Joe Scarborough and the Hostile Media Effect

I have a soft spot for Joe Scarborough. Back when I was more of a partisan warrior I used to go on a lot of conservative radio and television shows, including "Scarborough Country," and he was without question the most fair-minded of the hosts I dealt with. There were even a couple of times when he admitted he had been wrong about something, which is pretty rare. But I'm going to have to object to some of his recent remarks, in particular because they offer a vivid demonstration of what communication scholars call the Hostile Media Effect.

Here's the quick version of what happened: The New York Times published a story in their Home section about Mitt Romney's house in La Jolla (the one with the car elevator) and how the neighbors are reacting to having the Romneys in the neighborhood. There are some not-particularly-friendly comments from some of Mitt's Democratic neighbors, and some details that are complimentary (Mitt was recently seen touching up the paint on the fence, just like a reg'lar fella), but overall it's not particularly scandalous or fascinating. Then this morning on "Morning Joe," Scarborough ripped into the Times for the story, accusing them of not doing similar stories about John Kerry's wealth in 2004. He even said, "The Times acts as if we don't have something called the Internet or Lexis-Nexis and we can't search this stuff" and demonstrate that the coverage is unequal. But apparently he didn't actually use the Internet or Lexis-Nexis, because the Times responded by sending Scarborough a number of stories they did in 2004 about John Kerry's wealth. Then Scarborough doubled down in an interview with Politico:

Scarborough did acknowledge that his interpretation of the Times coverage may have more to do with general impressions than an actual side-by-side comparison of reporting throughout the years, but stressed that general impressions matter to the majority of the voting population.

"It's about how they frame these stories, which is the image that last with people," he said. "They may have a database showing how many articles they did on each candidate. I have to talk extmeraneously for three hours a day. But the general impressions of people like myself and [MSNBC contributor] Mark Halperin, that does count in the prespective that active news consumers have."

Scarborough also stressed his appreciation for the Times, and reiterated that he did not take issue with the reporters or their reporting, but with the editors decision to give stories about Romney's wealth, including a front-page story about Ann Romney's horse-riding, so much prominence.

"I'm a guy who frames my entire show around the New York Times, and if you compare praise to criticism, it's probably 30 to 1," he said.

So he admits that his central critique of the Times—that they have reported on Mitt Romney's wealth, but didn't report on John Kerry's wealth—is wrong. But the "general impression" that he and Mark Halperin have is that the coverage is unfair. Then he makes another specific empirical claim, that "if you compare praise to criticism" of Romney in the the Times, "it's probably 30 to 1." Really? That's a pretty bold claim, especially given the fact that the overwhelming majority of the coverage of Mitt Romney in the Times is campaign coverage that doesn't contain much in the way of praise or criticism from the reporter. For every long human-interest-angle story like this one, there are probably—I'm just picking out a number here—30 stories with headlines like "Romney Says a Deceptive Obama Has Had His Chance" or "Romney Raises More Than Obama in May" or "Romney and Obama to Appear on Country Music Awards Show." In other words, most of the coverage Romney gets in the Times, along with everywhere else, is this-is-what-happened-on-the-campaign-trail-today coverage.

I'm not saying that that type of coverage can't contain subtle or even not-so-subtle biases, because it can. But if Joe is going to allege that all that coverage is not just biased against Romney but spectacularly biased against Romney, which is what he's alleging, then he has to give some evidence for his allegation. He doesn't have that evidence, but he does have his impression. And I don't doubt that that is indeed his impression. But it's not an impression based on an objective reading of the coverage. It's an impression that I'm pretty sure is colored by his own preconceptions.

This is the Hostile Media Effect, in which people of differing political perspectives look at the same news report and agree that it's biased against their side. In the seminal study on the topic, two groups of subjects read an article about the Lebanese war; the pro-Palestinian subjects found the article to be terribly biased in Israel's favor, while the pro-Israel subjects found the article to be terribly biased in the Palestinians' favor. This effect has been duplicated in many subsequent studies on a range of issues.

And it's understandable: when we're reading news, the things that validate our view of things strike us as truthful and therefore barely worthy of notice, while the things that don't validate our view of things jump out as problematic and get us riled up. Why is it that Scarborough didn't remember that the Times did stories about John Kerry's wealth in 2004? Yes, it was eight years ago, but it's probably also because at the time, those stories didn't strike him as noteworthy. John Kerry was a rich guy, so what's wrong with talking about how much money he has? Those stories didn't get Scarborough angry, and he forgot about them. But this story got him angry, because he thinks writing stories about Mitt Romney's lifestyle demonstrates bias on the part of the news outlet that does them.

You might be able to make a persuasive, objective case that The New York Times' coverage of the campaign has been biased against Mitt Romney, a case that doesn't rely on impressions but sticks to facts. But no one has made that case yet.

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