Reading “Sunday Morning”

I have been intrigued by the discussion of the Media Matters (MM) paper, “If It’s Sunday, It’s Conservative,” which detects a consistent conservative slant in the Sunday morning gabfests, and while I don’t have time to write about it in detail (still hoping to do that), there are one or two points I’d like to address. To a great extent, MM’s research and the responses to it depend on definitional claims regarding the distinctions between “conservative” and “liberal” guests.

One example: Eric Alterman points to Vaughn Ververs’ critique of Media Matters’ methodology for tracking “conservative” and “liberal” guests. MM explains that they “classified each guest based on her/his general partisan or ideological orientation.” Although such classifications are not always clear, this method seems relatively reasonable, and given that conservatives appear on these shows with far greater frequency than liberals, it’s not unreasonable to argue that political discourse, as much as these shows contribute to it, has been shifted to the right.

Ververs seeks to complicate MM’s definition by arguing that their approach fails to acknowledge one important definitional factor, what he calls “the intra-party dynamic.” He notes that MM classifies Zell Miller as “conservative” for his loudly and frequently professed support of George W. Bush but then compares Miller to Sens John “Maverick” McCain and Chuck Hagel, who have been outspoken critics of the President. Several things get lost in this comparison: first, McCain has never actively campaigned against a Bush presidency to the degree that Miller campaigned against a Kerry presidency. In fact, it might be argued that both McCain and Hagel are criticizing the Bush administration from what they regard as a more principled conservative position. So even if McCain criticizes Bush, he’s not doing so from a liberal or progressive position.

The “pundit” argument is a little more complicated, and I think Ververs may be right to demand some clarification of the terms used to classify one pundit as “conservative” and another as “moderate.” While I’d agree with the MM classifications of David Brooks as conservative (yes, I know he supports gay marriage, but he’s reliably conservative on most other issues) and Broder as moderate (see Alterman’s What Liberal Media? on Broder), those definitions should be as clear as possible.

Note: Media Matters’ Paul Waldman has a response to Ververs that pretty much reinforces my point, and they make a strong case for explaining the pundit gap.

3 Comments »

  1. Jonathan Said,

    February 21, 2006 @ 4:42 pm

    McCain did run against Bush, however. May have beaten him too, were it not for that unpleasantness in South Carolina. David Foster Wallace’s essay about this is worth reading.

  2. Charlie Said,

    February 21, 2006 @ 5:06 pm

    You make some very good points with regard to the study.

  3. Chuck Said,

    February 21, 2006 @ 5:19 pm

    Jonathan, I’ll have to look for Wallace’s essay. It’s certainly the case that McCain ran against Bush and that he has continued to distance himself from Bush on occasion. And I’d agree that he might have won the nomination if it weren’t for “that unpleasantness in South Carolina.” He’s still reliably conservative, and I think it’s important to emphasize that point, at least to counter arguments such as Ververs’.

    But in the grand scheme of things, I’ll admit the MM methodology of defining guests solely by party affiliation isn’t perfect. Of course I would probably frame these debates about the political tendencies of the media in somewhat different terms.

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