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More Messages: Upon Further Analysis

Categories: Media

"Slants," the current Message column, focuses upon a study conducted by the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank; the report charges that the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News were biased in favor of referenda C and D, a pair of 2005 ballot issues opposed by the Institute in general, and its front man, Jon Caldara, in particular.

Shortly thereafter, Bill Menezes, pictured, the editorial director for Colorado Media Matters, a left-leaning website devoted to rooting out conservative misinformation in the press, checked in with his analysis of my analysis of their analysis. Via e-mail, he emphasizes that his take is personal, rather than the fruit of a formal review, but notes that the observations "stem from my experience not only in my role at Colorado Media Matters, but also from my twenty years in journalism."

Here's the rest of what Menezes had to say:

Note that regarding Caldara, there are several items we've done that show he is prone to making factually inaccurate statements, sometimes in attempting to prove "liberal media bias":

[Item one], in which Caldara falsely claims the two Denver newspapers didn't cover the Independence Institute study even though the Post actually did.

[Item two], in which Caldara and guest John Stossel distorted school funding figures in order to promote "school choice."

[Item three], in which Caldara and guest Shayne Madsen misled viewers regarding the controversy over new election rules adopted by Secretary of State Gigi Dennis.

Regarding the report itself, some thoughts:

1. The report is largely an opinion statement based on their "quantitative analysis" as well as on numerous assumptions, rather than a research report based primarily on facts established by primary or secondary research. As such, it is prone to the same "bias" that the institute alleges of the Post and the Rocky.

2. The report builds its case upon a "pyramid of assumptions" that are based on anecdotal evidence rather than fact (e.g. "the majority of editors and reporters are either 'left leaning' or 'liberal.'"; "If most journalists are left of center than how can a liberal bias be avoided?"; "It requires a leap of faith to believe that liberal editors will safeguard objectivity by 'extricating' the liberal bias of a left-leaning reporter"). If any of these assumptions are substantiated by fact, that substantiation was not included in the report or its footnotes.

3. The extensive footnotes cite only secondary anecdotal evidence, e.g. quotes from newspaper columns or stories, quotes from interviews conducted by Caldara on Independent Thinking [the Channel 12 program Caldara hosts], etc. There is no citation of any factual source that substantiates the report's assumptions about bias... This calls into question the "factual" basis of the report's conclusions, given that the analysis is based on unproven assumptions.

4. Bias is a motive-laden term; proving it implies the analyst has factual insight into the motives and behavior of the reporters/editors being analyzed. Given that the report builds its case on anecdotal assumptions, any finding of bias must also be considered to be opinion rather than a conclusion drawn entirely from facts -- so the report can not accurately be presented as a factual finding of bias, only as opinion. A "leap of faith" -- such as that cited in the report -- made by a conservative analyst carries the same potential for bias that is attributed to the newspapers in their coverage of Ref. C/D.

5. The "quantitative analysis" based on simply measuring column inches and then assessing a "pro" or "con" bias to a specific number of inches is shaky at best. The idea that one can use published column inches to illustrate bias betrays a lack of knowledge about how major metropolitan newspapers actually operate and how the size of the news hole is determined typically by factors that are totally separate from editorial judgment, e.g. the amount of advertising in a given section, the cost of newsprint, etc.

One footnote: While the failure to attribute the campaign literature material used in the Rocky graphic seems egregious, Temple makes a point that's fundamental to any observation about the reporting: how much of it was true and how much was not? Remarkable in the Institute's report is the near-complete absence of any research that found factual inaccuracies in the reporting by the two newspapers. It's unclear whether the Institute even analyzed the content in that regard, throwing further doubt on its "measure the inches" method of drawing conclusions.

Do these remarks definitively prove that the Independence Institute's survey is a worthless piece of right-wing propaganda? Hardly -- but neither do they demonstrate that Menezes lacks objectivity to such a degree that his comments constitute an even larger waste of time. Rather, they show that partisans on both sides of the ideological divide believe they can sway opinion by claiming that the press favors their opponents. Such combat will leave many voters feeling more confused than ever. Still, a battle over facts is far preferable to a fight over who's better at lying. -- Michael Roberts


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