Conservation of Symmetry

It would seem that I could have a full-time blog just dissecting what stupid things western media are saying about Greater China.  Sample subject: the Hong Kong independence movement.

But it would be wrong for me to give you the impression that stupidity exists only in the west.  The west is not privileged in this sense, and there is a conservation of symmetry by having just as much stupidity on the other side.  Ordinarily, I would not waste my time telling you about stupid ideas that are being slung around.  If you insist, you can read the BBS comments at China Daily over the Zhao Yan case.  This is the reason why my blog does not accept comments.  Life is too short ...

Alas, I just could not pass on this article that appeared as an opinion column in the largest circulation newspaper in Hong Kong, Apple Daily.  The subject is the left-wing media in the United States, and the writer, who is a regular columnist for Apple Daily, is enlightening the Hong Kong readers about media politics in the United States of America.  

There is nothing unusual about op-ed columnists being opinionated or even apparently biased.  Had this op-ed piece been about local Hong Kong media politics, there would be riots in the street and the writer would have been pilloried.  But since this is about the United States, nobody in the local newspapers will bother to take this writer to task, and the man gets to continuously shove these absurdities about American politics regularly at the large numbers of people in Hong Kong.

[Translation]  Cho Cheung-Ching: Americans Don't Believe in Left-Wing Media

Although it is still more than three months from the presidential election, the campaign battle between the two parties have begun to develop in full.  Next Monday (26th), the Democrats will hold their national delegates' convention in Boston, during which they will nominate John Kerry as their presidential candidate.  Coming later next month, the Republicans will hold their national delegates' convention in New York City to nominate President Bush against Kerry.

According to the New York Times, the Kerry camp has spent 80 million dollars on television commercials to promote Kerry as president.  According to the latest public opinion poll, more than 30% of Americans still say that they cannot assess Kerry.  This means that many voters still do not know what Kerry or his policies are.  [Comment:  Have you ever seen a political commercial on television?  This is about building awareness.  This is about imagery.  The 30 seconds' time is not long enough for policy decisions.  This is a given.  You will find out about the details of the policies when the debates come around after the conventions.  The writer also does not mention that the Bush campaign has spent even more money on television advertising, but their candidate, who is the incumbent "war president", now has approval numbers of less than 50%.]

Although the American presidential election is a political battle between the two parties and also a battle for news among the media, the majority of the principal newspapers, television and radio stations are not "neutral" as far as party preferences and politics are concerned.  They are divided according to left vs. right, and they all support the party that they identify with.  For example, the New York Times hoists the leftwing flag, the Los Angeles Times is considered to be the most left-wing newspaper in the United States and the Washington Post is between those two, and all of them are Democrat-supporting leftwing newspapers.  On the other side, the conservative Wall Street Journal and the most right-wing Washington Times support the Republican party.  [Comment:  Oy!  I recommend Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media? as remedial reading material for the writer.  That book contains hundreds of examples that destroy the myth of the SCLM ("so-called Liberal Media").  Alternately, he should check out William Safire at the New York Times and Sue "Steno" Schmidt at the Washington Post for any semblance to leftwing tendencies.]

On television, the three major networks are cheerleaders for the left-wing Democrats.  But most of the 17,000 radio stations support the Republicans, so there is a balance between the broadcast media.  [Comment: the correct statement on the radio stations should really be given in two steps: most of the 17,000 radio stations are in the hands of a few conglomerates such as Clear Channel, and some of them support the Republicans.  This is a far cry from a situation in which most radio stations are independents who separately decided to support one party.  This is the reason why media concentration is a major concern.]  In cable television, CNN and Fox News are fighting each other from the left and right respectively.  [Comment: The author actually wrote Fox, because he is apparently not aware that the broadcast Fox network is an over-the-air entertainment network that is a separate operation from the cable/satellite all-news Fox News network.  It is commonly accepted that there are four major broadcast television networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and a few smaller ones such as UPN, Warner, Pax, Univision and TeleMundo.  Also, I am sure that CNN people like Lou Dobbs and Wolf Blitzer would really be amused to hear that they are hoisting the leftist flag.  Where are the fact checkers?  This is an op-ed column, and even the New York Times has said that it is not responsible for factual errors made by its op-ed columnists such as William Safire.  As for the left-wing CNN, here is an analysis of its coverage of the 2004 Democratic Party National Convention.]

