Friday, June 08, 2007

The Conservative Crutch

Probably the most tiring excuse, used by Conservative apologists, is the biased "left-wing" media angle. The notion is used to justify any shortcoming, distract from genuine criticism, and create this martyr complex. A Blogging Tories linked to one of my posts, and I made a comment at that blog. I use this response to illustrate the common theme:
Christian Conservative said...

Amm, I forget where I saw it today, but we're headed back up, and are polling just slightly above our election day percentage at 37%... but of course, that poll won't hit the front pages, the media being liberal mouthpieces and all

Of course that is ridiculous, with no relationship to reality. However, and I don't mean to generalize, all of the Conservatives seem to buy into this perceived bias. You see it in almost every thread, bloggers continually point to any story to support the flawed thesis, the idea has taken on almost mythical proportions. The idea manifests itself right through the Conservative hierarchy, wherein the Prime Minister has adopted this seige mentality, as it relates to the media.

I suppose, findings such as this, feed Conservatives "suspicions":
According to a recent study by two Ryerson University journalism professors:

* Almost half of all Canadian television news directors, the individuals who have the most influence in determining what political news is covered on your favourite nightly newscast and how it is reported, vote Liberal.

* A TV news director working at the tax-funded CBC is almost three times more likely to vote for the NDP in federal elections, compared to his or her counterpart in the private sector.

It found that 45.8% of all Canadian television news directors surveyed in 2002 said they were Liberal voters. By contrast, only 14.6% said they were Progressive Conservative voters, 10.4% Canadian Alliance, 10.4% NDP. This put the news directors at the high end of overall public support for the Liberals during that period (40-46% according to the polls) and at the low end for the PCs (15-18%), Alliance (14-18%) and NDP (13-16%).

If you train you gaze solely on this Ryerson University study, then you can extrapolate, that yes, a media bias clearly exists. However, if Conservatives trumpet findings such as the above, they must also accept other studies which completely refute the thesis.

I would argue that the political leanings of news directors, or editors for that matter, is relevant, if that perceived bias manifests itself in the coverage. Where the Conservative argument falls apart completely, is when the discussion turns to actual coverage, not the ambiguous leanings of those behind the news.

Coverage is most critical at election time, I think everyone can agree on that score. With that in mind, a quick reminder of the McGill University study for the last two elections (h/t Crawl Across the Ocean):

2004:
During the campaign there were 2,113 articles written about the election in the 5 English newspapers studied (The Calgary Herald, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, the Toronto Star and the Vancouver Sun).

Of those 2113, 1,711 (81%) mentioned the Liberal party. Out of those 1,711, there were 34 (2%) with positive mentions of the Liberal party and 342 (20%) with negative mentions of the Liberals, giving a 10 to 1 ratio of negative mentions to positive.

Meanwhile, for the Conservative Party, the figures were 1592 (75%) total articles, including 82 (5%) positive mentions and 159 (10%) negative mentions, for a roughly 2:1 ratio of negative to positive.

The NDP garnered (4%) positive mentions and 7% negative mentions, while the Bloc had the most favourable(!) coverage of any party from the English language papers at 4% positive, 5% negative (although they were only mentioned in 15% of stories).

2006:
During the campaign there were 3,753 articles written about the election in the 7 newspapers studied (The Calgary Herald, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, the Toronto Star and the Vancouver Sun, La Presse and Le Devoir).

Of those 3753, 3035 mentioned the Liberal party. Out of those 3035, there were 40 with positive mentions of the Liberal party and 445 with negative mentions of the Liberals, giving a 11 to 1 ratio of negative mentions to positive (slightly higher than last election's 10-1 ratio).

Meanwhile, for the Conservative Party, the figures were 2730 total articles, including 144 positive mentions and 127 negative mentions, for a slightly positive overall slant (the positive mentions were similar to last election, but the negatives were cut in half).

The NDP garnered 2% positive mentions and 3% negative mentions, while the Bloc received 2% positive coverage, 4% negative.

Obviously, the political leanings of the media brain trust had no bearing on coverage, in fact if anyone should be complaining about rampant bias, it's the left wing. The 2004 numbers are powerful, the 2006 ones are just plain astounding. If you dig deeper, you find that individual papers further illustrate the anti-Liberal bias. The Toronto Star, vilified as the Liberal Star by Conservatives, actually comes out statistically balanced. On the other hand, a paper like The National Post demonstrates a tremendous, one-sided bias in favor of the Conservatives.

