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Results-Oriented Journalism
Distinguished or narrow-minded?

Op-ed by Tim Graham, former director of media analysis, MRC,
as printed in the December 2, 2000 edition of National Review Online

By Tim Graham

One of the subtlest, but most overused manipulative powers of our old familiar liberal media elite is the power of the label. A close reading of the daily output on political affairs would lead you to believe that the epic political battles of our time are fought between the ultraconservatives and the nonpartisans. 

Generally, studies of labeling in national newspaper and newsmagazine articles find that conservative groups are labeled as such (or with more extreme variants) in 40 to 60 percent of news stories, while liberal groups are labeled as liberal in less than two percent of news stories. This unfortunate slant no doubt comes from liberal reporters' perceptions of the political middle, but also their perceptions of who in politics are the good guys. Less educated media consumers need to be warned about the harshness of the "hard right," but ought to feel comfortable with their liberal friends who work for "women's groups," "civil-rights groups," and "advocates for the poor." 

There are corollaries to this labeling imbalance, perhaps most uniquely in reporting on the judiciary. When the Florida supreme court was in the midst of considering Al Gore's demand for more recounts, ABC's Peter Jennings declared, "There are seven justices. Six were appointed by Democratic governors. Our legal analyst in Florida tells us that only one of the judges is considered to be a liberal. The rest are regarded as moderate to conservative." That's not exactly the impression their decision which preferred arbitrary judicial sausage-making to "hypertechnical reliance upon statutory provision." 

In reporting on Friday's Supreme Court arguments, readers can find two methods of court labeling. Either the Court is a distinguished body of balancing ideological views, or it's a frightening contrast of narrow-minded ultraconservatives and centrist individualists. For the objective way to do this, a reader could consult U.S. News & World Report this week, where Ted Gest's descriptive capsules reasonably balanced a conservative bloc on the court with a liberal bloc. But Gest also correctly noted that the conservative "advocates limiting federal powers" generally, while the liberals disappoint conservatives "by consistently backing federal powers." Gest could inspire quibbles for protesting that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is "not an automatic liberal vote" (which conservative is "automatic" in a crude political sense?), and that Stephen Breyer "stakes out centrist positions on many issues" (really?), but overall, he's fair and adequately precise. 

For a more traditional, more prejudiced method of court labeling see Time.com, where reporter Jessica Reaves found a rigid, constipated conservative bloc, which doesn't much like individual rights: 

  • "Rehnquist is a strict constructionist (he interprets the Constitution in very narrow terms) who leans conservative."

  • "Scalia favors a very strict reading of the Constitution and has attempted repeatedly to strike down Roe v. Wade."

  • "Thomas has earned a reputation as a conservative, in part for his very narrow reading of individual rights under the Constitution. He opposes affirmative action and Roe v. Wade, supports limited power for the Supreme Court and opposes the view that the Constitution is designed 'to address all of the ills in our society.'"

By contrast, Reaves suggested the liberal bloc of the court cannot be dismissed as predictably liberal, but are independent, individualistic, and sensitive to the needs of real people, as opposed to "hypertechnical" legal arcana: 

  • "A true independent, Stevens can be unpredictable in his opinions, but he always considers the effects of a ruling on society. Tends to defer to Congress as a decision-making body, and downplays the authority of the courts."

  • "Souter has emerged as the Court's most influential moderate, often working with Sandra Day O'Connor to establish a centrist opinion."

  • "Ginsburg is well known for her commitment to striking down laws that treat men and women differently; Clinton called her 'the Thurgood Marshall of gender equity law.' She shares Justice Breyer's conviction that law should serve the individual."

  • "Breyer is seen as a pragmatist who often takes issue with Justices Scalia and Thomas's narrow view of constitutional rights, preferring to consider the impact of law on the lives of everyday people. Rose to prominence and gained respect of congressional Republicans after deconstructing extremely complex deregulation guidelines for the airline industry."

Granted, Reaves at least acknowledged the existence of a liberal bloc on the court, but you wouldn't seem too concerned about their judicial activism from these sentences, as opposed to those "very strict" judges that sound like they'd rule to ruin all your fun. 

Reaves is solidly in the mainstream of court reporting, which from NPR's Nina Totenberg to USA Today's Joan Biskupic to Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times, clearly favors the "people-oriented vision" of Joseph Brennan's heirs to the Borkian sourpusses of strict constructionism. But if journalists are concerned with accuracy more than partisanship, they should ask: Is it accurate to suggest that the conservatives are statists who are usually hostile to individual rights while liberals are more broadly libertarian? 

The Constitution was designed not to limit individual rights, but to protect them against encroachments by the state. Justice Thomas does not have a "very narrow reading of individual rights under the Constitution." He has a very narrow reading of government's power under the Constitution, which leads to a broad reading of individual rights. Reporters won't say the court's liberal bloc has a "very expansive" view of the Constitution as a "living document" which can change based on the latest poll. But conservatives' claim to defend individual liberty is treated with skepticism. In her Scalia paragraph, Reaves puts Scalia's reverence for liberty in quotes: he "often argues that the law's primary role is to protect 'the liberties of the people' from the unchecked powers of any of the three branches." 

Liberal media bias suggests that only some liberties matter. Property rights are much less important than abortion rights, the rights of religious conservatives are much less important than the rights of gay-left activists, and the rights of crime victims mean less than the rights of criminal defendants. Liberals prefer results-oriented jurisprudence, and what the public gets from the media is results-oriented journalism--that sees the justices' love of liberty based on how favorably they rule on abortion, homosexuality, and capital punishment. 

No veteran court watcher wants to lay down the Benjamins on how the court will rule on the Florida supreme court's crackling smackdown of Katherine Harris, but one variable at the Supreme Court is an easy bet. Reporters will continue to suggest that the liberal bloc of the court is less partisan, less ideological, less activist, less statist (!), and more compassionate. 

National Review Online | Back to Op-Ed Archives



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