media coverage

Al Franken proposed what he called the “hypothetical liberal media paradigm matrix”.  What it translates to is the idea that “if” the media really has a liberal bias and the candidate is Republican then the media would want to hurt him or her with negative stories but “if” the media has a liberal bias and the candidate is Democrat then the media would help him or her with positive stories.

The idea is to see whether the media has a liberal bias.  The simple logic of the matrix makes a fun package but is intended to misdirect.  The reader wrongly accepts that Franken has determined a valid means of detecting bias.  The reader also has the false impression that Franken is being honest, open and straightforward.  But it hardly represents an effort on the part of Franken to investigate.

To begin with, bias is a great deal more nuanced than supposed by Franken.  Unless one delves deep, it can in fact be undetectable.  Often we don’t even see our own bias, as it is tied closely with what we simply accept as true.

When we dissect what really happened and compare it with what Franken leads his readers to believe, we find a wide disconnect.  This is a fascinating case study in manipulation.

With the matrix, Franken claims he was ready to:

evaluate in an analytical, unbiased way the media coverage of the 2000 campaign.

Think about the choice of words he uses: “the media coverage of the 2000 campaign”.  He did not say “some of” or “part of” the 2000 campaign; he said “the 2000 campaign”. However that is to be interpreted, we would expect it to be a length of time sufficient to actually reflect the campaign.  But Franken was referring to a total of only three weeks.

Instead of telling his readers this fact, he referred to it as “comprehensive”.  While there was a large media sample used from within that short time-frame, Franken had already falsely identified the time frame as “the 2000 campaign,” so the word “comprehensive” adds another layer to the deception.

Then Franken starts in with the “results” of his “unbiased, analytical” evaluation:

What actually happened during the 2000 election blows to smithereens the predictions of our Hypothetical Liberal Media Paradigm Matrix.

Franken is referring to a study put out by the Pew Charitable Trusts Project for Excellence in Journalism which, as Franken points out, is “totally mainstream” without a “political ax to grind.”  According to the methodology of the study, 56% of the Gore coverage was negative while only 49% of the stories about Bush were negative.  Bush had 24% positive coverage compared with 13% for Gore.

Even though Franken lied about the time frame, the study at first glance does seem to indicate that Bush was favored. If you asked Franken what caused this apparent favoritism, he might repeat what he said in his book:

So what happened? If turns out TeamFranken had spent the 2000 election cycle locked away in its ivory tower. Any normal American who watched the news or read the papers that year would have noticed that the media just hated Al Gore.

Here Franken reinforces his lie yet again by referring to the results of the three-week period as though they represented “that year” falsely implying the whole year.  He also refers to it as “the 2000 election cycle” falsey implying the 2000 election cycle.

Franken explains how this alleged “hatred” manifested itself:

…the media looked for little scraps of evidence to support its story line of Gore the Exaggerator

On the surface, that does sound like a good explanation– but keep in mind that Al Franken could be exaggerating.  So we better check with the actual study and see what it says:

There was remarkably little coverage of the character of the candidates.

It looks like Franken’s explanation is no good.

So how does one explain what happened during those three weeks?  According to the Pew researchers:

The study captured a time that some observers consider the most substantive of the campaign, the period of the debates.

Ah. The debates. We all remember how, during the first debate, Gore was incredibly rude.  He interrupted and sighed loudly when it was Bush’s turn to speak. Or, as the Pew report states:

…the press assessed the debates not on the basis of where the candidates stood or their character but overwhelmingly through a tactical lens– especially as performances.

Gore’s behavior upset viewers of course, and had to be addressed by the media, which was anxious to spin it. However, even mentioning Al Gore’s rude behavior counted as negative, even if the article was trying to spin it in a positive light for Gore.  What’s more, many of Gore’s fans in the press attacked Bush in those articles but the articles did not count as negative for Bush.  Why not?  Because only the tone for the candidate featured most dominantly in the article was included in the study. Gore was the dominant candidate featured in those articles.

Also, it didn’t matter how positive or negative it was, it only mattered whether it was positive or negative.  For example, someone could say, “Al Gore was only rude and irritated because he is more intelligent than Bush” and it would count as a negative statement about Gore because the negative statements (“rude” and “irritated”) outnumbered the positive (“intelligent”) and even though it is clearly negative toward Bush, it would not be marked as so because Bush is not the one dominantly featured.