Everyone across the political spectrum complains about coverage, particularly when it doesn't seem sympathetic to your opinion. Sometimes that criticism is justified, and we all know the players where it applies. However, its is primarily the realm of Conservatives, that takes the bias argument to delusional heights. Any criticism of Harper is more evidence of a conspiracy to bring back the Liberals (see SDA). I find the entire pre-occupation a gigantic, intellectual bore, and the best part, the facts actually suggest otherwise, both on substance and ownership.

The crutch of convenience, that reaffirms an imported illusion, attaching the virtuous struggle against the amassed forces of opposition, bent on destruction. Fiction.

24 comments:

Woman at Mile 0 said...

Awesome Steve! Totally true I was angry in the last election after the media tarred Goodale right at the mid point of the election which caused the polls to immediately swing to the Cons. Until that point the Libs were still doing pretty well. They're just spouting garbage because they have no new ideas and they are becoming unpopular.

Darren McEwen said...

...Wait. Christian Con didn't make that comment in the past couple of days did he?

If he did -- consider it today's "Friday funny".

Nonetheless, I love the "I forget where I read it..." line.

lance said...

Woman, Did you catch the irony in your comment vs. what Steve wrote?

Steve basically said that coverage was fair.

You wrote that the media decided the Liberals fate.

So what is it? Does the media decide the fate of the nation or don't they?

If so, then I think the conservatives have an argument in that the stats of one election where they prove favourable doesn't excuse _at least_ one other where there was an imbalance.

If they don't then you don't have anything to criticize.

Cheers,
lance

Steve V said...

"Steve basically said that coverage was fair."

Actually the coverage wasn't fair, which too my mind subercedes the political leanings of the news director. She has a valid point, supported by simple math.

lance said...

So then my first point stands.

2004 more positive Lib than CPC. Lib win.

2006 more positive CPC coverage. CPC win.

So then the question is does the media either act like an oracle or a leader?

Cheers,
lance

Anonymous said...

What it really boils down to is that both major political parties have papers that are being used as political mouthpieces; the Liberals have the G&M and Toronto Star, the Conservatives the National Post.

It's the smaller parties that are not being represented by the MSM.

Steve V said...

"So then my first point stands.

2004 more positive Lib than CPC. Lib win.

2006 more positive CPC coverage. CPC win."

Did you actually read the findings? 2004 had a 10 to 1 negative to positive for the Liberals, 2 to 1 for the Conservatives. You have no point.

Ti-Guy said...

Well, to be blunt, the Right sees bias because no respectable media would spend a lot of time covering its issues. The few they have are undemocratic and/or ridiculous. Movement conservative ideas are mostly alien to the general Canadian polity, anyway.

The media cover smaller government, taxation, private versus public ownership, federal/provincial jurisdiction and most other normal/traditional issues of onservative politics just fine. This meaningless accusation of "bias" is simply just another symptom of the Right's persecution complex...which it has with good reason. That's what liberal democracies do...marginalise the forces of authoritarianism and ignorance.

Steve V said...

ti-guy

That's a great point. Many of the "pet" issues on the right aren't ones that enjoy mainstream support, so you shouldn't expect the media to trumpet the marginal.

knb said...

Steve to lance: You have no point.

He rarely does.

Anon @9:32 :papers that are being used as political mouthpieces; the Liberals have the G&M and Toronto Star, the Conservatives the National Post

Have you read recent recent editorials in the Globe? They all but anoint Harper.

Really interesting post Steve. I think what is missed, is that we look for this now. I don't remember reading my news that way...searching for bias.

Having a government in power, that only represents 1/3 of us is not a surprise I guess. Having it reported as, the government that looks out for all of us, is.

Really interesting analysis.

Thx..I know that was a lot of work and I will digest it a bit more.

lance said...

Oh, damn. I read the reverse on the 2004 stats you listed. My bad. You're correct. I have no point.

Oh well, I'll just puddle on off to a corner now for this thread.

Sigh,
lance

Steve V said...

lance

It happens :)

knb

As strange as it sounds, you could actually argue the Post has been more negative than the Globe in recent weeks.

ottlib said...

