Bill Moyers Retires Just in Time

Now that he has reached the age of 70, let us hope that Bill Moyers enjoys his retirement and can spend his new free time dispersing millions of dollars on behalf of the Left-leaning charitable foundation that he heads.  And while released from the pressure of hosting NOW on PBS, he will have the opportunity to relax and reconsider some of his recent rash and reckless statements.  After quiet and thoughtful consideration, he will surely blush with embarrassment that he once hinted that George Bush might initiate a coup if not re-elected [1].  He will probably come to realize that arguing that Conservatives and particularly George Bush are engaged in the “…deliberate, intentional destruction of the United States of America” [2] was irresponsible, campaign-fever induced hyperbole.  Perhaps we can save him a little time in retirement, but offering up evidence that his most recent notions that thee “right-wing media has become a partisan propaganda arm of the Republican National Committee” and that the mainstream press is insufficiently critical of the Bush Administration does not survive serious scrutiny.

Moyers suffers a common, sometimes calculated, confusion that mixes commentary and news and conflates the popularity of Conservative commentators with Conservative news bias.  Though many people may learn of current events by listening to Rush Limbaugh, David Letterman, or even John Stewart, these outlets are either commentary or entertainment or both.  They are not straight news.  It is a distinction that is as clear as the difference between the front page, the editorial page, and the comics of a well-run newspaper.  Moyers is not stupid.  By not distinguishing between news and commentary, he demonstrates the perpetual frustration on the Left with the popular resonance of Right-wing commentators.

The silly notion that the press has somehow not applied sufficient scrutiny to George Bush and Conservatives is refuted by rather clear evidence. The Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University has just completed a review of the Bush-Kerry campaign news coverage.  They simply counted up the number of positive and negative characterization of Bush and Kerry on the broadcast news channels.  They found that Kerry’s press was 58% to 42% positive.  George Bush faired far worse.  He received only 36% positive coverage and 64% negative coverage.  “Until this year the record holder was Walter Mondale with 56% positive evaluations in 1984.”  It is amazing to realize now that Reagan won in a landslide, while he received a record low 9% positive news coverage.  Positive press coverage does not always correspond to electoral victory.  George Bush’s election victory is not an indication of the lack of sufficient scrutiny by the media.

And surely, if the mainstream press was so concerned by the bottom line as Moyers suggests they would not have been so credulous in allowing forged anti-Bush documents on the air, devastating CBS News’ credibility and depressing its already sinking ratings. Indeed, its seems that CBS News was too willing to risk the bottomline if it meant putting out questionable “news” critical of Bush

There have been many studys of members of the national media that demonstrate that they are overwhelming Liberal, particularly on social questions, and vote overwhelmingly Democratic.  However, this does not necessarily prove that coverage is Liberally biased.  It is possible to at least imagine that news coverage and editing could be sufficiently professional and introspective that the political inclinations of the reporter, broadcaster, or editor would not have an impact.  After all one can engage a plumber, electrician, or dentist without regard to any political affiliation.  There is no reason to believe that a Liberal dentist, moderate electrician or a Conservative plumber would mend your teeth, wires or pipes in a discernibly different way.

In attempting to assess media bias, there is the problem of finding a reasonably objective measure.  From a vantage point on the Right or the Left, a centrist perspective to coverage might appear biased.

It is also important to remember that the political spectrum shifts over time.  What may have at one time been an avant guarde position may now be mainstream.  The only objective way, it would seem to estimate the center of the political spectrum, from which we can measure deviations to the Left or Right, is by using the votes of the polity.  One may be the Left or to the Right of elected officials, but it seems fair to define the middle as the middle of the political spectrum as voted by the electorate.

Tim Groesecose of both UCLA and Stanford University and Jeff Milyo of the University of Chicago have made an attempt to arrive at such measure.   The researchers began with two assumptions.  The first is that the votes of the US House of Representatives and the US Senate represent the political spectrum of the United States.  Second, there are a number of “think tanks” leaning Left and Right whose research and policy recommendations are used to buttress the arguments of the Left and Right.  For example, those who are on the Right are more likely to positively cite the Heritage Foundation than they are the Brookings Institute.

The Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) regularly rank Congressmen and Senators by their voting record.  A perfect 100 in ADA’s eye is a perfect Liberal “hero” and 0 is a perfect Conservative “zero.”  For example, in 2003, ADA ranked Senator Paul Sarbanes (D-MD) a perfect 100, while Jeff Sessions (R-AL) was tagged with a perfect zero.  The mean score of the House of Representatives is 44.5 and 40.0 for the Senate.  According the ADA, the House and the Senate are shifted Conservative.  Hence, it can be asserted that the mean position of the country is somewhere in the lower 40’s on an ADA scale of Liberalism.

Groesecose and Milyo then correlated the ADA rankings of the Representatives and Senators how often they positively cited various think thanks for support from the floor of either the House or the Senate.  News programs also cite these think tanks in their reports.  The thesis of Groesecose and Milyo is that the more Liberal or Conservative the perspective of a news program, the more likely they are to cite positively those think tanks cited by Liberal and Conservative representative and senators.  In this way, they could devise an imputed ADA score for major new outlets.

Fox News’ Special Report had a score of 36, slightly more Conservative than US Senate but still floating comfortably down the US political mainstream.  The Drudge Report ranked a 55, pretty much in the middle as estimated by the imputed ADA score, but to the Left of both the Senate and the House and presumably the people who elected them.  The major network news programs, ABC, NBC, and CBS News, scored 58, 58, and 70, respectively.  This places broadcast news somewhat to the Left of the American mainstream and CBS far to the Left.  CBS’s score was almost identical to that of the New York Times.

By the empirical measures of Groseclose and Miylo as well as the Center for Media and Public Affairs, Moyers really has little to complain about in terms of media coverage.  His real complaint is that the country has moved to the Right, and he is now far out of the American mainstream.  One supposes that one should be sympathetic towards Moyers, lonely as he is on the sparsely-populated Left bank of American politics, abandoned as yesterday’s news.


  1. Charlie Rose Show, November 2, 2004.
  2. Cited by Johns Nichols, The Nation, June 9, 2003.

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