So what kind of “hateful” things did the media say about Gore in their stories about his debate performance?  I’ve looked at some of the stories (focusing on the New York Times and to a lesser extent the Washington Post, because they accounted for two-thirds of the newspaper articles in the study) around the time of the debates and overwhelmingly found stories that seemed to be offering Gore free tactical advice. The Pew study included op-ed pieces, where the writers were quite loose with their feelings.

Even before the first debate, Gore was told to loosen up and drop the “boring” and “stiff” image so his message could get across.  Of course, that counts as negative even though it was intended to help Gore.

Then, after his outlandish behavior during the first debate, Gore over-corrected. He was very non-confrontational during the second debate.  So the media told him he needed to be tougher during the third debate because he was letting Bush get off easy. Of course, that also counts as negative for Gore.

In the end, there were more stories about Gore than about Bush, even though Bush was often mentioned in a negative light in the “Gore” stories.

All of that free tactical advice from the media led to the Pew researchers reporting:

One reason for the hard time for Gore may be the penchant of the press to focus on strategy and tactics.

In essence, Gore needed a strategy other than “interrupt and sigh.”

Let’s look at two examples.  While we don’t know which exact pieces were included in the study we can look at articles and judge them according to the “dominant candidate” and “2 to 1” standards employed in the methodology.

A particularly blatant illustration of the atmosphere I’ve been describing comes in a Bob Herbert piece in The New York Times that apparently came during a brief break in the study period.  Still, it is instructive.

Here are some excerpts:

If he can somehow force himself to stop sighing and interrupting and behaving condescendingly in front of the television cameras, Al Gore may yet get elected president.

If you paid attention to the content… then Gore won easily

He may have the experience and most of the issues on his side, but he can’t keep his superciliousness in check

You don’t shoot a man who’s committing suicide. There were times during the debate when Bush seemed not to understand the finer points of his own tax cut and social security proposals. And he seemed lost on matters of foreign policy.

But Gore seems to feel the need to pour it on– to offer not just his answer to a given question, but to show us everything he knows about the topic.

The vice president’s boorishness gets in the way of his message.

(New York Times, October 5, 2000)

Does it really sound like Bob Herbert “just hated Gore” like Franken claimed? Here are some excerpts from another NYT piece that would count as “negative” for Gore:

The Vice President probably remains the best-informed candidate running in the United States this year for any office. But with his new nonverbal vocabulary of sighs, grimaces and interruptions, he has managed to turn that asset into an irritation and thereby flatten his lead in the polls.

Luckily for the Democrats, while Mr. Gore was squirming as if he were trying to get the teacher’s attention, Mr. Bush was struggling with the exam questions.

On balance, Mr. Bush had a lucky week. Mr. Gore made mistakes on a few trivial matters, masking Mr. Bush’s shaky grasp of the cost of his tax cut, his social security proposal and his own campaign. He may not be so fortunate on Wednesday night. It will be hard to get by on generalities about big government if Mr. Gore can draw him into a detailed and sigh-free discussion of budgetary and foreign policy issues.

(Times Editorial desk, October 8, 2000)

They did mention that Gore “made mistakes on a few trivial matters” so maybe that’s what Franken meant when he said “the media looked for little scraps of evidence to support its story line of Gore the Exaggerator.”

Now in fairness to Franken, we should take a minute to examine this exaggeration claim more closely.


Franken defends a number of exaggerations made by Al Gore.  Although Franken claims these particular exaggeration  allegations were the direct reason for the Pew study results, most of Gore’s exaggerations weren’t even made during the 3-week study period. One was from January, one was from 1999 and another was from 1997.  There does not appear to be any mention of them in the three-week study period.  Not that it mattered to Franken, of course, since he was pretending the study period was the whole campaign.

One of the Gore exaggerations cited by Franken actually was made during the study period.  In fact, it was made during the first debate.  Ironically, Franken doesn’t specifically cite it in conjunction with the study period.  He had already mentioned it in a different part of the book.

