Friday, December 10, 2004

Politics: How to read a biased opinion piece

Posted by AmishThrasher at 10:32 am
The Age:
Carpe Diem, baby...
For this post, I've decided to analyse the opinion piece "How the left-leaning media hurt Labor", which appeared in The Age on December 9, 2004. It was written by Peter Murphy.

Most jounalists take a lot of pride in being objective, and more importantly, it's important that they be seen to be objective. In any politial discussion, there are usually competing viewpoints at stake, and presenting your side of the debate to the media can be a great help in ensuring that your view becomes the one accepted by society. In a manner similar to how people at a football game claim the umpire is biased against their team, so to a common tactic (especially when the media doesn't completely agree with your viewpoint or present it exclusively) is to call 'bias'; to say that the media is biased against your side in the debate. And it's a tactic used by both the right, and the left, of politics. The aim of this essay by Murphy, and the essay it's building upon (one by Liberal Party conservative faction leader Tony Abbott) is to attempt to either:

a) Get journalists to self-censor facts which disagree with the right wing point of view, or:
b) To create a perception in the minds of readers that the media has an inherrant left-wing bias, and therefore have readers write off any facts published in the media which disagree with the conservative right wing position written off as 'left wing bias'.

To do this, Murphy begins by pointing out a key premise and two conclusions that are crucial to his main argument.

P9: Tony Abbott is half right ("The other election losers", on this page on Tuesday) when he says the media in Australia lean to the left.

C3: But what he doesn't say is that this left-leaning media bias is hurting the Labor Party.

C2: And this fact disguises a harsher truth: media bias is irrelevant to electoral outcomes.

As I'll show later, these are very big, and largely unsupported calls by Murphy.

P1: Look at the presidential election in the United States. The media were massively anti-George Bush, but he won comfortably.

We're at the first real premise of this opinion essay, and already Murphy is making massive judgement calls: that "The media were massively anti-George Bush". Note that Murphy doesn't back up this statement with any quotes, statistis, or evidence. In fact, anyone even vaguely familiar with American culture could strongly argue the opposite: that - especially since September 11th - the American media has been (at the very least) unusually lenient on Bush, and at times outright supportive of Bush.

First off, few would argue that Fox News Channel and American talkback radio are anything but biased towards Bush. Fox News presenter and talkback show host Sean Hannity, and talkback show host Rush Limbaugh openly and repeatedly admit their right-wing bias. But we'll set that aside for a moment: what about American broadcast TV, and major newspapers?

A major faux pas in American society is criticising the armed forces while America is at war. And, like the Australian Governor General, America's President is the Commander-in-Chief of the American armed forces. From 9/11 onwards, George W. Bush has had the benefit of being a "wartime president"; any criticism of Bush - especially on foreign policy - is percieved as being a criticism of the United States' Armed Forces. As a result of this, the American media outside Fox News and talkback radio has been more lenient towards, or even interested in showing support towards, George W Bush than they would have been towards - for instance - Bill Clinton. This has led to a situation where Bush and key members of his staff have often been able to make comments completely unchallenged by the media. So the assertion that Murphy makes about the media being strongly anti-Bush is quite doubtful.

What I don't doubt -and few would doubt - is that Bush won comfortably. Sure, it wasn't as comfortable as Bush would have liked - he polled over 80% after 9/11 and (as I've posted on this blog) fell behind Kerry and under 50% at points in the campaign. But the implication of the way Murphy makes the point suggests that Bush won in spite of a biased, anti-Bush media. Whether this was really the case is doubtful. Murphy goes on to write...

P2: Eighty per cent of US counties are now Republican.

As I said, few would deny that Bush won comfortably. And while this make be technically true, it overstates how strongly Bush won. 80% of US counties may have voted for Bush, but that does not translate into 80% support. For example, large parts of New York City and Los Angeles are governed by one county. The Democrats generally poll best on the west coast and in the North-Eastern states, particularly in big cities and major urban centres LA and New York. In contrast to this, Bush had his strongest support in rural, regional, and southern areas. This is like saying that the National Party in Australia has strong support because the people in x% of local government areas voted national, which would be technically true: however, the only state where more people live outside its capital city than in it is Queensland, so while a large number of rural cities and shires voted National, the National Party vote is a drop in the ocean compared for the vote for the Liberals and the ALP.

P3: The way Bush campaigned explains what happened.

Even if we take Murphy's point about widespread pro-Kerry media bias seriously - and it is not backed up by evidence - Murphy makes an argument to the best explanation: that Bush's campaign style is the best explanation why he won. But he does this without looking at other socio-political factors that played in Bush's favor. Similarly, Murphy focuses in on one particular, specific aspect of Bush's campaign:

P4: Bush didn't try to influence journalists.

P5: They[, the journalists,] were for John Kerry.