Not only are the American media clearly divided by political position, but the American people's preferences for media choices is also more and more clear.  For example, on July 21st, the New York Times reported on the Pew Research Center's latest opinion poll.  Among the viewers of the conservative Fox News, 41% are Republicans and 29% are Democrats; among the viewers of the leftwing CNN, 44% are Democrats and 25% are Republicans.  [Comment:  This is self-selection and should not be positioned as shocking.  In like manner, would you be shocked to find, for example, that 70% of the audience of MTV are younger than 25, that 70% of the audience of the Cartoon Network are younger than 12 years, that 97% of the audience of Univision are Spanish-speakers or that 92% of the audience of BET (Black Entertainment Television) are African Americans, etc?]

Over the past half century, American media were basically dominated by the left-wing media.  Since 9/11, the American media environment has changed a lot.  Noticeably, left-wing newspapers have suffered circulation losses while the audience ratings to conservative rightwing media have gone up.

For example, the right wing New York Post owned by Australian magnate Rupert Murdoch has seen double digit growth in each of the last three years with a daily circulation over 680,000 and is the seventh largest newspaper in the United States.  [Comment:  But as Nedra Pickler would say, the author failed to point out that the New York Post is bleeding US$40 million a year in losses with no end in sight.  The New York Post was never intended to be a profitable business, so you go figure out the motives of Rupert Murdoch.  By the way, Murdoch the Australian had to become a naturalized American citizen in order to own newspapers and television stations in the same market.  As for the circulation increases, this is not necessarily a good thing.  Everybody knows how to increase circulation (quick hint: you give it away for free!), but this is not the same as making money.  In New York City, I get constant telephone calls for free four-week trial subscrtipions to newspapers.  If I accept, then the newspaper will incur losses for four weeks.  Close to 100% of those who get the trial subscription will cancel, so the actual campaign will get only a few subscribers in the end.  Subscriber acquisition is expensive.  Newspapers are also priced to lose money.  For every copy sold, the price of the newspaper covers about half the cost.  So the more copies you sell, the more money you lose.  In theory, the profit comes from advertisement sales.  When you can't sell ads, you are in economic trouble.  And your ad sales are a function of the quantity as well as the quality of your newspaper.  The New York Post readers are qualitatively 'undesirable' whereas the New York Times readers are the advertisers' dream targets.  Just ask, where would you see a Gucci ad?]  The conservative Wall Street Journal increased circulation by 16% to reach a daily circulation of 2,090,000 to become the largest circulation weekday newspaper among serious media in the United States.  That newspaper also has an electronic edition available at US$79 per year with 680,000 subscribers, of which 280,000 paid a full year's subscription at a time.  Although USA TODAY has a circulation that is larger than the Wall Street Journal, it is mostly distributed for free at hotels and its content is tabloid-like and therefore it is not considered to be a serious newspaper.  [Comment:  As Nedra Pickler would say again, if USA TODAY is not a member of 'serious media', then where would the writer place the rag known as the New York Post?  Personally, at my NYC office, I am expected to read the New York Times, I can be forgiven for reading USA TODAY but I would be laughed at if I open a copy of the New York Post.  The other point here is that people read the Wall Street Journal mostly to get business information; it will be extremely rare to find someone reading the Wall Street Journal only for its politics.]

