Over-Blown Bias: the Most Over-Reported News Stories of 2010
'One man's trash is another man's treasure.' And one man's nice-to-know footnote is a liberal journalist's blockbuster story.
You can spot mainstream media bias not just in how they report, but in what they report. That's especially so when they choose to hype and inflate the importance of one story at the expense of others.
The year that just ended offered us some prime examples of manufactured dramas and petty scandals blown into big stories because they suited the media's agenda. The Culture and Media Institute rounded up some of the most overblown and over-reported incidents of 2010 - from the obsession over Christine O'Donnell's alleged involvement in 'witchcraft,' to the inexplicable mania over a Koran-burning in Florida - and suggested some more consequential stories the media might have covered instead.
'She's a witch! Burn her!'
Youthful indiscretions, adolescent irresponsibility and the just plain stupid things people did when they were young aren't often considered worth talking about - unless the person in question is a conservative seeking political office.
One of the most talked-about moments during the midterm elections came when a decade-old video surfaced of Delaware GOP senate candidate Christine O'Donnell claiming that she once 'dabbled in witchcraft.' An ensuing O'Donnell campaign commercial in which she denied her witch-ties instantly turned her into a national media obsession.
'Witchcraft comments from past haunt Christine O'Donnell' said Yahoo News, Sept. 20. 'Delaware Republican Senate candidate, Christine O'Donnell, had some explaining to do this weekend about her experience with witchcraft, prompted by this clip from a 1999 episode of ABC's 'Politically Incorrect,' which was shown over the weekend by comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show,' reported ABC's Jake Tapper on the Sept. 20 episode of Good Morning America.
The controversy also resulted in a deluge of witch-themed puns by reporters. 'Yes, O'Donnell has evolved from her witchcraft days, but she still knows how to stir the pot,' cracked Dana Milbank on Oct. 13. 'Tea Party-backed Christine O'Donnell has not cast a spell on Delaware voters, new poll reveals,' announced a New York Daily News headline on Sept. 23.
ABC News reported on the incident 18 times from Sept. 19 to Nov. 2, and NBC reported on it 13 times during the same period. A Nexis search of the terms 'Christine O'Donnell' and 'witch' netted a total of 1,679 news articles.
But while the media focused on O'Donnell's statements, reporters practically ignored the record-breaking number of women running for congress in 2010, which was due to a massive increase in the number of female conservative political hopefuls.
In a front page article, USA Today warned that 'In Congress, a step back for women is looming,' on Oct. 4. 'Blanche Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1992, a time when women gained so much ground in the House and Senate that it was dubbed the 'Year of the Women,'' reported the paper. 'Now, the Arkansas senator, who faces Republican John Boozman in November, is fighting for her political life in what could wind up being called the Year of the Setback.'
Apparently, a candidate is only female if she's a liberal.
Koran Never Burned, But Media Fanned Flames Anyway
Over the summer, a pastor at a tiny church in Florida set off a media frenzy when he announced that his congregation would burn a pile of Korans in protest of the religion of Islam. According to news reports, Terry Jones's threat wasn't just a silly political stunt or the weird act of an eccentric - it was a dire risk to our national security. 'Koran Burning Angers World; A Matter of National Security?' read a CNN headline on Sept. 9, 2010. 'Burning Koran will cost lives, US church is warned' wrote the Daily Telegraph on Sept. 8.
The fiasco turned Jones into an international villain, sparking condemnation from both President Obama and the Pope. 'In wired world, Quran threat sparks instant crisis Fla. preacher angers president, the pope and millions more,' reported the New Jersey Star-Ledger on Sept. 10, 2010.
From September 5, 2010 to Oct. 23, 2010, ABC reported on Jones 32 times, while CBS and NBC reported on him 19 times.
The story was so widely covered that journalist eventually appeared to be running out of angles: 'Pastor Terry Jones's Koran-burning threat started with a tweet,' blared a Washington Post headline on a 1,290 word-article that inexplicably took two Washington-based reporters, as well as correspondents in Islamabad, Gainesville, Kabul and Fallujah to write.
