MediaWatch: May 1991

Vol. Five No. 5

Still Looking for Liberal Labels

Past MediaWatch studies on think tanks, environmentalists and abortion activists proved that reporters tinker with the credibility of political groups by regularly identifying conservative groups as conservative but refusing to label liberal groups as liberal.

This time, MediaWatch selected a broad sample of smaller groups in specific issue areas, surveying every news story on 14 liberal groups and seven conservative ones from 1988, 1989, and 1990 in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Post. Analysts found 29 labels in 1182 stories on liberal groups (2.5 percent), and 65 labels in 179 stories on conservative groups (36.3 percent), a ratio of 14 to one.

Child Care. The Children's Defense Fund, the leading lobby for a national child care program and a vocal advocate for welfare spending hikes and defense spending cuts, is a media favorite. Despite an approach so ideological that it criticized liberal Reps. Tom Downey and George Miller for being insufficiently committed, it received only three liberal labels in 228 news stories (1.3 percent). Two of the labels came from the Los Angeles Times, which also used "nonpartisan" once. The Washington Post applied no labels except "bipartisan" in 106 stories.

In contrast, conservative groups were labeled in 48 of 99 stories (48 percent). Reporters tacked conservative labels on the Family Research Council, founded in 1987 by Reagan White House adviser Gary Bauer, in 14 of 39 stories (36 percent). Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum drew even more labels, in 34 of 60 articles (57 percent). One Los Angeles Times story mentioning Eagle Forum and Concerned Women for America reported: "Those two groups, while describing themselves as nonpartisan, generally are considered to be conservative activists."

Defense. In three years of news stories on eight liberal anti- defense lobbies, reporters assigned ideological labels seven times in 601 stories, barely one percent. Six of the seven were applied to two far-left disarmament lobbies. SANE/Freeze led with four labels in 56 articles (7.1 percent), and Physicians for Social Responsibility came next with two labels in 62 mentions (3.2 percent). The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), an originator of the nuclear freeze proposal and a leader in the fight against the B-1 bomber, went label-free in 167 stories.

The Defense Budget Project drew only one label in 60 stories (1.6 percent), and was never identified in a news story as part of the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Only The New York Times issued a "liberal" label, but it also used "nonpartisan" once. The Washington Post aggressively avoided an ideological label, calling the Project "bipartisan" once and "nonpartisan" three times. Typically, Post reporter Molly Moore called the Project "a nonpartisan Washington research organization that has been critical of Reagan Administration defense spending policies." If reporters refuse to call Eagle Forum nonpartisan because they're conservative, shouldn't the same apply to liberals?

The SDI critics at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) escaped unscathed by labels in 132 stories, despite being described as "critics of the [SDI] missile defense program." By not labeling scientist groups, reporters imply that the criticism is purely scientific, not political. But in three years of articles, FAS defense expert John Pike called Reagan SDI budget requests "wildly inflated and clearly dead-on-arrival," cheered that "they have finally broken the ice and said they would accept some limits on SDI testing," and declared "In an era of stable deterrence, the B-2 bombers have a mission we definitely do not want." These are not scientific judgments, but political ones. But then, Pike is not a scientist, and you don't have to be a scientist to be a FAS member.

You also don't have to be a scientist to join The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), but the newspapers didn't point that out for either group. In fact, The Washington Post called UCS a "nonprofit group of scientists working to alert society about the ill effects of technology" and burnished their environmental statements by calling them a "nonprofit group that includes many scientists involved with environmental issues." The UCS had nary an ideological label in 69 stories, even though reporters used "vociferous" twice to describe their opposition to nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

Also in the zero column: the Arms Control Association, unlabeled in 48 stories, and the Center for Defense Information, mentioned in only seven stories.

By contrast, conservative groups were labeled in 14 of 55 stories (25.5 percent). The Center for Security Policy, headed by former Reagan defense official Frank Gaffney, was tagged as conservative in 12 of 37 pieces. The New York Times carried no labels in 11 pieces, but The Washington Post assigned the conservative tag in 8 of 15 stories.

The American Security Council went one for two. High Frontier, the premier supporters of SDI, drew no labels in nine stories. The now-defunct Center fr Peace and Freedom, another pro-SDI outfit, was labeled once in seven mentions.

Central America. "Liberal" may be too charitable a description for the five groups in this category, but they were assigned labels in only 19 of 353 news stories (5.4 percent), and 17 of them were "liberal."

To reporters, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) merited only two ideological labels in 92 stories even though they support the Marxist FMLN guerrillas in El Salvador. The Los Angeles Times used "pro-left" once in 40 stories. The New York Times described CISPES as FMLN supporters on four occasions, but The Washington Post never did and never used a label, instead calling them "peace activists."

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), a group of far-left lawyers which defended CISPES in their legal action against an FBI investigation, was labeled eight times in 126 stories (6.3 percent). The Washington Post called them "liberal" once, and the Los Angeles Times once described notorious CCR attorney William Kunstler as a "radical lawyer." The New York Times carried the other six labels, all "liberal."

The Christic Institute, which charged that a "Secret Team" of Reagan Administration officials were running drugs with the Contras, was labeled "liberal" nine times in 86 articles (10.5 percent).

Drawing a zero were the Nicaragua Network and Witness for Peace (WFP), two veteran Sandinista support groups. The Los Angeles Times relayed that WFP "describes itself as a politically independent organization which opposes United States support for the war against Nicaragua while not taking sides in internal political issues."

On the conservative side, the Council for Inter-American Security (CIS) received only 13 mentions, most of them about the party they threw for the Bush Inauguration. They were labeled only twice, but the Los Angeles Times once called them "ultraconservative." To use such a label for CIS and never use "far-left" for groups like the Christic Institute is a stunning example of imbalance.

Readers don't have time to research the ideological perspective of every group they see quoted in news stories. They rely on reporters, but the news media's failure to identify liberal groups risks leaving readers uninformed about the intentions and agendas behind those commenting on policy options.