On page 2 of Lies, in the chapter “Humus,” Franken sets out his case:

How about the 2000 presidential campaign? Remember in the first debate, Al Gore said he had gone down to a disaster site in Texas with Federal Emergency Management Agency director James Lee Witt? Actually, it turned out that he had gone to that disaster with a deputy of James Lee Witt. As vice president, Gore had gone to seventeen other disasters with James Lee Witt, but not that one. The press jumped all over him. There were scores of stories written about how Gore had lied about James Lee Witt. It was as if James Lee Witt had been the most popular man in the United States of America and Gore was lying to get some of that James Lee Witt magic to rub off on him.

Hearing Franken’s account of how the media reacted we should expect lots of stories slamming Gore over the James Lee Witt error.  It turns out, the very next morning after the debate, Gore himself was on Good Morning America apologizing for his comment.  Far from accusing Gore of exaggerating, Charles Gibson put it on the Republicans.  This is how the exchange went:

GIBSON: “They’re already indicating that they’re going to go after you today for, for revising history in ways, saying that you have questioned his qualifications in the past, not just his policies, and also questioning whether you actually went with James Lee Witt down to Texas…?”

GORE: “Well, I was there in Texas. I think James Lee went to the same, went to the same, uh, fires, and I’ve made so many trips with James Lee to these disaster sites. I was there, in Texas, in Houston, with the head of the Texas Emergency Management folks, and with all of the Federal Emergency Management folks. If James Lee was there before, or after, then, you know, I got that wrong then, but uh, it was basically a compliment to the way our FEMA team had handled things, and it was in the context of a compliment to the Governor for the way he handled it for the state of Texas.”

Here’s how the New York Times covered it (October 8, 2000):

Mr. Gore acknowledged today that he has made occasional factual mistakes, as when he said in Tuesday’s debate that he had accompanied James Lee Witt, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to inspect fire and flooding damage in Texas in 1998. Mr. Gore did visit Texas, but with one of Mr. Witt’s deputies, not with Mr. Witt. Mr. Gore has said that he made the mistake because he has frequently made trips of that sort with Mr. Witt.

The NYT piece sounds a lot like the explanation Franken himself gave. Does Franken think his own explanation is part of the anti-Gore craze?

The Washington Post article (October 8, 2000) began:

With a month left to Election Day and the prize he has long sought tantalizingly close to Al Gore’s fingertips, Gore’s opponents are mounting a final assault…

It looks like they are downplaying the exaggeration as some kind of conservative ploy. More excerpts:

An offhand boast by Gore at the first debate last week turned out to be untrue–and that has put straw on a fire that Republicans have been trying to feed all year…

…at the debate Oct. 3 in Boston, Gore listened as the Texas governor spoke about visiting a fire-ravaged patch of his state in 1996. Bush praised the work of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and FEMA boss James Lee Witt. “I accompanied James Lee Witt down to Texas when those fires broke out,” Gore responded. It turned out that, although Gore did visit Texas to survey the damage, it was two years later and he was not accompanied by Witt.

So what is Franken complaining about?  I couldn’t understand at first, but then I noticed something. The Washington Post article offered Gore’s followers a chance to comment. Sure enough, Gore’s former press secretary Marla Romash was looking for “little scraps of evidence to support that story-line of Gore the Exaggerator.”  Just take a look:

Gore loyalists believe that the charge of dishonesty is unfair and irrelevant. “I don’t accept the premise that Gore has a credibility problem,” says former Gore press secretary Marla Romash. “Sometimes a mistake is made because of being tired…Sometimes I think it is a storyteller’s flair.”

A “storyteller’s flair”?  Is that Franken’s complaint? That Gore’s own former press secretary said he may have a “storyteller’s flair”?

Granted, there were lots of conservative talk-show hosts who were criticizing Gore– for a number of things, and rightly so–but the “mainstream media” was right there by Gore’s side, lock-step.

Let’s break down the Pew study period:

1– Study period begins.  Liberal pundits encourage Gore to work on his image so he won’t come across as boring in the debates.  These stories count as negative for Gore.

