Maine News Outlets Fend Off Ideological Labels
Recently, the conservative As Maine Goes Web site raised an interesting issue concerning media bias. Several posters claimed Maine news organizations routinely label certain commentators and politicians as conservative, while rarely applying the liberal tag to those on the other end of the ideological spectrum.
They charged that the former was nearly always referred to as a right-wing organization, while the latter was rarely identified as left-wing.
While broad labels can be misleading, there’s little doubt the two think tanks in question generally fit those ideological profiles. MHPC routinely opposes tax hikes, bond issues, and increased state spending. MCEP usually favors all three.
But are the media ignoring these distinctions in the case of the MCEP, while highlighting them when covering the MHPC?
A Google search of stories and editorials involving the two groups came up with eleven mentions of the Heritage Policy Center on radio, television, and in print between May 31 and June 14. In seven of them, the group was referred to as “conservative,” while in four its political leanings weren’t mentioned.
The Center for Economic Policy got less coverage, but about the same split on its ideology. Between May 18 and June 14, MCEP turned up in four stories, three of which called it “liberal” or “progressive,” while one said nothing of its inclinations.
Looking further back (courtesy of my own clip files), there’s little sign of bias. In March, when the MCEP released a report titled “The State of Working Maine,” the Kennebec Journal didn’t use the liberal label. But the story did contain a quote from the MHPC disagreeing with the study’s conclusions, and there was no mention of it being conservative, either.
The closest I could come to skewed coverage was on the Lewiston Sun Journal’s opinion pages. In February, the paper ran an op-ed by MHPC chief economist J. Scott Moody. In the tag line, it referred to the group as a “free market” think tank. Although the Sun Journal has run several advocacy pieces by MCEP staffers, it hasn’t offered any characterization of that organization’s philosophy.
Of more concern than the labeling of think tanks might be the lack of political identification of experts called in to analyze campaigns, polling, and vote tallies. News outlets usually present these alleged authorities, mostly political science professors from various Maine colleges and universities, as unbiased sources. But that’s almost never the case. Most of them are dedicated partisans, and their remarks often reflect their party registrations.
For instance, in a June 12 story in the Morning Sentinel by staff writer Ethan Wilensky-Lanford on a Rasmussen Reports poll showing Republican Paul LePage with an early lead in the governor’s race, there are quotes questioning the poll’s validity from Amy Fried, a University of Maine political science professor. Fried complains that Rasmussen surveys generally tend to favor the GOP. No mention that Fried’s commentary usually sides with the Democrats. Likewise, Bowdoin College government professor and pollster Chris Potholm isn’t identified as a Republican, but is allowed to speculate that independent Eliot Cutler is in trouble in November because the core groups of voters he needs to attract are already in LePage’s pocket.
Readers, listeners, and viewers would be better served if they were warned in advance of the direction this spin is coming from.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org