According to patterns of news coverage, whenever there is some major event such as 9/11 or the war in Iraq, media audience and circulation should rise because people are more interested in news.  But the leftwing newspapers and television stations were ideologically against the war in Iraq, so that their circulation dropped.  [Comment:  Could it that this writer has never heard of Judith Miller of the New York Times?  She may have caused the whole war by herself.  Or better yet, read Amy Goodman interviewing Ted Koppel on Democracy Now.]  For example, the world-famous New York Times only increased slightly by 0.27% in the first half year to a total of 1.12 million, or just a bit more than half of the circulation of the Wall Street Journal.  [Comment:  But the author failed to mention that the Wall Street Journal only publishes on weekdays, whereas the New York Times' biggest circulation day occurs on Sunday where it is double its weekday circulation.  In addition, the number of readers per copy for the Wall Street Journal is 1.1 whereas the New York Times has more than 2 readers per copy.  Advertisers buy reader eyeballs, and not printed copies.] The Washington Post lost 3% in circulation down to 770,000.  [Comment:  The author prefers not to discuss the ultra-conservative Washington Times, aka the Moonie Times, which is a poor excuse for a newspaper, serious or otherwise.  This is yet another major money-losing business that is published by the Reverend Sun Myung-moon for motives that you have to figure out for yourself.]  The Los Angeles Times dropped 1% down to 950,000.

In cable television, the 24-year-old left-wing flagship CNN has seen its national ratings slide down dramatically.  The 8-year-old right-wing Fox News surpassed the CNN in ratings the year before last, and its main political commentary programs have ratings that are double those of CNN.  [Comment:  This is a much more complex issue, and you can read the Wall Street Journal article about how the higher-rated Fox News channel can't seem to compete against the lower-rated CNN channel on ad sales (see previous post).  If you live in a capitalist system, you ought to believe that this is about making profit which is not the same thing as getting larger audiences.  In like manner, Apple Daily may claim to have the highest circulation in Hong Kong, but they can't seem to get the ad sales either (see previous post).  As for the unintended effects of the Fox News political commentary programs, there is this deliciously obvious post.  Of course, you cannot hold the media responsible for the stupidity of their audiences.]

Now only has the popularity of left-wing media fallen, but the degree of trust in leftwing media by the American public has also dropped dramatically from four years ago.  According to the above opinion poll, the Republicans gave an average of 16% who "believe all or most of" score to the three leftwing broadcast networks; even the Democrats could only give an average of 32% to the three networks, less than one-third.  For the New York Times, the Republicans gave a 14% trustworthiness score while the Democrats gave it only a 31% score.  [Comment:  I have to really laugh here, because our writer has transparently chosen not to discuss the trustworthiness of the right-wing media.  The Wall Street Journal is famous for its Jekyll-and-Hyde personality by having great news reports but totally out-of-touch editorials that sometimes contradicted its own news reports. If you go to the Pew Research Center report, you will find that the Wall Street Journal has these trustworthiness scores among Republicans: 46% in 2000, 35% in 2002, and 23% in 2004, and among everyone: 41% in 2000, 33% in 2002 and 24% in 2004.  Where do you think WSJ is headed?  At some point, any reasonable WSJ reader won't accept that a $500 billion federal deficit is a great thing like the editorial says it is.  Among the cable television networks, you will find CNN at 32%, C-Span at 27% and Fox News at 25% overall.  The very left-wing television program "60 minutes" topped everyone at 33%.  Who is whupping whose arse?]

[Comment:  The writer seems hung up about the absolute levels of the trustworthiness score.  Why is one-third such a big issue?  It is the relative position that matters.  From the Pew report,

So Democrats and Independents won't touch Fox News, but all the groups rated 60 Minutes and CNN highly.  That gives a completely different perspective, doesn't it?]

Although American media is dominated by the left, the American people don't trust them.  This is how the conservative Bush was elected as president.  [Comment:  Bush lost the total ballot count by 500,000 votes but 'won' the presidential election with a little help from his friends in Florida.]  For this November's election, the left-dominated media will probably not be able to predict the winner.  The true indicator will be in the hearts of the American people.  [Comment:  I don't expect the media to make predictions for me.  I expect the media to explain the issues to me and let me make my own decision.  I would like them to be politically neutral.  Alas, this is not happening and I don't really expect them to.  However, it remains true that some media are more biased than others.  For evidence, just sit back and compare CNN with Fox News, the New York Times with the New York Post, and the Washington Post with the Washington Times.  The difference is not only in the degree of apparent bias, but also the quality.  At the New York Times, you get William Safire as well as Paul Krugman; at Fox News, you get Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity.  I report, you decide.]