2– Gore acts like a jerk in the first debate, upsetting lots of viewers.  Liberal pundits acknowledge Gore overstepped the normal lines of courtesy, but claim he was only frustrated because his opponent is stupid. These stories are negative for Gore, but don’t count one way or the other for Bush.

3– Gore tries to reinvent himself in the second debate.  He fails. Liberal pundits say he should have been harder on governor Bush, who they say deserved it. These stories count as negative for Gore, but don’t count as anything for Bush.

4–Third debate happens.  Study period ends two days later.

What the study left out

We have so far seen problems with the media coverage during the study period. And they are serious problems. Most striking however is what the study didn’t even include:  the ostensibly “straight news” accounts of what the candidates were saying.

The study report states:

Straight news accounts of the candidates actions or statements were not measured for tone, though a sample suggested that they, too, were not particularly neutral.

The study doesn’t go into further detail.  But anyone can look into the ostensibly straight news stories and find considerable slant. “Straight news” tended to be positive for Gore and negative for Bush. What Gore had to say was simply reported as what Gore said. But what Bush had to say was not only reported but all too often a response to what he said was also provided– as though the article were a debate, with the anti-Bush side always getting the last word.

For example, when a poll comes out, we should expect the analysis to coincide with the poll results.  But not when the poll looks good for Bush.  Consider the article, “Despite Ups and Downs, Surveys Show Race is Tied,” from September 28, 2000.  The article starts off:

After watching his opponents’ popularity rise in the polls over the last month, Gov. George W. Bush got a dose of good news… But is it real?

Right away, we can tell that something is up.  Why is the news not simply reported?  Why is it couched as though things are looking bad for Bush? The article goes on to “report”:

…Mr. Bush was leading Mr. Gore 48 to 42 percent. But since the margin of sampling error is plus or minus four percentage points, the findings have to be considered a statistical tie.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the results are dismissed as follows:

In addition, three out of four people interviewed said the coming debates would affect their decisions.

Debates tend to do that, yes, but what does it have to do with reporting the poll?  Was the writer afraid the audience would come away with a positive impression of Bush so, lest that should happen, they needed to be told that the numbers don’t really mean anything?

On October 7, 2000, the NYT printed a straight news story detailing how much Al Gore and his family love to vacation in Florida and how much it would mean to him if he were to win the state.  Florida, of course, was a key state.

The following day, October 8, 2000, the NYT printed a straight news story “reporting” that Bush gave a speech.  The article “reported” that Bush couldn’t keep his numbers straight.

For an even better side-by-side comparison, let’s look at a special series of two feature articles by The New York Times, one about Gore and one about Bush.

The Gore feature article had the feel of a Gore ad.   The Bush feature article also had the feel of a Gore ad.  I say that because Gore’s statements went unchallenged, as opposed to Bush’s statements.

Here’s an excerpt from the Gore feature:

“That’s not tax relief” Mr. Gore said of his Republican rivals’ 1.3 trillion dollar tax reduction plan. “That’s a massive tax on America’s potential.”

Okay, that’s what Gore said and it was reported. Now here’s an excerpt from the Bush feature:

“They call for new spending without real reform or accountability,” the Texas governor said. “It’s like pumping gas into a flooded engine.” Kim Spell, a spokeswoman for the Gore campaign, countered that Mr. Bush would not be able to afford his education proposals.

Notice how they didn’t just report what Bush said, they actually responded to it.

Here are some more excerpts from the Gore feature:

Mr. Gore would spend more than Mr. Bush on education and health care, and he would devote significant sums to paying down the national debt.

“Consider this fact,” Mr. Gore said of Mr. Bush’s proposal. “The other side’s plan gives more in tax cuts to the wealthiest 1 percent–667 billion of the surplus– than all the new money they would invest in education, health care, prescription drugs and the national defense combined.”

In contrast, here are some more excerpts from the Bush feature:

Mr. Bush did not hold a news conference but instead fielded gently worded questions from the largely partisan audience.

Mr. Bush also plans to spend two days in California, where polls show Mr. Gore holding a comfortable lead.

Sounding his new slogan intended to raise anxieties about the nation’s well-being…

While Mr. Bush has sought to lay blame for the nation’s education problems squarely on the administration’s doorstep, many educators contend that the federal government plays a relatively small role in primary and secondary education.

