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The ABCs of Media Bias

From the April 4, 2005 issue: A mystery memo, biased reporting, and the usual suspects.

Apr 4, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 27 • By FRED BARNES
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SENATE MAJORITY LEADER BILL FRIST never saw it. Neither did the Senate Republican whip, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. The number three Republican in the Senate, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, didn't get a copy. Nor did the senator with the closest relationship with President Bush, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. And the senator with the familiar Republican last name, Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, didn't see it or read it. The same is true of Senator Mel Martinez, the rookie Republican from Florida.

Yet the infamous memo that argued Republicans stood to gain politically by saving the life of Terri Schiavo was characterized by ABC News as consisting of "GOP Talking Points." True, a few paragraphs were of Republican origin. They had been lifted, word for word, from a Martinez press release outlining the provisions of his legislative proposal, "The Incapacitated Person's Legal Protection Act." This was the inoffensive part of the memo. The offensive part--it didn't come from Martinez--left the strong impression that Republicans are callous and cynical in their attempt to save Schiavo's life, ill-motivated in the extreme.

Two paragraphs were the problem. One contended Republicans should save the disabled Schiavo's life because "this is a great political issue" that could lead to the defeat of Democratic senator Bill Nelson of Florida in 2006. The other said dwelling on the Schiavo issue would excite pro-lifers, a key Republican constituency.

Supposedly the memo was distributed only to Republicans on the Senate floor. Ergo, it was a Republican document. ABC correspondent Linda Douglass first reported its existence on March 18, saying the network "has obtained talking points circulated among Republican senators, explaining why they should vote to intervene in the Schiavo case." She mentioned the two offensive passages, and the memo was shown on the screen. The ABC website was explicit about the source of the memo: These were "GOP talking points on Terri Schiavo." Two days later, the Washington Post referred to it as "an unsigned one-page memo, distributed to Republican senators."

There wasn't a hint in these reports the memo could have any other source but Republicans. Yet there was no evidence it had come from Republicans. It was unsigned and had no letterhead or date. Nothing indicated it came from the Republican leadership or the House or Senate campaign committee or from the Republican National Committee or even from a stray Republican staffer. The only evidence was of a dirty trick--and there wasn't much evidence of that. Powerline, the influential blog, found a version of the memo with typos cleaned up on left-wing websites.

The only basis for blaming Republicans was the unsubstantiated allegation that the memo was spread among Republican senators. Yet no senator stepped forward and said, "Yes, I got that memo." Now consider what would have happened if a damning memo had been distributed to Democratic senators, saying the Schiavo issue could be used politically against Republicans. Would anyone in the mainstream media have jumped on it? I doubt it. Only right-wing bloggers would have.

So rather than an example of aggressive reporting, the memo story turns out to be yet another instance of crude liberal bias, in this case against both Republicans and those who fought to have Schiavo's feeding tube restored. Naturally the memo had a second life when the story was picked up by other news outlets, pundits, and columnists. How did ABC and others get wind of the memo in the first place? It came from "Democratic aides," according to the New York Times, who "said it had been distributed to Senate Republicans." Not exactly a disinterested source.

As the memo flap suggests, media bias against Schiavo's parents, who led the fight to have her feeding tube restored, and their allies was extensive. The mainstream media failed to report lapses in Terri Schiavo's medical examination, diagnosis, and treatment. One had to turn to bloggers. To find anything less than favorable about Michael Schiavo, the husband who insisted Terri's feeding tube be removed, the alternative press was the best bet. The mainstream press, meanwhile, twitted conservatives for hypocritically abandoning states' rights in the effort to save Terri. Liberals, suddenly champions of states' rights instead of federal power, got a pass.

Bias seeped into polling. An ABC News poll question said Terri Schiavo was on "life support" and has "no consciousness and her condition is irreversible." "Do you support . . . the decision to remove Terri's feeding tube?" A large majority said they did. But Schiavo was not on life support as most people understand the term, may have some consciousness, and some neurologists believe she has a chance of partial recovery. Given those facts, would you want to stay alive? ABC didn't ask.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.