The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism spiced up a lumbering news cycle by publishing a study alleging that Fox News and MSNBC intensified their political skew in the homestretch of the presidential race. Fox News, say the findings, pumped up its positive coverage of Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the race’s final week; MSNBC, following its branded progressive bent, went more positive on President Obama. In the words of the study itself:
[W]hen Romney was receiving negative coverage in the final week from the rest of the press, Fox was different; 42% of its segments about him were positive while only 11% were negative. This was more positive than the earlier part of October when 34% of Fox News’ Romney coverage was positive and 9% negative.
MSNBC moved in the other direction. MSNBC’s coverage of Romney during the final week (68% negative with no positive stories in the sample), was far more negative than the overall press, and even more negative than it had been during October 1 to 28 when 5% was positive and 57% was negative.
Those numbers prompted a round of squinting in the NBC-MSNBC complex. NBC star Chuck Todd requested a bit of information on the study’s sources and methods, according to Amy Mitchell, deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Griffin, for his part, requested no such information. “Seriously, seriously,” scoffed Griffin. ”They do their studies.” If that isn’t dismissive enough, try this Griffin quote: “Whatever metric they use for this study is absurd.”
Well, what metric do they use for the study? Mitchell is happy to oblige. The group sets out with the goal to “get a sense of what the public is seeing” and thus focuses on a cable network’s most popular programming. “For cable, that is a sample of early–evening and prime-time programming as well as a segment of mid-day programming based on carefully weighted ratings and survey data which we update every six months,” notes Mitchell.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism deploys something called a ”tone variable,” which “measures whether a story’s tone is constructed in a way, via use of quotes, assertions, or innuendo, which results in positive, neutral, or negative coverage for the primary figure as it relates to the topic of the story.”
Sounds thorough and sophisticated. Just not sophisticated enough, in Griffin’s view, because a properly executed study wouldn’t pair up MSNBC and Fox News. “Everybody tries to make an equivalency between the two of us and it’s not true,” says Griffin. “There is no equivalency in the way we do our analysis and reporting. I am not saying this about all of Fox. They do some good work but in prime time and in tone, they have an agenda.”
That agenda, alleges Griffin, showed up in two conspicuous themes of Fox News election coverage:
1) Dick Morris’s landslide. Over and over in the days before the election, Dick Morris availed himself of Fox platforms to spout his laughable prediction that Mitt Romney would win the contest in a landslide. The map of states that Morris predicted would go for Romney — just about all the key states and then some — should occupy some kind of infamy exhibit at the Newseum.
Griffin noticed: “[He] said he was a professional unlike all the other pollsters, that he knew, that he was not being partisan, that ‘I’ve been doing this for forty years,’” says Griffin, who wants to know whether the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s methodology can account for a crock of the magnitude that Morris put forth.
2) Sean Hannity and Benghazi. A question to the Project for Excellence in Journalism from Griffin: “Did they talk about how we covered the hurricane — Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday — and Fox is covering Benghazi? Indeed, on the night of Oct. 29, as Sandy was hitting the tri-state area with an historic blow, Sean Hannity was chatting up the family of fallen Benghazi hero Tyrone Woods, a conversation that carried some moments critical of President Obama. By Griffin’s reckoning, “they were talking about Benghazi that night because they wanted to make an issue of it before the election.”
Not that MSNBC hasn’t been found guilty by the media commentariat for going light on an anti-Obama story here and there!
Do all the studies you want, suggests Griffin. But he says there are far more contrasts in the coverage of MSNBC and Fox News than parallels. “One side was cheerleading,” says Griffin, referring to a certain competitor. “When it was over, they struggled because they had totally created this bubble of misinformation.” The other side, says Griffin, does something different. “We do honest analysis with — yes — a point of view, but it’s honest and our folks called out Obama when he failed but they weren’t cheerleading.”
Wait just a minute there, sir. Following the first presidential debate, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews just about broke down on air. He trashed Romney and appeared distraught at the performance of Obama, virtually coaching him to improve for the next game. Is that not the reaction of a cheerleader? Griffin: “He was angry that a guy that he has said on policy issues he respects was so terrible in that first debate. Instead of misleading people, saying everything was fine, he was honest. Yes, it had emotion to it but he wasn’t cheerleading.”
MSNBC hosted more than 40 appearances by GOP talking heads and politicians in the week leading up to the election. And by Griffin’s count, it ran more Romney stump speeches than Obama stump speeches.
Those brackets represent the space where the Fox News component of this post might be displayed. What does Fox make of Griffin’s allegations? Did the network construct a big tennis bubble over its viewers? Does it buy the conclusions of the study? Fox News didn’t respond to requests for comment from the Erik Wemple Blog, per Fox News protocol.
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