A major unstated presmise here is that media bias rests with the journalists, rather than with editors, or directors and owners of media companies. Murphy doesn't present any supporting evidence for this fairly controversial claim. Nor does he discuss what the bias of owners and editors was. This is critically important: the owners of media companies are reponcible for hiring editors. Even if we assume that the owners have no political interest other than profit maximization - a dubious claim at best given previous public statements by media proprietors like James Packer and Rupert Murdoch in favor of a conservative view of politics - it seems amazing that they wouldn't hire whatever editors will deliver the best advertising revenues (and therefore the best circulation or ratings).

In the United States, as I noted earlier, there is a culture that is against criticizing the armed forces, or a wartime president. In such an environment, would an advertiser risk advertising with a news outlet that faces a backlash for criticising a wartime president? Would there be a backlash against a media outlet that criticizes the president, meaning decreased ratings or circulation for that media outlet? If that's the case, the media proprietor would have to have very strong anti-Bush convictions to maintain an editor who would run content that leads to such a backlash. This is a very important aspect of media bias that Murphy has outright ignored: after all, it's the editors - and not the journalists - who ultimately determine what stories are run, and media bias would ultimately reside here.

Which leads us to an even more controversial, fundemental, and ultimately unsupported premise: that the journalists were 'for Kerry'. That, first, journalists personally supported Kerry. That jounralists who personally support Kerry are automatically hacks, who just copy and paste Kerry campaign press releases and speeches, or are flacks who try to curry favor with Kerry. That journalists are unaware of personal opinion and don't attempt to counter-balance it. That journalists cannot be pressured, openly or latently, by editing staff with opposing views. That journalists are incapable of being objective. That jounralists who note the tide of public opinion are incapable of writing pieces that play to it if it opposes what they personally believe. Quite an implicit accusation!

Murphy presents no evidence for this having been the case.

Murphy also asserts that the Bush campaign didn't try to influence journalists. Again, no evidence for this fact. And it poses a very big question: what was the point of the past 4 years worth of media conferences and press releases if not to try to influence what the media wrote? Any article that quotes a statement from Bush has been influenced by it (i.e. if the statement hadn't been made or released, it couldn't have been quoted - thus in quoting it, it has influenced the content of the article). Murphy does not state how those press releases, or spin-doctors that were present in "Spin Alley" after the presidential debates (for example) were anything but an attempt to influence news stories.

And that's not even going into The Swift Boat Veterans.

So even if we take this to be true - and (as I've shown) there are some absolutely massive assumptions that Murphy has made with no evidence whatsoever - was this the decisive difference between the campaign style of Bush and Kerry? Is this the best explanation of why Bush won over Kerry? Why is this more important than other socio-political factors at play during the election?

P6: Instead, he went to rallies, looked into the camera, and spoke directly to voters.

Bush speaking to voters was mediated through the media. This meant that people in the media consciously chose to quote Bush in newspapers, prenet his 60 second soundbytes on the news, and sometimes show his speeches live to air. Murphy does not show how the media chosing to do so does not amount to the media favoring Bush. Did the media critically analyse these speeces? If the media didn't critically analyse how objectiely true Bush's statements were, how does this not amount to bias on behalf of the media?

P7: By contrast, Kerry's speeches were echoes of the day's news stories.


C 1: Kerry won the hearts of journalists, but Bush won the popular vote.

This is Murphy's first conclusion. And while it is supported to a reasobly good degree by his premises, Murphy's premises are often unsupported and weak. At best. While Bush did win the vote, Murphy provides absolutely no evidence to back up his premises that Kerry won the hearts of journalists - in other words, that the media were biased in favor of John Kerry.

P8: The same is true in Australia.

Here Murphy tries to carry his first conclusion to the second argument. He does this by what is known as an 'analogical inference'. An analogical inference is where you point out some qualities that are shared by two things, and then point out an aditional quality that one has, and infer from that the other thing shares that quality. So an example of an analogical inference would be to say that cats and dogs (2 things) share the qualities that they are both animals, both generally walk on 4 legs, and both are popular house pets. Cats have the additional quality of having fur, and therefore dogs do to.

The problem is that the additional quality may be something that both objects don't share. I would be wrong if I said that cats have the additional quality of being feline, and so therefore dogs are also felines. I would also be wrong if I said that dogs and grass share the characteristic of being green (they don't). These are important point to keep in mind in an argument like this.

Now it is true that there are many things that America and Australia have in common, and there are many things about the Australian elections and the Presidential elections in the United States that were in common. But there are also fundemental differences. For instance, while in Australia Howard pointed out the positive aspects of the Australian economy as it stands at the moment, and the 'low' interest rates, Bush is presiding over a weakening American economy. Other fundemental differences between the Australian and American elections include the voting system (preferential in Australia), or the fact that Australia runs a Westminster system where the executive branch of government (aside from the Governor General) resides in Parliament, while in the United States the legislature is separate from the executive branch.

