Letter: A question of bias

S. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, insists that his group doesn't tilt to the right. Joe Conason remains unconvinced.

Published January 16, 2003 12:42AM (EST)

[Read Joe Conason's Journal: "Kelly's Illiberal Bias"]

In criticizing Michael Kelly's columns on media bias that cite some of our findings, Mr. Conason dismisses our evidence out of hand as necessarily subjective. I think he should take a second look. The method of scientific content analysis that we use is a respected social scientific technique that was developed about the same time as scientific polling; it specifically addresses the concern of subjectivity he raises through standardized reliability and validity tests. Content analysis is widely used in many disciplines and by scholars of many ideological persuasions.

Ultimately the work speaks for itself, and I invite readers (including Mr. Conason) to examine it and come to their own conclusions. But it's fair to note that his opinion is not universally shared at schools like Yale, Princeton, Columbia and Georgetown, on whose faculties I have served; at many scholarly journals ranging from the Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics to the Journal of the American Medical Association; and at university presses such as those at Yale and Oxford, all of which have published our research after subjecting it to peer review. In addition, several of the findings Mr. Kelly cited have been replicated by other scholars working independently, which is the ultimate test of scientific objectivity.

Rather than criticizing our findings directly, Mr. Conason cites the support of conservative foundations to suggest that we must be biased in their direction. However, he neglects to mention other donors, such as the Pew Charitable Trusts, Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Council of La Raza, and U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The diversity of our support indicates the respect our research commands across the ideological spectrum.

Along these lines, our work has been praised publicly by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, Sen. Joe Lieberman, former Sen. Paul Simon, and former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. And our findings have been cited in such nonconservative venues as Forward, the Utne Reader and Michael Moore's latest documentary. (Incidentally, this cuts both ways. My research center recently awarded a cash prize for media criticism to Michael Massing's media column in the Nation.)

I endorse Mr. Conason's criticism of what he calls "lazy pundit syndrome," and I hope that before he draws conclusions about our research, he will consider all the evidence.

-- Dr. S. Robert Lichter, President, Center for Media and Public Affairs

Joe Conason responds:

Saying "scientific" over and over doesn't explain how Lichter's method avoids subjectivity, because it can't. His research ultimately relies upon human beings watching TV and recording their opinions about the "positive" or "negative" tone of political coverage. Even if such a study's measurements were objective, they would still provide a very crude instrument for measuring bias. For a useful discussion of this issue -- and a comparison of Lichter's 2000 media study with a more useful report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism -- see the Daily Howler (scroll down).

Lichter's academic résumé proves nothing about his own bias. Nor does his vague citation of praise by Sen. Lieberman and others. What did they praise? He doesn't deny that the seed money for his center was solicited by the likes of Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson. (By the way, that $1,000 award to the Nation's Michael Massing was for articles attacking the New York Times, a favorite conservative target.)

Lichter doesn't cite by name any of the other scholars who have "replicated" his findings. The most questionable aspect of his research is its implication that if some elite journalists voted for a Democrat, then their reporting was necessarily slanted "liberal." He doesn't respond to my critique of his assumptions.

Lichter also doesn't deny that the most generous and reliable backers of his center are highly ideological conservative foundations. How much did he receive from other foundations and groups? Unlike the media companies he analyzes, the sources of his organization's income are not transparent at all. The IRS form 990 returns filed by his center redacts the names of all the individuals and organizations that contribute to it, thereby concealing them from public scrutiny.

But the watchdogs at Media Transparency have collated the 990 returns filed by the conservative foundations, which disclose their contributions to Lichter's outfit. For example, the Media Transparency analysis shows that his center received $300,000 from conservative foundations in 2000 -- or more than half of the $498,000 total that Lichter's organization reported to the IRS that year.

Lichter's objections would be more credible if he posted the names and amounts received from all of the center's foundation sponsors on its Web site. If he did so, the public would be able to determine whether the Center for Media and Public Affairs is "independent and nonpartisan" -- or whether it is heavily dependent on the richest and most partisan right-wing funders in America.

By Salon Staff

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