Yet for all the attention they gave Jones' threat and the dire warnings of violence in the Islamic world if he carried it out, most media outlets ignored the violence that did occur at the mere suggestion he would burn it. On Sept. 10, a man was killed in Afghanistan when a crowd of protestors attacked a NATO base. That the violence occurred not with the provocation of a burned book but with the mere possibility of provocation didn't fit the media's narrative. To them, Jones was a symbol of America's irrational, anti-Islamic hatred, which had (again) surfaced in the controversy over the 'Ground Zero Mosque.' They weren't interested in highlighting the real irrational hatred among Muslims.
And they might have spnet more time on the problem of home-grown terrorism and online radicalization.
For instance, Anwar Al-Awlaki, is an American-born Islamic cleric once lavishly praised as a 'bridge-builder' and 'moderate' by media outlets like the Washington Post and NPR. Meanwhile, the Falls Church, VA., mosque he ran was a magnet for jihadists, including some of the 9-11 hijackers and the Ft. Hood shooter. He is now the leader of Al Queda in Yemen, is the subject of a 'kill-on-sight' order from the President of the United States, and has influenced many young terrorists through his YouTube videos. Yet during the Terry Jones affair, Al-Awlaki only warranted seven stories by all of the networks combined.
Furthermore, the second issue of Inspire magazine, a glossy put out by Al Qaeda and used to recruit Western jihadists, was released in mid-October, but received zero coverage from the network news stations.
Both Al-Awlaki and the Al Qaeda magazine have been tied to the radicalization of multiple terror suspects arrested in Britain last week.
Tempest in a Coffee Pot
As the Tea Parties exploded in 2010 in reaction to the congress and administration's liberal policies, the media struggled to come to terms with a populist conservative political uprising.
When they couldn't ignore them, marginalize them or dismiss them as 'Astroturf,' the media desperately grasped at a left-wing alternative - the 'Coffee Party.'
Last March, the Washington Post published a front-page story on the 'Coffee Party,' a new movement which it described as a 'progressive alternative to the Tea Party.' The article portrayed the Coffee Party as a more 'civil' substitute ('The Coffee Party believes the middle is consensus. The Tea Party believes the middle is the Constitution,' explained the Post), and noted that both movements 'view themselves as silent majorities who have found their voice, as sleeping giants who are now awake, caffeinated on activism, ready to persuade or react to the other side, if there are sides at all.'
The Post's justification for giving the Coffee Party such massive coverage? 'Within the past 10 days, its Facebook fans rose from 3,500 to more than 9,200.' Impressive. On the other hand, In April, 18 percent of Americans called themselves supporters of the Tea Party, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll. That translates to somewhere upwards of 60 million - so perhaps the Post jumped the gun a bit by equating these two 'sleeping giants.' (The Post would be super-excited today, since at this writing the Coffee Party only needs 162,961 more Facebook fans to reach half a million!)
'Fed up with government gridlock, but put off by the flavor of the Tea Party, people in cities across the country are offering an alternative: the Coffee Party,' the Times reported on Mar. 2. 'Growing through a Facebook page, the party pledges to 'support leaders who work toward positive solutions, and hold accountable those who obstruct them.''
Of course, while the media obsessed over the 'civility' of the Coffee Party, it ignored the violence, threats and harassment aimed at the Tea Party. Last March, supporters of Sen. Harry Reid egged Tea Party buses in Nevada, an incident that was ignored by both the Post and the Times. Also overlooked were police officers beating back peaceful Tea Party demonstrators at an Obama event in April, and an aide to Claire McCaskill referring to Tea Partiers as 'brown shirts.'
International, Glamorous and Anti-American - What's Not to Like?
Mysterious jet-setting foreigners doing important work for world peace. Brooding crusaders taking on entrenched corruption. Glamorous rebels in the digital age.
They're the stuff of day dreams for mooning high school girls - and grizzled liberal journalists.
After WikiLeak's creator Julian Assange began publishing hordes of classified government documents online, the media coverage quickly deteriorated from a focus on the national security consequences of the data dump to stories over Assange's 'coolness' and 'intriguing' characteristics.