The media is lazy and has a more developed herd instinct than the African Wildebeast but it is not really biased per se.

Certainly all news organizations have well developed and consistant editorial positions but that is to be expected. And some of those organizations pursue their editorial positions with more zeal than others.

However, as you say Steve the Conservative obsession with the notion of a "Liberal bias" in the media reflects more on them than the actual media.

Steve V said...

ottlib

And, once again, another imported concept from the American cousins.

Olaf said...

Steve,

I think you and I generally agree on the "media bias" issue. That said, I might as well quibble - you know, for the hell of it.

First:

However, and I don't mean to generalize, all of the Conservatives seem to buy into this perceived bias.

I'd hate to see what you'd say if you actually did mean to generalize... :)

Next, the two studies that you site are measuring two very different things. The first, suggesting a bias towards the left (from certain news sources), is measuring the personal biases of the individuals. The second is not; it measures the actual news outcomes. This is clearly apples and oranges, because no matter how they're skewed the outcomes could still be a product of inherent biases, and their imbalance suggests nothing to the contrary.

For example, if a survey was done of Fox News, and it showed that over the past year regarding the Iraq war that 50% of their stories were negative while 50% were positive, would you conclude that there is no pro-Bush/ Republican/ Iraq War bias on Fox News? Probably not. What you'd conclude is that were there no bias, the ratio would be much closer to reality (eg. 95% negative, 5% positive).

Likewise, that the Toronto Star (in my opinion, the most partisan paper in the country - not that other papers don't have their ideological biases (they all do), just that few could possibly rival the Toronto Star's partisan bias towards the boys and girls in red) came out "statistically balanced" might lead one to the same conclusion: that if it weren't biased to begin with, its coverage may have been far more unbalanced.

Furthermore, the majority of these "stories" are just that - not necessarily evidence of editorial bias at work in anyway, but just things that happened worth noting, regardless of who the story is "negative" for. Again, most papers won't decline to publish a story on the "Beer and Popcorn" quip just because they're Liberal boosters, nor did the post decide to not publish Harper's "don't worry, the courts will keep us in line" gaffe. The main exhibition of bias, where it exists, would be on the margins. So the fact that most papers regardless of their ideological bias (the Star excluded) may have had more "favourable" coverage for the CPC, could possibly suggest that there was more favourable coverage to be had.

So, when you suggest that "actually the coverage wasn't fair" or that the left should be complaining of "rampant bias" because the Conservatives came off relatively better, what you're assuming is not only that there were no major negative news stories exogenous to the election itself (like, say, Adscam, or the "Trust Scandal") but also that, objectively speaking, both parties performed equally impressive during the election. Leaving aside that this would be impossible to measure definitively, it's unlikely to be realistic.

Outcomes cannot in themselves prove anything regarding bias, as far as I can tell. It is certainly no where near as convincing as actually surveying the personal biases of those making the decisions.

Just to clarify for the more combative crowd: I'm not claiming media bias one way or another, just playing devils advocate, to see if Steve's juxtaposition of the two studies holds up. I'm sure he'll have a reasonable response, although I'd welcome one from anyone.

Steve V said...

Olaf

You could use 2006 to support the idea of events leading coverage (i.e adscam, income trust). That fact partially explains the wild gap in coverage. However, if you take 2004, you see a similar trend, although not as pronounced, which suggests something else at play. Anti-government bias?

I don't think this is an apples and oranges debate, because the implication of editorial political preference is that it manifests itself in the coverage. The fact it doesn't, and might actually lean the other way, says that the media does do a good job of seperating personal preference from coverage. To take it further, you could argue that there is too much compensation, in an effort to eliminate personal bias, media actually moves too far to eliminate any possibility of slant.

Ti-Guy said...

As strange as it sounds, you could actually argue the Post has been more negative than the Globe in recent weeks.

The Post and The Globe move in reaction to each other. The G&M has been sufficiently critical of the Harper Party (that's what Jeffry Simpson calls it) to keep me subsribed to it, but its editorial board has taken a decidedly "lets encourage Harper and see where this goes" and counters its negative reporting with gushy and silly editorials. I just don't read beyond the first parapraph of most of them anymore. Especially when they contain the phrase "Harper is correct when he..."

Harper isn't always wrong, but I don't think he's ever been "correct" in any absolute way. Not about anything that matters, anyway.