For a balanced report, I should let Paul Krugman balance things out.  This is also a detailed analysis of media politics in the United States that the Apple Daily writer totally fails to connect with.

(New York Times)  Triumph of the Trivial.  July 30, 2004.

Under the headline "Voters Want Specifics From Kerry," The Washington Post recently quoted a voter demanding that John Kerry and John Edwards talk about "what they plan on doing about health care for middle-income or lower-income people. I have to face the fact that I will never be able to have health insurance, the way things are now. And these millionaires don't seem to address that."

Mr. Kerry proposes spending $650 billion extending health insurance to lower- and middle-income families. Whether you approve or not, you can't say he hasn't addressed the issue. Why hasn't this voter heard about it?

Well, I've been reading 60 days' worth of transcripts from the places four out of five Americans cite as where they usually get their news: the major cable and broadcast TV networks. Never mind the details - I couldn't even find a clear statement that Mr. Kerry wants to roll back recent high-income tax cuts and use the money to cover most of the uninsured. When reports mentioned the Kerry plan at all, it was usually horse race analysis - how it's playing, not what's in it.

On the other hand, everyone knows that Teresa Heinz Kerry told someone to "shove it," though even there, the context was missing. Except for a brief reference on MSNBC, none of the transcripts I've read mention that the target of her ire works for Richard Mellon Scaife, a billionaire who financed smear campaigns against the Clintons - including accusations of murder. (CNN did mention Mr. Scaife on its Web site, but described him only as a donor to "conservative causes.") And viewers learned nothing about Mr. Scaife's long vendetta against Mrs. Heinz Kerry herself.

There are two issues here, trivialization and bias, but they're related.

Somewhere along the line, TV news stopped reporting on candidates' policies, and turned instead to trivia that supposedly reveal their personalities. We hear about Mr. Kerry's haircuts, not his health care proposals. We hear about George Bush's brush-cutting, not his environmental policies.

Even on its own terms, such reporting often gets it wrong, because journalists aren't especially good at judging character. ("He is, above all, a moralist," wrote George Will about Jack Ryan, the Illinois Senate candidate who dropped out after embarrassing sex-club questions.) And the character issues that dominate today's reporting have historically had no bearing on leadership qualities. While planning D-Day, Dwight Eisenhower had a close, though possibly platonic, relationship with his female driver. Should that have barred him from the White House?

And since campaign coverage as celebrity profiling has no rules, it offers ample scope for biased reporting.

Notice the voter's reference to "these millionaires." A Columbia Journalism Review Web site called, says its analysis "reveals a press prone to needlessly introduce Senators Kerry and Edwards and Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, as millionaires or billionaires, without similar labels for President Bush or Vice President Cheney."

As the site points out, the Bush campaign has been "hammering away with talking points casting Kerry as out of the mainstream because of his wealth, hoping to influence press coverage." The campaign isn't claiming that Mr. Kerry's policies favor the rich - they manifestly don't, while Mr. Bush's manifestly do. Instead, we're supposed to dislike Mr. Kerry simply because he's wealthy (and not notice that his opponent is, too). Republicans, of all people, are practicing the politics of envy, and the media obediently go along.

In short, the triumph of the trivial is not a trivial matter. The failure of TV news to inform the public about the policy proposals of this year's presidential candidates is, in its own way, as serious a journalistic betrayal as the failure to raise questions about the rush to invade Iraq.

P.S.: Another story you may not see on TV: Jeb Bush insists that electronic voting machines are perfectly reliable, but The St. Petersburg Times says the Republican Party of Florida has sent out a flier urging supporters to use absentee ballots because the machines lack a paper trail and cannot "verify your vote."

P.P.S.: Three weeks ago, The New Republic reported that the Bush administration was pressuring Pakistan to announce a major terrorist capture during the Democratic convention. Hours before Mr. Kerry's acceptance speech, Pakistan announced, several days after the fact, that it had apprehended an important Al Qaeda operative.