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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 03:10 PM ET, 02/06/2012

Four reasons why Ross Douthat’s media-bias argument is bunk


Komen founder and CEO Nancy Brinker: Victim of media? Yeah, social media.
In his piece in the New York Times’s Sunday Review, op-ed columnist Ross Douthat is careful to establish his credibility in citing liberal media bias:

Conservative complaints about media bias are sometimes overdrawn.

But not in this case! proclaims Douthat.

This case is, of course, last week’s drama over the short-lived decision by the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation to cut off approximately $700,000 in annual funding for Planned Parenthood to perform breast-cancer screenings.

For Douthat, though, the issue is abortion and the media’s inability to cover it objectively. He writes that “on the abortion issue, the press’s prejudices are often absolute, its biases blatant and its blinders impenetrable.” As it covered the Komen foundation’s decision and subsequent reversal, the media ignored the massive number of pro-life Americans, argues Douthat.

Herewith five reasons why Douthat’s gripe is just another of those ”overdrawn” episodes.

#1 Characterize the “media” at your own peril.

Here’s my favorite line from Douthat’s piece:

In story after story, journalists explicitly passed judgment on Komen for creating a controversy where none need ever have existed.

That’s true, unless you were talking about this Dallas Morning News story, which carefully laid out both sides of the dispute. Or this segment from the PBS News Hour, which carefully laid out both sides of the dispute. Or this story from the New York Times, which carefully laid out both sides of the dispute. Or just about any dispatch from the Associated Press, which carefully laid out both sides of the dispute.

Which is to say: If you pick and choose wisely, you can make just about any case about how the “media” has handled a given issue. Just spend enough time in Nexis and in Google News, and the clips will be there to facilitate your argument. Our contemporary media is just too sprawling for glib characterizations. Keep your broad brush in the closet, Ross.

The least Douthat could have done: Cite the right-leaning Media Research Center’s study showing that 76 percent of sound bites on the major networks’ coverage favored Planned Parenthood over Susan G. Komen. The center also complained that only 11 “clips or statements came from Komen representatives or new allies.”

One interpretation here is that the networks are biased, just irretrievably activist, left-leaning organizations. Another is that the 76 percent tilt is generous to the allies of Komen’s initial funding cutoff. As The Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff pointed out this morning:

When I spoke with a few Komen affiliates (the majority I contacted declined to be interviewed), I asked what kind of reaction they had seen. Laura Farmer Sherman in San Diego told me she had received nearly 400 e-mails — 386 in favor of continued Planned Parenthood funding, two against. Michele Ostrander of the Denver affiliate said the reaction was “overwhelmingly” negative.

#2 Just what’s the media here, Douthat?

To advance his case that the “media” is at fault, Douthat cites snippets on ABC News, MSNBC, and bland generalities.

Along the way, he commits an omission. What about social media? As more than one comprehensive look-back has concluded, the real pressure on Komen came from Twitter and Facebook. Politico writes: “Twitter users sent more than 1.3 million Tweets referencing Planned Parenthood, the Susan G. Komen Foundation and related terms and hashtags, according to a Twitter spokeswoman. The chatter built steadily through the week, with more than 460,000 related Tweets on Thursday.”

Acknowledging the influence of social media, though, would have caused a crisis for Douthat’s argument. There’s lots of fun to be had, after all, in slamming the networks and big media organizations. Less appetizing is criticizing a bunch of individuals.

#3 ‘Brutal’ coverage = truth telling

Douthat writes in his piece that the Komen foundation bagged its defunding decision “with an apology, after a wave of frankly brutal coverage.” The suggestion here is that somehow the media shamed the Komen people into backpedaling — that it was an angry and ideological media establishment pushing for the results it deemed just.

A look at the record, though, reveals that the media was too busy trying to understand the rationale behind the Komen decision to engage in agendaism. After all, the Komen folks fed the press so much: Is the problem really that Planned Parenthood was the subject of an investigation? And if so, what if that investigation is politically motivated — how fair would that be? Or, is the problem that Planned Parenthood did too many so-called “pass-through” checkups?

The media was brutal to Komen in direct proportion to Komen’s own brutal decision-making.

#4 Really a secret that Komen contributions spiked?

Douthat pens a crafty kicker to his opinion piece. This is it:

Indeed, that sense of relief was quantifiable: the day after the controversy broke, Komen reported that its daily donations had risen dramatically.
But of course, you wouldn’t know that from most of the media coverage. After all, the people making those donations don’t exist.

For evidence that Komen’s contributions went through the roof, Douthat links to a story by the Daily Caller, the outlet that reported a while back that the Environmental Protection Agency wanted to hire 230,000 additional employees. Other reporters haven’t been satisfied with the level of detail that Komen has offered for this claim. Maybe that consideration could help account for this troubling discrepancy?

By  |  03:10 PM ET, 02/06/2012

Tags:  susan g. komen, planned parenthood, ross douthat, new york times.

 
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