Monday, December 24, 2012

Liberal Media Bias - A Blog Post About Losing a Bet With My Wife

This post comes from a challenge given to me by my wife.  We had a discussion about the reputations of certain websites for being too partisan to be taken as serious news sources (Huffington Post), and during the course of our discussion I said that NPR and the New York Times exhibited a sort of liberal bias through the selection and emphasis of stories that would reaffirm a liberal worldview.  She called me on it though, and so now I have to see if what I said was actually true (this look-before-you-leap assertion philosophy of mine is also a primary reason why she usually wins all our arguments).

I took snapshots of news websites' front pages at the same time on Thursday afternoon to see which stories were being emphasized by particular news organizations and which stories were being ignored.  Thursday night was the night of John Boehner's big fail of an attempt to pass a partisan symbolic "fiscal cliff" solution that involved raising taxes on millionaires, the so-called "Plan B".  It was also 6 days after the tragic Newtown elementary school shooting, so lots of stories relate to this.  For scoring purposes, any Newtown policy story critical of guns will be scored as D +1, while any policy story that talks about any other theory will be scored as R +1.

I have decided to analyze the headline (and only the headline) of everything I can see in these snapshots, which only include the top part of the front page of these websites.  This includes both news articles and opinion pieces.  I summed up all the Republican sounding headlines and all the Democrat sounding headlines and came up with a total score of partisanship.  I start with a few right-wing websites just to show what bias really looks like.

Daily Caller

Daily Caller is basically your number one source for trolling.  They show a story right there at the top of the page; the headline is "Teachers Union chief: Teach for America helps kill children in classroom".  It is also repeated in the "Popular Articles" column on the right. As are the words "ANN COULTER", so, you know.

Plan B stories: Obama belittles a GOP plan (Neil Munro) (+1 R); Congressional hypocrisy (Alex Pappas) (a fair both-sides-are-hypocrites headline and sub-headline) (neutral); a Boehner talking point (Nicholas Ballasy) (+1 R). None of these headlines scream "tax hike!"

Newtown/gun stories: Ann Coulter (+1 R), teachers unions kill kids (+1 R), "My AR 15 Is Not An Assault Rifle" (+1 R), "Guns for dummies" (+1 R), Morning Joe says GOP needs to not block gun reform (neutral).  The NRA is not mentioned.

Other: Miss Venezuela (neutral), The 10 Hottest moments from the Miss Universe pageant (not news), a reporter gets paid to check Craigslist for end-of-the-world sex (neutral).

Total: +6 R


Newsmax, which markets to conservative voices, definitely foretold of Boehner's eventual failure due to conservative voices.  They repeatedly emphasize the "tax hike" part of Plan B, which echos a conservative worldview on taxes.

Plan B/fiscal cliff stories: GOP about to vote on "Tax Hikes" (though it's anti-Boehner, it presents Plan B as only a tax hike, so +1 R): AP says the tax averages $100,000 (but doesn't give percentage of income) (+1 R), Rick Scott presented in a good light (+1 R), Boehner says Obama will eat the blame (+1 R), Wall Street Journal hates the Boehner deal (as if we should care what the Wall Street Journal thinks) (+1 R), Boehner "pushes" Plan B "tax hike" (+1 R).

Newtown stories: Hmm, where are the Newtown/gun control stories? Oh, I see one, way down there, just above Newt Gingrich's head! Chris Christie says we should talk about guns (D +1). On the opinion side, just one story about guns from Michael Reagan's perspective (R +1).  The NRA is mentioned nowhere.

Other: Main story #3 is Hillary Clinton being at the "Center of Benghazi Debate", though she wasn't at the hearing, an actual news event (this framing suggests R +1), and a neutral sounding Susan Rice article.  Then there's Gingrich evolving on "marriage equality" (D +1, also the fact that the Newsmax headline says "marriage equality" and not "gay marriage" is a great sign for the movement). Hunger and homelessness are featured in Newsmax only to make Obama look bad (R +1).  On the opinion side, neutral yuletide statements, farewell to Clinton, something something energy policy, and one thing about Chuck Hagel's possible nomination to defense secretary. From the headlines these seem neutral, though I doubt the pieces actually are neutral. 

Total: R +7

Fox News


Fox News was harping on this one story that I hadn't heard anything about apparently on their cable news network as on their website. It involves both a government's legal action against a gun owner and a vehicle in which Mexicans are viewed negatively, so it is a natural fit as a Republican story.  It gets five clickable links, all five are R +1. 

Plan B/fiscal cliff stories: Nothing stands out. In the "Latest News" section of the front page, lawmakers are on a "collision course" and Grover Norquist's absolution is mentioned, but nothing notes the plan as a "tax hike" like on Newsmax.  The fact that Plan B news got buried probably means something, but it's not on an obvious partisan axis.

Newtown/gun stories: Story #2 is Newtown, but the stories focus on, in order, mentally ill (rather than guns (R +1), a teacher's memorial (neutral), mental health (rather than guns (R +1)), and the overreaction of police to a piece of wood with "rifle" written on it (R +1).  The NRA is mentioned nowhere.

Other: The weird anti-Mexico story aside, there aren't many other partisan stories, except for the video link that begins "Top government regulations Santa will ..." (R +1)

Total: R +9

Washington Times

Plan B/fiscal cliff stories: The Washington Times was a little bit more trusting of Eric Cantor's statement that the GOP had the votes for Plan B, and so their coverage assumes that the story will be that it passed.  Thus the Cantor talking point (R +1), Jay Carney saying that it's an exercise in futility (neutral), and the fact that their main story characterizes rules for debate as "House Republicans won an early test" (R +1).  The demonic picture of Obama on a fiscal cliff story is hilarious (R +1), and the fact that they are presenting the fiscal cliff through the eyes of "franchise businesses" is a Republican way of looking at things (R +1).      