Olaf said...

Steve,

I don't think this is an apples and oranges debate, because the implication of editorial political preference is that it manifests itself in the coverage

You kind of ignored my point, which is that while political preference might manifest itself in the coverage, unless you have an objective standard by which to suggest that a certain level of negative vs. positive stories would be appropriate (you don't), you can't say whether bias was at work.

The fact it doesn't, and might actually lean the other way, says that the media does do a good job of seperating personal preference from coverage. To take it further, you could argue that there is too much compensation, in an effort to eliminate personal bias, media actually moves too far to eliminate any possibility of slant.

Sure, and maybe there was a Conservative pixie whispering in Greenspons ear. This is conjecture, where as a study into the voting preferences of editorialists is more substantial.

My point is that you can't say, for a "fact", that editorial bias doesn't affect the coverage on the account that the coverage is slanted in one way or another. News outcomes cannot refute bias in that way.

Again, to use an analogy: If through some vile act of God, all Canadian reporters and editors were shipped off to the US, and a equal number of American journalists replaced them, do you think that the statistics into the coverage would have been roughly similar? Would there have been the same number of positive and negative stories for each party, or would the Conservatives (who are slightly to the left of the Democrats) have received an even greater percentage of positive press? Or perhaps you think, because the US media has a discernible rightward slant (by Canadian standards), coverage would have actually favoured the Liberals and NDP, because they would feel the need to overcompensate for their personal biases?

And Ti-guy,

Harper isn't always wrong, but I don't think he's ever been "correct" in any absolute way.

You simply admitting that Harper isn't always wrong is a veritable coup for the ruling party.

Steve V said...

"You kind of ignored my point, which is that while political preference might manifest itself in the coverage, unless you have an objective standard by which to suggest that a certain level of negative vs. positive stories would be appropriate (you don't), you can't say whether bias was at work"

Even without the objective standard, the argument that the media is anti-Conservative finds no support in the nature of the stories. Also, you will never find an objective standard when you are dealing with a subjective source. There is no absolute in the affairs of people, I take some level of bias, despite the protests, as a given and unavoidable. What you can extrapolate, the various leanings may cancel each other out in totality, or show a preference either way.

The argument that the media is anti-Harper finds no factual basis, in the most elementary expression. While you could argue that the news is driven by outside events, there is also a choice on how to cover and what angle to take. In the last election, stories about Harper's past writings were largely ignored, this was a conscience decision by the media- there was a story, it was relegated. So, even though events shape coverage, there is also the active player, that decides degree and scope, not to mention legs.

Ti-Guy said...

Olaf, if you tie in my last statement..."Not about anything that matters, anyway" you can probably get a good sense of what I think of the issues Harper has been right about. The few things government has done right (and don't rush...they'll come to me), I believe, have been in spite of Harper.

Olaf said...

Steve,

All I'm saying is that there is a weakness in your argument, best illustrated (I think) by my analogies which you haven't commented on. I'm not saying there is an anti-Harper bias, just that the two studies you site don't square. The latter doesn't refute the former in any meaningful way (although both are interesting).

I suppose we'll have to leave it here, in any case. Good chat as always.

Ti-guy,

Olaf, if you tie in my last statement..."Not about anything that matters, anyway" you can probably get a good sense of what I think of the issues Harper has been right about. The few things government has done right (and don't rush...they'll come to me), I believe, have been in spite of Harper.

Ti-guy - I was just making light. I think I have a general understanding of your position on Harper.

Ti-Guy said...

Yes, my abiding contempt for the man.

Funny, in the mid-90's, I thought I was being unfair or rash. I'm glad Harper has disabused me of that.

Olaf said...

Ti-guy,

Joking aside, that was a bit harsh, don't you think? Normally you're far more deferential and reserved in your criticism.

Ti-Guy said...

Don't make me wet my Depends, Olaf.

Seriously, I find it funny that in the last year, an ever increasing number of influential people are calling Harper on his fabrications.

What took them so long? As I've always said, someone who shows a pattern of asserting something when the rest of us know there is no evidence to support that assertion is a liar.

Much like the accusation of "bias" (see how I went back on topic there?). You have to have compelling evidence of bias for it to be a meaningful observation. Absent that, I consider it nothing more than a fabrication.