Why this chart comparing Bridge-gate to the IRS scandal is wrong

Here's a chart making the rounds of the conservative world. 


Image courtesy of NewsBusters

It comes courtesy of the conservative Media Research Center, where Scott Whitlock writes:

In less than 24 hours, the big three networks have devoted 17 times more coverage to a traffic scandal involving Chris Christie than they've allowed in the last six months to Barack Obama's Internal Revenue Service controversy. Since the story broke on Wednesday that aides to the New Jersey governor punished a local mayor's lack of endorsement with a massive traffic jam, ABC, CBS and NBC have responded with 34 minutes and 28 seconds of coverage. Since July 1, these same networks managed a scant two minutes and eight seconds for the IRS targeting of Tea Party groups.

The conclusion seems simple. The media are biased! They focus on Christie's problems because he is a Republican and ignore the targeting of conservative groups by the Obama administration because it makes Democrats look bad!

But, it's not so simple -- and a bit of context explains why.

The comparison made in this chart in terms of coverage is not an apples to apples one.  The IRS story broke on May 10. That's a full 52 days before the Media Research Center began counting the minutes of news coverage devoted to it. The Christie story, on the other hand, broke in the Bergen Record on Jan. 8, the same day that MRC began tracking its mentions in the media.

Since the first three letters of "news" are "n-e-w," it shouldn't be surprising to anyone who follows current events that a story draws considerably more coverage in the first few days of it breaking than it does almost two months after the first revelations. And, the IRS story hasn't had all that many new details emerge over these past six months, making it less likely to draw the same sort of flood-the-zone coverage that the Christie bridge scandal has attracted over the past week.

In an attempt to make a fairer comparison about the coverage being devoted to bridge-gate vs. the IRS scandal, we dug through the Fix archives to see how we handled each of the stories.

The IRS story broke on a Friday (May 10). On May 13 and 14 (Monday and Tuesday of the following week), we wrote eight Fix posts dedicated entirely or in large part to the IRS scandal and its fallout. Between May 10 and June 3, which is the last time we wrote a Fix post dedicated to the IRS issue, we penned a total of 20 Fix posts or other articles about the IRS problems for the Obama administration. During that time, the IRS, Lois Lerner and President Obama all won our "Worst Week in Washington" award for their roles in the IRS story.

The Christie story broke on a Wednesday (Jan. 8). Between Jan. 9 and yesterday, we wrote 10 Fix posts or other articles that dealt exclusively or heavily with the fallout from bridge-gate. But, Christie was also making news every day during that period. On Thursday Jan. 9, he held a 108-minute news conference about the matter and then headed to Fort Lee, N.J., to apologize to people. On Friday, more than 900 pages of documents related to bridge-gate went public. On Monday came word that New Jersey Democrats were significantly broadening their probe into the traffic closures in Fort Lee. And today Christie is delivering his annual state of the state address.

We acknowledge that the Fix coverage may not be indicative of all of the media coverage of bridge-gate and the IRS. And, we also admit that our bias in this fight is toward the media, which tend to cover any new news voraciously but, in our minds, without the sort of partisan bias being alleged by the Media Research Center.

But, at least in our world, it's hard to see how the "biased media!" attack is borne out. Count 52 days from Jan. 8 and you get March 1. Let's see how much coverage the Christie story is receiving then -- particularly if there is no "new" news to cover. That will be a far fairer measure of whether the media have their hands on the scale on way or the other.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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