by employees of media organizations seems fundamentally misguided. For one thing, no effort is being made to see if the people named have any ability to impact coverage of national politics. They have, for example, a former copy editor here at The Atlantic on their list, but what nefarious influence is she supposed to have had on the magazine's coverage?
Indeed, if you look at MSNBC's list, you won't find Tim Russert or Bob Woodward or Maureen Dowd. You won't see many contributions from reporters for CNN or The New York Times or The Washington Post or ABC News. But you will find sports copy editors for the New Hampshire Union Leader and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a sports statistician for The Boston Globe, sports columnists for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and a sports editor for the San Jose Mercury News. Who dares even to imagine the liberal claptrap that must seep into coverage of the Fort Worth Flyers basketball games?
Yglesias also noted that, while Democrats may have enjoyed the occasional $250 contribution from a few copy editors, the media sector funnels far more money to Republicans via PACs:
I can tell you that in 2006, GE's PAC gave $807,282 to Republicans and just $474,118 to Democrats. In 2004 there was a similar division of funds, in 2002 "only" 60 percent of it went to the GOP. Indeed, as you can see here essentially every PAC in the media sector backed the GOP over the Democrats.
But the real problem with drawing conclusions about the media based on MSNBC's list is that it tells us next to nothing about the content of the news we read and watch and listen to.