Media More Likely to Use 'Conservative' Over 'Liberal' to Label Candidates

An analysis of ABC, CBS and NBC coverage of the 2008 presidential nomination contest shows that the major networks were much more likely to identify a Republican as “conservative” than identify a Democrat as “liberal.” Bernard Goldberg argues that the results are indicative of the media's ideological insularity and compares it to the days when racism was a prevalent topic in newsrooms.

The analysis was conducted by Media Research Center (MRC), a conservative think tank devoted to exposing media bias. MRC examined every morning and evening news broadcast on ABC, CBS and NBC from January 1 through July 31 in 2007.

MRC found that the three major networks described Republican candidates as “conservative” 62 times and Democratic candidates as “liberal” three times. The liberal label was also used once with a Republican candidate, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Two of the three times that “liberal” was used, it was for then-Senator Barack Obama, for a single story that ran twice on ABC in which correspondent Jake Tapper said, “Obama has drawn raves for presenting fairly traditional liberal views as fresh and inspiring....”

The third reference was for Senator Chris Dodd. “NBC Nightly News” described him as part of “a small group of liberal Democrats” who wanted to block Iraq war funding.

In one other report, the term “liberal” was used in reference to a Democrat, then-Senator Hillary Clinton, but to say that she is not a liberal. “People think she's a liberal, even though she's hawkish,” Chris Matthews said on NBC's “Today.”

Goldberg, an Emmy Award-winning reporter who previously worked for CBS, drew his own conclusions from the findings. In 2001, he wrote Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News, a New York Times bestseller, in which detailed the liberal bias he found at CBS in his 30 years of working for the network. Though personally liberal, Goldberg believes that the liberal bias of the major networks stands in opposition to the standards of objective journalism.

In a blog post on his website, Goldberg asserts that networks are more likely to use the “conservative” label than the “liberal” label because liberal reporters are more likely to see conservatives as out of the mainstream. “Conservative” then becomes a type of “warning label,” argues Goldberg.

“This time the evidence is about labels-the ideological labels journalists slap on presidential candidates the way tobacco companies slap warning labels on packs of cigarettes. One says 'Cigarettes cause cancer.' The other practically shouts: Look out, be careful, you’re about to hear from a CONSERVATIVE!” Goldberg writes.

Reporters are not conscious of their own bias, Goldberg writes, because they work in a “bubble” where everyone else in the newsroom shares their views.

“The problem is that newsrooms are packed with liberal journalists who see the world through a liberal prism,” Goldberg writes. “There’s a lot of racial and ethnic and gender diversity in newsrooms these days, but very little ideological diversity – very little diversity of opinion. So, inside the bubble, everything to the right of center is (correctly) seen as conservative, but everything to the left of center is (incorrectly) seen as middle of the road. Liberal views, in this world, aren’t really liberal. They’re moderate. They’re reasonable. They’re mainstream.”

Goldberg compares the situation to a time when racism pervaded newsrooms: “In the old days, pretty much the only time a criminal’s race was mentioned in a story is if the criminal was black.”

“Journalists, in those days, identified black people because, at some level, they saw them as out of the mainstream, as different, as alien, and yes, as dangerous. White people were the mainstream. They weren’t different. They weren’t alien.” Goldberg writes.

There is no primary contest so far for the Democratic presidential nomination, so a similar comparison cannot be made this election cycle. CRC notes, however, that the conservative label has been used several times for Republican presidential candidates this year, often with some additional adjectives.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has been described as “a conservative's conservative,” and, “a family values conservative who's had three wives.”

Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) has been described as a “take-no-prisoners conservative,” “unbending conservative,” “uncompromising conservative,” and “unapologetically conservative.” She is also known for, the press has said, “unyieldingly conservative views,” and “her firebrand conservative style.”

MRC concludes the report by arguing, “It’s neither inaccurate nor impolite to describe this year’s GOP candidates as 'conservative' – most of them wear the label proudly. But if the networks are going to treat both sides fairly, they should have been just as ardent in pointing out the liberalism of the Democratic field that produced the most liberal President in American history.”

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