Magazine article The American Prospect

Label Whores: Bernard Goldberg's Bias Points in the Wrong Direction. (Media)

Magazine article The American Prospect

Label Whores: Bernard Goldberg's Bias Points in the Wrong Direction. (Media)

Article excerpt

LISTENING TO PEOPLE COMplain about bias in the media, you're reminded that there is more than one paranoid style in American politics. While the left has busied itself unpacking interlocking directorates and corporate ownership, the right has made a specialty of close reading, with an extraordinary attentiveness to the nuances of usage and address.

There's no better example of this than Bernard Goldberg's claim, in his bestseller Bias, that TV broadcasters "pointedly identify conservative politicians as conservatives" but rarely use the word "liberal" to describe liberals. As Goldberg explained the difference: "In the world of the Jennings and Brokaws and Rathers, conservatives are out of the mainstream and have to be identified. Liberals, on the other hand, are the mainstream and don't have to be identified."

To tell the truth, Goldberg's claim about the use of labels didn't sound that implausible to me--not because I assumed the media were biased, but because the word liberal itself has become an embarrassment to so many people. Two decades of conservative derision have turned it into "the L-word," to the point where some Democrats won't own up to the label and others are careful to prefix it with "neo-," so as to distance themselves from those "unreconstructed" tax-and-spend stereotypes. And on the left, where suspicion of liberals has always run deep, most people have thrown the word over the side in favor of "progressive." But no one ever talks about "the C-word," and conservatives invariably wear that label proudly. So it wouldn't be surprising to find that the media, too, were more diffident about calling people liberals than about calling them conservatives.

Still, the psychology journals are full of studies that remind us just how deceptive our subjective estimations of statistical tendencies can be. And Goldberg is offering an empirical claim, even if he couldn't be troubled to back it up with any research.

Granted, it isn't a simple matter to survey the language of TV newscasts, but the language of the press is readily available online. So I went to a Dialog Corporation database that has the contents of more than 20 major U.S. dailies, including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Miami Herald, Newsday, and the San Francisco Chronicle. I took the names of 10 well-known politicians, five liberals, and five conservatives. On the liberal side were Senators Barbara Boxer, Paul Wellstone, Tom Harkin, and Ted Kennedy, and Representative Barney Frank, all with lifetime Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) ratings greater than 90 percent. On the conservative side were Senators Trent Lott and Jesse Helms, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Representatives Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, all with lifetime ADA averages less than 15 percent. Then I looked to see how often each of those names occurred within seven words of "liberal" or "conservative," whichever was appropriate, a test that picks out ascriptions of political views with better than 85 percent accuracy.

And indeed, there was a discrepancy in the frequency of labeling, but not in the way Goldberg--or for that matter, I--assumed. On the contrary, the average liberal legislator has a better than 30 percent greater likelihood of being given a political label than the average conservative does. The press describes Frank as a liberal two-and-a-half times as frequently as it describes Armey as a conservative. It labels Boxer almost twice as often as it labels Lott, and labels Wellstone more often than Helms. And the proportions of labeling of liberals and conservatives are virtually un-changed when you exclude opinions and letters to the editor. What's more, the discrepancy is almost as high even if you restrict the search to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, those pillars of the "liberal press. …

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