P9: Mark Latham was the media's candidate.

Was he? Murphy provides no evidence for this, but he did point out that he agrees with Abbott's asserion that the Australian media has a left wing bias.

The best evidence for this in Abbott's article:

"An August survey by the RMIT journalism department showed that 55 per cent of journalists described themselves as "left" or "small-l liberal" and only 9 per cent described themselves as "right" or "conservative". Earlier research by Queensland University journalism school professor John Hennington found that "political journalists leaned left rather than right by a factor of more than four to one", with 58 per cent of press gallery journalists describing their voting intentions as Labor and only 9 per cent Liberal."

Note that there is no citation for this work. What methodology did the RMIT sample use? Where did they obtain their sample? How? Who funded it? Note there is no systematic content analysis that is mentioned here, and thus no mention of how this bias effects the end prduct. Were 'left', 'small l liberal', 'right', and 'conservative' the only 4 categories on offer? Could a journalist who liked the Costello camp of the Liberal Party but not the Howard-Abbott camp have put themselves down as a 'small l liberal'? And unless I am mistaken, 55 + 9 = 64; so what of the other 36%? Was there a distinction made between political journalists and other journalists? Is there competing research?

More importantly, what are these journalists writing about? Is this just a survey of political writers, or does it include - for instance - sports reporters? Certainly, objectivity is a lot less of a concern for a Labor-voting football commentator than it is for a political analyst. These are just some of the problems with the way this citation is set out.

Beyond that, as I stated earlier, there are serious flaws with equating journalists personal opinion with media bias.

P10: John Howard won the election - and the Senate.

This premise is unproblematic.

The unstated conclusion here is that Mark Latham won the hearts of journalists, while Howard won the popular vote, like Kerry and Bush in America. But - as I pointed out - even that premise is problematic. What we have here is an analogical inference based on a very weak analysis of what happend in the US Presidential election.

C2: The brutal fact is that media gatekeepers matter less and less in elections.

Beyond the loaded term 'media gatekeeper', an assumption is made - again - that journalists are the gatekeepers to the media. With very weak support. And if journalists are increasingly irrelevant, are the opinions of editors or media owners relevant? Another question for Murphy is if journalists are really so irrelevant, then why are you trying to push them into writing pro-right wing articles?

Here's anothe question for Murphy: if journalists are irrelevant, what can be done to make them relevant again? The answer Murphy seems to be presenting is to make them more right-wing. More keen to walk in ideological lock-step with the government, and more willing to attack challengers to the existing administration. But is having journalists walking in ideological lock-step with an already secrative government really that good for society?

P11: In the internet age, people prefer information to opinion.

This assertion is based on what? Is there a survey or study of whether people prefer information or opinion? And what does the internet have to do with it? And what about informed opinion?

If anything, the internet has seen the proliferation of opinion sites like this blog.

And if people don't prefer opinion pieces, why bother writing one? Especially one with as many claims that are not backed up by solid facts as this one by Murphy?

P12: They make their own judgements.

P13: They smell a rat when opinion is wrapped up as news.

Which journalist has been doing biased journalism? Murphy refuses to name a name here. Luckily for us, Tony Abbott does, and writes "Alan Ramsey thundered in The Sydney Morning Herald that the public had allowed itself to be conned. 'I was wrong in thinking enough voters just might see through the confidence trickery of John Howard, master illusionist and toad of a human being,' said Ramsey, who then declared: 'I apologise for nothing.' " The problem is that Ramsey's piece was clearly marked as being an opinion piece, and not news. In fact, if you don't believe me, you can see a list of Alan Ramsey's opinion pieces here: . Ramsey's work no more masquerades as News than did Abbott's piece, or Murphy's piece.

For anyone who has read a Ramsey essay and thinks it's news, I'll give you a little hint: the page has "OPINION" in big, bold letters at the top of it. Just like the one right-wing editorialist (who unsurprisingly didn't get criticised by Abbott or Murphy), Andrew Bolt, has.

P14: There's a self-perpetuating ideological industry devoted to "children overboard" or "Bush's missing WMD", but its electoral effect has been close to zero.

Did Labor make John Howard's blatant lies to the Australian public about refugees throwing children overboard, or Saddam having weapons of mass destruction an election issue? The fact Latham didn't go on the offensive against Howard during the campaign, and didn't respond to Howard's smear campaign and interest rates attack have been cited as key reasons why the ALP lost the election.

The original article can be found here:

Look, Peter Murphy is welcome to his opinion. But an opinion is only as good as it is backed up by evidence, and evidence is something that is very much lacking in Murphy's piece.