Newtown/gun stories: Literally none.  This was the NRA's tactic at the time as well.

Other: Not one, not two, but three obits for Robert Bork, two of which sound glowing ("an original" and the one where Scalia remembers Bork) (R +2).  I would say nothing else is partisan, except for maybe the "Christmas skirmishes as old as Puritans", which sounds a little (D +1) if it is debunking the "war on Christmas".

Total: R +5

Overall, conservative news sites took different tacks regarding Plan B: Washington Times and Daily Caller went with an establishment Republican viewpoint, Newsmax went with a conservative tea party viewpoint, and Fox News either didn't know what to do or they saw a defeat and humiliation likely to come for Boehner, so they just buried all fiscal cliff/Plan B stuff.  Most of the conservative news sites ignored guns as part of the Newtown coverage, with the notable exception of the troll-bait articles praising guns by the Daily Caller.

So if conservative sites ignored guns, you can bet Huffington Post took the opposite tack.

Huffington Post


Plan B/fiscal cliff stories:  Plan B gets one sad looking Boehner picture along with the line "appears likely to pass the house", which in retrospect, ha.  I don't understand the gist of that Boehner quote, and since I'm only judging by headlines and what I can see on the front page, I can't assess the partisan slant in showing it.  Overall it seems HuffPo was expecting Plan B to pass too, and they were getting right to the business of ignoring it because it is irrelevant (and because this is what Democrats would have wanted to do).  Robert Reich's blog post (D +1) and story #5 (D +1) appear to attack centrist Democrats from the left, as Newsmax was attacking from the right about "tax hikes!" in Plan B. 

Newtown/gun stories: Unlike the conservative media, HuffPo hits Newtown and guns hard.  Story #1 (D +1) and #4 are about the NRA and victim funerals respectively.  The bottom one includes words about guns, so it is a D +1.  There are also two blog posts about gun control (D +2).

Other: Cory Booker runs for a senate seat two (two!) years from now (neutral). There are some other words under the Cory Booker picture that I guess I have to count as separate links: "Boehner on the Brink" (neutral?), "Stewart Blame" (neutral?), "Coward GOPer" (D +1), "Palin mocks O" (Oprah? Anyways, nobody but partisans talks about Sarah Palin anymore (D +1)), "Coulter Slam" (D +1), "'Bigot' Scalia" (D +1).

Total: D +10

New York Times

Plan B/fiscal cliff news: The Jonathan Weisman-story headline writer provides a very accurate summary of what was going on with Plan B at the time, though one could make the argument that describing it as "a plan to cancel tax increases for all but the wealthiest" is a Democratic way of saying "raising taxes on the wealthiest"  There is nothing else on Plan B.

Newtown/gun news: the op-ed columnists are talking guns: The NRA's Blockade (D +1), On Guns, America Stands Out (D +1), and Looking for Lessons in Newtown (neutral).

Other: NY Times has a wide ranging front page of their website, which is neat, including the first bit of world news seen on front pages so far (Benghazi hearing doesn't count).  Very neutral about the Benghazi hearing.  There doesn't appear to be anything partisan about the non-Opinion Page stuff.  This is what a professional non-partisan news site should look like, I must admit.

Total: D +2


Plan B/fiscal cliff pieces: Plan B barely gets a mention, making it only to the "More News" section, where we get an extension of a dumb metaphor ("a push over fiscal cliff") that I don't even understand. 

Newtown/gun pieces: Story #1 is about an opinion poll on gun control (not mental health or 12-year-old husky boys, D +1).  Other stories on the site center around Newtown-inspired acts of kindness.

Other: The phrase "Big Food" is definitely D +1.  This is a much more diverse bunch of stories than one would find on other news websites, including NYT.  The malaria-fighting "French aperitif" story, the Mount Everest thing, the Mayan apocalypse thing, the Black Arts thing, the photo blog, the existence of something called a "cosmos and culture blog".  Though no other piece is overtly partisan, I would suggest that a panoply of ideas is associated with liberal values.

Total: D+2

Like the NY Times page, NPR seems to be mostly non partisan (except for "Big Food And The Big, Silent Salt Experiment" - making it sound like a big nefarious conspiracy from agribusiness).

So, once again, I'm forced to concede that my wife was right and I was wrong.  NPR and NY Times don't seem at first blush to be partisan towards Democrats, only that they lack a Republican bias. 

Monday, December 03, 2012

Dark Smudge All That Remains of Sandy Island

I was intrigued by the saga of Sandy Island, an island that never did exist in the south Pacific between Australia and New Caledonia. To summarize this article from the Telegraph (U.K.), some scientists took a ship to this island and discovered when they got there that it wasn't there.  But the island appears on Google Maps.  Or it did until it was apparently erased, according to the article.  Curiousity sent me looking for the island on Google Maps and found that it hadn't yet been entirely erased.

From a zoomed out level, you can still see it pretty clearly, though it is unlabeled so you have to know what you're looking for.

But as you zoom in on it, the island mysteriously disappears.

But switching to satellite view reveals something interesting.

 This inky black smudge is all that remains of Google's satellite data around the former Sandy Island. It resembles something that was hastily erased in Microsoft Paint or something.

The eye of Sauron pierces all shadows!