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Charges of media bias have merit

In the aftermath of last week’s presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, it appeared that the obvious loser – at least according to some – was moderator Lester Holt.

The mild-mannered NBC news anchor’s performance drew criticism from the left, whose partisans felt that he didn’t do enough to rein Trump in as the Republican nominee consistently interrupted Clinton. Holt also drew scorn from some on the right, who pointed out that the moderator repeatedly fact-checked and interrupted Trump, but rarely did the same with Clinton, the Democratic nominee.

Moderating a presidential debate is one of the toughest gigs in politics, and I thought Holt did a decent job overall. He seemed to be on the verge of losing control on a few occasions, but he basically let the candidates do their thing without too much interference, which I thought allowed Americans to judge the candidates on how they carry themselves in a high-pressure situation.

But independent analysis does suggest that the conservative critics of Holt were onto something.

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Howard Kurtz, a former Washington Post media reporter who now hosts “Media Buzz” on FOX News, and a media reporter for Mediaite – a popular news aggregation website owned by former MSNBC host Dan Abrams – both found that Holt requested more fact-checking and follow-up of Trump than he did of Clinton.

“Holt interrupted Trump 41 times and only 7 times for Clinton,” Kurtz reported on a FOX News host’s radio show the day after the debate. “On the question of ‘fact checking’ questions, there was this great debate in the media should the moderator do that, (Holt) did that 5 times to Donald Trump, for Hillary Clinton it was zero.”

Mediaite writer Alex Griswold – while stressing that he does not think Trump should be president – also pointed out that Holt asked five questions probing the candidates on their own policy specifics or controversies, and four of those went to Trump.

Holt peppered Trump about his long-standing claim (which the candidate finally disavowed this month) that President Barack Obama is not a native-born U.S. citizen. Holt also questioned Trump on his position on the Iraq war, his taxes and his criticism of Clinton’s appearance.

Holt asked Clinton a question about her position on policing and racial bias. Holt didn’t bother to grill Clinton about the Clinton Foundation’s foreign donor controversies, nothing about her use of private email servers while secretary of state, no direct questions about her flip-flopping on trade policy or her characterization that half of Trump’s supporters fall into a “basket of deplorables” who are racist, etc.

“Even if we give Holt a point for asking Clinton a single difficult question, that fact remains that he asked Trump four times as many negative questions,” Griswold wrote. “I don’t care how much you dislike Trump, that shouldn’t be happening in a supposedly balanced debate. I can only imagine how the Clinton team would be reacting if those numbers were reversed.”

The debate over the debate and Holt’s performance, specifically, gives rise to the long-standing question of media bias. On Friday, the respected Pew Research Center released a poll of conservative and liberal views of the media. Conservative Republicans were more likely to say that reporting biased news is the most negative thing the media do, according to a survey conducted Jan. 12-Feb. 8, 2016, in association with the John S. and James L. Knight foundation.

“This is consistent with previous research that shows that conservative Republicans, more than any other group, believe that the news media tend to favor one side when they cover political and social issues,” the Pew report stated.

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Liberal Democrats surveyed by Pew said the media’s greatest sin is poor news judgment, or selecting the wrong stories to focus on.

“Liberal Democrats are also more likely to focus on instances when they believe the news media lie, mislead or sensationalize in its reports,” the report said.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported on Sept. 20 about the work of a team of data journalists that call themselves “The Data Face.” The group did an exhaustive analysis of presidential race coverage looking for evidence of bias. The journalists/researchers compiled a total of 21,981 mainstream media articles written about the election dating back to July 1, 2015 and analyzed them using computer algorithms.

“We found that all of the media outlets that we considered “liberal” treated Clinton more favorably,” the Post quoted one of the team’s members as saying. “The more conservative outlets seemed more on the fence about Trump. In our sample of articles, only the coverage of Fox News was more positive toward Trump than Clinton, at least to a statistically significant degree. Coverage at Weekly Standard, Wall Street Journal and Chicago Tribune didn’t clearly favor one candidate or the other.”

E-mail: mcoleman@abqjournal.com.

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