In a broadcast earlier this month, Fox News host Tucker Carlson argued that the mainstream media boosted the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton. “The press was four-square for Hillary Clinton from the moment Donald Trump got the nomination. They didn’t hide it at all,” said Carlson. “And the emails that were leaked from John Podesta’s Gmail account proved they were collaborating with the Hillary campaign.”
Peter Daou, an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, rebutted Carlson with a single point: emails! A study by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, a Harvard University outfit, found that coverage of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump sought a form of equivalence between the candidates. Daou made mention of the study, which said, “False equivalencies abound in today’s reporting,” wrote study author Thomas Patterson. “When journalists can’t, or won’t, distinguish between allegations directed at the Trump Foundation and those directed at the Clinton Foundation, there’s something seriously amiss. And false equivalencies are developing on a grand scale as a result of relentlessly negative news. If everything and everyone is portrayed negatively, there’s a leveling effect that opens the door to charlatans.”
Coverage of the email scandal, noted Patterson, topped any other topic in the category of Clinton’s fitness for office.
The mere mention of Shorenstein appeared to disgust Carlson, who told Daou: “These independent studies are done by political hacks posing as journalists. The Shorenstein Center? I mean, let’s be— I am a journalist. I sort of know the people who work there. And you’re not going to tell me, because, again, I know them, that they are politically independent because they’re not. They were as horrified as Martha Raddatz was, when she cried at Trump’s victory.”*
The Shorenstein Center appears to have made a remarkable recovery on the bias front— just over the past few weeks. “Exactly how liberal and how biased is the press?” said Carlson on his program Friday night. “For the answer to that, we have to go to social science. And now for the first time in a while, we actually have some, some real data. A new study from researchers at Harvard University looked at 10 major news outlets and found the overwhelming majority of the new administration’s first 100 days was hostile. At CNN and NBC, both purportedly straight news outlets, 93 percent of the stories were negative, which is remarkable considering that there’s no way that 93 percent of their stories about — I don’t know, pick someone, Fidel Castro— were negative.”
While Carlson was prattling on about how this startling data proved his stance on the liberal media, the Fox News screen included a credit to the organization that had provided it:
The Shorenstein celebration didn’t end there. The Fox News host used the study to spearhead his contention that the media is slanted against the issues favored by Trump voters. “The Harvard study found that of stories on Trump’s immigration policies, fully 96 percent were negative. There was more diversity in the Romanian media under Ceaușescu,” said Carlson.
What a remarkable turnabout for this Harvard institution. One day, it’s a farm of hacks. The next, it’s the bedrock of a truth-spewing report in the prime-time hours of Fox News. Surely Shorenstein shored up its research methods, cleaned house of partisans and otherwise took a fresh approach to everything. “Same people, same professor, same staff,” Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center, tells the Erik Wemple Blog. Also: “Same data, same coding, same rules for how we assess the data.”
Weren’t there major differences between the study that Carlson dissed and the one that he glorified? “They’re almost identical,” says Mele.
Nor did Carlson properly display the data in his Fox News graphics, charges Mele. Whereas Carlson said that 93 percent of CNN and NBC stories were negative, the data presented by Shorenstein said something different, something less inflammatory. That 93 percent is a subset of the stories that were either positive or negative— as the fine print on the study makes clear, there’s another large set of stories that were rated neutral:
In fairness to Carlson & Co., Shorenstein’s approach to displaying the data could withstand a bit more clarity. (See this analysis from The Post’s Aaron Blake.)
We asked Carlson last night for a comment on his evolving view of the Shorenstein Center. He sent back a screenshot of a dumbfounded Erik Wemple Blog during a February appearance on his show:
As for Carlson’s claim that he knows the people at Shorenstein, Mele claims that neither he nor Patterson knows him. “To my knowledge, don’t believe I’ve ever met Tucker,” says Mele.
With his hypocritical use of data, Carlson once again illustrates a maxim of Fox News— what we’ll call the Situational Credibility Principle. When a major institution like the New York Times or The Post or Harvard University publishes something inconvenient, these places are populated by rancid partisans. When they publish something convenient, they are THE NEW YORK TIMES! or RESEARCHERS AT HARVARD UNIVERSITY!