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Caveat lector

GET SERIOUS! Brit Hume engaged in some ludicrous clowning. But Robert Lichter had his hand in the till:


CLOWNING, AND THE CLOWNING CLOWNS WHO PROVIDE IT: We haven’t read Robert Lichter’s new report about press coverage of the war in Iraq. But Howard Kurtz’s report on the study is fascinating, and calls for a bit of quick comment.

Lichter’s report rates the war coverage of four different network news shows. Which show was most “positive” in its treatment of the war? According to the study, CBS Evening News had the most positive coverage, with 73 percent of its “on-air comments rated positive” (Kurtz’s construction). Fox’s Special Report was next, at 60 percent positive. NBC Nightly News: 53 percent positive. ABC’s World News Tonight scored 34 percent.

Readers, you know how these things tend to go. In Kurtz’s piece, ABC seems to apologize for being most negative; CBS seems to apologize for being most positive. But let’s offer a few remarks about this type of study.

Subjectivity: At best, studies like this are extremely crude measures. What counts as a “positive” or “negative” statement? That is, of course, a subjective judgment. Kurtz quotes CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius saying that studies like this “are always highly subjective.” She is 100 percent right. That doesn’t mean that such studies are worthless—but they are very crude measures.

Appropriateness: Even if we could objectively judge the “positive” and “negative” comments, there is no objective way to determine which network had the appropriate blend. Given the circumstances that obtained, was 34 percent the appropriate dosage of “positive” commentary? Or was 73 percent a more reasonable blend? This is always a subjective news judgment. There is no way to judge that objectively.

There’s positive, and then there’s store-bought: Meanwhile, look at the different sorts of statements that all get lumped under “positive.” Here is one of the fascinating moments in Kurtz’s review:

KURTZ: Seventy percent of the evaluations of the military’s performance were positive on the four programs, with Fox leading the pack. On “Special Report,” columnist Michael Barone pronounced the war “the most amazing military success in human history.” On CBS, Dan Rather said: “Facts on the ground indicate that overall, from a military standpoint, the invasion continues to go well.”
Both those statements get listed as “positive.” But Rather’s is a measured, sensible judgment. Barone’s is a ludicrous overstatement, ripped-and-read from a White House fax. Meanwhile, throw your head back and enjoy a good laugh at a statement from Fox’s Brit Hume:
KURTZ: On Aug. 26, Hume reported that “U.S. soldiers have less of a chance of dying from all causes in Iraq than citizens have of being murdered in California, which is roughly the same geographical size.” California has 6.6 murders a day, he said; U.S. troops have been incurring about 1.7 deaths a day. The problem: California has 34 million people, but there are 145,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq. “Admittedly it was a crude comparison, but it was illustrative of something,” Hume says.
Hume’s remark fell outside the period Lichter studied, but it would have counted as “positive” too. Just how crude is this type of measure? Rather’s comment and Hume’s silly clowning would be rated exactly the same.

A note on The Founder: Finally, a note on The Founder. At one point, Kurtz explains why only four news shows were studied. “CNN and MSNBC were not included for budgetary reasons,” he says. But just a couple of paragraphs later, he dishes the skinny on Lichter:

KURTZ: “Special Report” aired the least combat footage and 47 percent fewer images of civilian casualties. Lichter recused himself from the research because he is a paid Fox commentator.
Amazing, isn’t it? Lichter—who earns his living rating the networks—is paid by one of the networks he studies! And wouldn’t you know it? MSNBC and CNN, his net’s two competitors, didn’t make it into his report!

We’ve tried to tell you, again and again: Your pampered, perfumed, overpaid pundits have long since ceased to be serious people. Brit Hume engaged in some ludicrous clowning. But Robert Lichter had his hand in the till.

FOR THE RECORD: The PBS NewsHour wasn’t studied, either. Kurtz didn’t mention this point.