'Under the studio lights, he can seem-with his spectral white hair, pallid skin, cool eyes, and expansive forehead-like a rail-thin being who has rocketed to Earth to deliver humanity some hidden truth. This impression is magnified by his rigid demeanor and his baritone voice, which he deploys slowly, at low volume,' wrote Mark Hosenball at Reuters.
At the Telegraph, William Langley described Assange as 'a vagabond warrior wreathed in deadly cool. Give him a sombrero and replace his BlackBerry with a smoking carbine, and it isn't hard to imagine him holed up in the hills with the compañeros, waiting for the corrupt citadels of concealment to fall. To those who don't [like him], he's a slippery, self-aggrandising charlatan, running what amounts to a criminal enterprise.'
Assange was runner-up for Time magazine's 'Person of the Year,' and CNN anointed him with the title of 'Most Intriguing Person of the Year.'
Some reporters slammed Time's decision to choose Mark Zuckerburg as Person of the Year instead of Assange. 'Over the long haul, Facebook will probably have a greater impact on the lives of more people than Wikileaks. But for his ability to reawaken us to the horrors of war, to rattle those long entrenched in the seats of power and to truly test the limits of free speech and freedom of information, Julian Assange deserved this year's award,' complained the New York Observer.
But, as Rajiv Srinivasan pointed out at the New York Times, there was one individual who should have been in the running for Person of the Year who was completely ignored by the media - Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, the first living Congressional Medal of Honor recipient in the War on Terror.
'I am not upset that Staff Sgt. Giunta wasn't selected for the award. I don't shame the periodical for not putting him on the short list,' wrote Srinivasan. 'What makes me cringe is the fact that such heroic acts as Giunta's in defense of our most beloved nation are still not 'influential' enough - not valued enough - to move and inspire us as a country: a country for which so many of us cry fierce patriotism, yet feel so little of its burdens.'
And Giunta's lack of influence is apparent from the paltry network news coverage he received. He was discussed just 19 times in total on ABC, CBS and NBC combined over the past year, while Assange was discussed 207 times.
Since the end of the Cold War, journalists just haven't found revelations about foreign spies trying to infiltrate our government as sexy as they used to be. Except when the spies themselves are sexy.
When Russian spies were discovered to be residing in the D.C.-metro area in 2010, the revelation caused a media firestorm. But the excitement didn't stem from concern over government security breaches - in fact, it turned out the Russian agents were pretty amateurish when it came to espionage. The real focus of the news coverage was on the raven-haired Anna Chapman, a 28-year-old alleged spy who had numerous sultry photos of herself floating around the internet.
The obsession with Chapman was so tremendous that ABC, NBC and CBS has reported on her a total of 80 times combined since the spy scandal broke in late June. Some examples of the important stories that warranted coverage were 'Love and Espionage - Ex-Husband of Russian Spy Speaks Out,' which appeared on ABC's Good Morning America on July 3, and 'Anna Chapman in risqué Russian Photo Shoot,' which aired on the NBC Today Show on Aug. 27.
Even the print media couldn't get enough of the attractive foreign agent. 'Every Cold War-style spy scandal needs a Natasha, and Anna Chapman, who appeared in court Monday in designer jeans and a white T-shirt, has emerged as the tale's sexy antagonist,' reported the Chicago Tribune on July 4.
'Anna Chapman could have warmed up even the most frigid Cold War night,' read a Washington Post headline on July 1.
Maybe the focus on the photogenic Russian 'Bond Girl' is understandable. What isn't is the media's neglect of another Russian story: the increasingly irrational and belligerent actions of the Russian government, including Putin's attempts to turn the country into a security state.
The recent Kremlin-backed show-trial of Mikhail Khordorkovsky, Putin's political opponent who was sentenced to six years in prison on trumped-up charges generated almost no interest from the network news stations. It was covered just one time, on the Dec. 30 episode of NBC Nightly News, and the host Andrea Mitchell used part of the segment to bring up - who else? - the sexy Russian spy.
'In fact, some suggest Russia delayed [Khordorkovsky's] sentence until its people were distracted by the approaching New Year's holiday,' reported Mitchell. 'And tonight, in yet another distraction, Russia's leading TV channel aired the first interview with Russian spy Anna Chapman, headlining it 'New Year's with the girl of the year.''