Mr. Bush was asked what could be done to help students reconnect with politics, and he recommended that candidates not make decisions based on polls or focus groups. But the Bush campaign is not completely averse to such tools;

Pretty stark contrast.

One particularly inventive “straight news” article was printed in the Washington Post September 23.  The headline read:  “Gore Holds $10 million edge for final push”. The article reports on supposed fear within the Republican Party over Bush’s “shocking” campaign spending habits.

Here’s some background. Coming into August, Bush apportioned one-third of his remaining funds for use in that month.  Since there were only three months left until the election, this was perfectly reasonable.  Bush was in no threat of financial trouble anyway, because the Republican National Committee stood ready with a huge financial surplus as opposed to the Democratic National Committee, which was struggling. For that matter, Gore’s campaign funds had been fluctuating substantially throughout the season.

But the article does not “report” on whether there may have been poor financial judgment on the part of the Democrats.  Instead, the article props up a flimsy assault on Bush’s judgment by quoting from and speaking of supposedly concerned Republicans– without mentioning any names.  For example, the article says:

The Texas Governor is struggling to… calm party leaders who fear he has squandered precious time and money…

Okay, who? Who are these party leaders?  It does not say.

More excerpts:

Bush’s quick spending… has raised questions among some of his own supporters about the GOP nominee’s judgment.

Some Republicans say Bush and the party have wasted money

…several Republicans yesterday questioned how he has spent his money.

“The fact they spend one-third of their resources in August, which was a devastatingly poor month, is shocking” said one Republican strategist who has spoken to frustrated GOP governors in recent days.

Let’s think about this.  If a Republican strategist was concerned that his nominee’s judgment on spending matters during the campaign might cost him the election, do you think he would take his concern to journalists? That does not sound like a very good strategy for a strategist to have.


Franken had a lot of praise to offer for the Pew Charitable Trusts Project for Excellence in Journalism. What he didn’t tell his readers is that the study he cited was not the only one they had conducted that year. There were a total of four. One of the studies confronted the role played by the internet. Another study dealt with early campaign issues. Another one, the one relevant to us here, dealt with the question of how the media was covering character issues.  The study covered five separate weeks between February 2000 and June 2000.

The study has this to say about the coverage of Bush:

[J]ournalists’ assertions about Bush’s character were more than twice as likely than Gore’s to be unsupported by any evidence. In other words, they were pure opinion, rather than journalistic analysis.

To quote further from the report:

While difficult to find evidence to support the accusation, the press was hardly shy about suggesting that George W. Bush may lack the mental capacity for the Oval Office.

Interesting, though not surprising.

It is the details regarding the coverage of Gore that attracted my attention. Remember, according to Franken:

the media just hated Al Gore.

According to the study, however, titled “A Question of Character,” it was during the Democratic primaries campaign–not the general election campaign–that the accusations against Gore were at their worst. The study also found that, in the case of “exaggerations” in particular, it was largely the other candidates raising the claims.  In fact, in reference to the exaggeration issue, the study says that

[journalists] were less likely to be the source for this assertion than they were for other themes.

There were actually more assertions regarding Gore being involved with scandals, like illegal fundraising, than there were about his exaggerations.  Regarding the scandals, the study states:

Over half, 57%, of these assertions appeared in March and another 21% in February.”

In other words, the media allowed these scandal stories to run when it was Democrat versus Democrat, but as soon as it shifted away from Gore vs. Bradly and Gore vs. Bush, the media silenced the issue. This is also true of the exaggeration issue, of which Franken makes such a big deal.  According to the study:

Gore’s difficulties appeared early on. In all, 78% of the assertions about his ties to scandal, and 61% about his untruths came in February and March—during the heat of the primary battle, in part through the rhetoric of Bill Bradley.

The study goes on to say:

All of the assertions about Gore fell off dramatically after he vanquished Bill Bradley in March.

That is a far cry from the study period Franken chose to cite. It directly contradicts the conclusion to which Franken tried to guide his readers.

Franken wrote:

Once the pack had decided the story line on Gore, everybody jumped aboard and ran all the way to November.

(Pages 52-53, Lies)