Study Finds Bias in Media Labels

Sometimes the most subtle forms of prejudice are as revealing as the most blatant.

The raised eyebrow, for instance, can be a show of bias no less than the discriminatory hiring policy. The muffled smirk can be a show of bias no less than the discriminatory housing policy. And the artfully chosen adjective can be a show of bias no less than the discriminatory comment about race or gender, character or motives.

The Media Research Center, a conservative group that monitors TV journalism the way security guards monitor . . . well, monitors...has recently completed a five-year study of the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts, and found "conservative" to be the operative word. When one of those three programs identifies a person according to his political ideology, the odds are overwhelming that he will be called a conservative, not a liberal.

Between the beginning of 1997 and the end of 2001, ABC used the conservative label 79 percent of the time, CBS 82 percent, and NBC 80 percent. During the 2000 presidential campaign, says the MRC, Bill Bradley was called a liberal by the three major networks exactly one time, and Al Gore no times at all. The networks reminded America that George Bush was a conservative 19 times.

What it all means, at the most basic level, is that the culture of network news is so overwhelmingly, if in most cases benignly, liberal, that those who dwell and work within it find conservatives to be a different species. Not in all cases an inferior one, and not in all cases a threatening one; just different, and different enough to be worth remarking upon — the way a child would whisper in a parent’s ear when he saw a senior citizen who had forgottem to put his teeth in.

Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly once asked a roomful of TV critics why he was constantly referred to as a conservative and PBS’s Bill Moyers was never referred to as a liberal. No one had an answer. In the words of The Rocky Mountain News’s TV maven Dusty Saunders, "Score a point for O’Reilly."

The irony in this particular example is that Moyers, an estimable and honorable man, is far more consistently liberal in his views than O’Reilly is conservative. Yet it was O’Reilly who got the label.

But perhaps I am being too kind. Perhaps, at least on some occasions, the liberalism is not so benign, at least in its means of expression. Perhaps ABC and CBS and NBC call people conservative for the same reason that the Surgeon General’s office insists on cigarette makers pointing out the risks of their product on the packs in which they are sold.

Warning: The following persons or ideas may be hazardous to your health. They may overstate the values of free enterprise, understate the values of governmental regulation, and completely misrepresent the effects on society of an increase in the capital gains tax.

Regardless of their motives, the networks need a more rigidly-defined policy. Either all people of political persuasion who appear, or are quoted, on their programs are identified by their ideological bent or none are. Having worked at NBC News many years ago, I know that there is a set of regulations that govern the way the day’s events are to be presented on its various programs; there is no reason that a few more lines cannot be added to the manual to cover this particular issue.

It is simply not fair to assume that liberals are the norm, and thus do not need to be named, while conservatives are the freaks along the midway, and require proper appellation so that the weak of heart will not be offended. In fact, according to a poll conducted a few months ago for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, 33 percent of Americans called themselves conservative, only 20 percent liberal.

So now who’s the old man without his teeth!

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .

Respond to the Writer