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21 May 2001

Our current howler (part I): Adventures in excellence

Synopsis: Comedy break! The Pew people studied the first sixty days. They reported about the first hundred.

Covering the President
Michael Getler, The Washington Post, 5/20/01

The First 100 Days: How Bush Versus Clinton Fared in the Press
Project for Excellence in Journalism,
5/01

Selective Negativity
Michael Kelly, The Washington Post, 5/16/01


Tunh-tunh-tunh-TUNH-tuhn-TUHN-tuhn-TUHN-tunh-TAAAAAA!! That, of course, was the sound of the trumpets heralding the latest Pew report, the one which attempts to compare early coverage of Presidents Bush and Clinton. In yesterday’s Post, Michael Getler gave a standard description of Pew’s latest tablet from Sinai:

GETLER: A widely quoted new study of coverage of the first months of the administration by the Project for Excellence in Journalism led with the finding that: "Contrary to Democratic complaints, George W. Bush has not gotten an easier ride from the American media in the first 100 days than Bill Clinton did in his famously rocky start."

But just how "excellent" is the Pew study? Get ready to enjoy a good chuckle. Getler’s quote about the "first 100 days" is from the Paragraph One of Pew’s report. But here’s the report’s fifth paragraph:

PEW REPORT: These are a few of the findings of the new study, which examined 899 stories at four network television news stations, two major newspapers and one major newsweekly during the first 60 days of the Bush Administration and, by comparison, the Clinton Administration in 1993.

Having studied the coverage of the first sixty days, Pew made a sweeping announcement about the first hundred. (Report’s title? "The First 100 Days.") But then, as HOWLER readers have long since learned, this is how "excellence" now is defined inside our celebrity press corps.

But Michael Getler is perfectly right–this report has been widely quoted. At Getler’s own paper, to cite one example, perpetually furious Michael Kelly got his shorts in a wad about Pew just last week. Outraged to think that someone could claim that Bush has received an easy ride, Kelly quoted the Pew study too. Note his high tolerance for that odd pair of numbers:

KELLY: "Contrary to Democratic complaints, George W. Bush has not gotten an easier ride from the American media in his first 100 days than Bill Clinton did in his famously rocky start…Despite a very good first month, Bush’s coverage overall was actually less positive than Bill Clinton’s eight years ago."

That is the conclusion of "The First 100 Days: How Bush Versus Clinton Fared in the Press," a report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism…To produce this report, the project examined 899 stories reported by four network news divisions, two major newspapers and one major newsweekly during the first 60 days of the Clinton administration and the first 60 days of the Bush administration.

Good old Kelly! He put the conflicting digits in the same paragraph without saying a word about Pew’s fuzzy math.

But let’s forget the minor comedy involved in Pew’s embellishment. (Wierdly, they chose to exaggerate what they had done even when the truth would have been good enough!) Kelly’s column also demonstrates how this report has been played around the press corps. Kelly reports Pew’s basic conclusion: Bush has not "gotten an easier ride" than Clinton did in his first "hundred" days. And Kelly accepts the report uncritically, without showing any hint of concern about Pew’s competence, methods or logic.

But then, the trumpets always seem to sound when Pew serves up its overblown studies, despite the fact that the reports are often riddled with major problems. And we hate to be the ones to say it, but this latest study is a laughable mess–filled with logical and methodological gaps which have gone unremarked in the mainstream press. Has President Bush had an easier ride? Here at THE HOWLER, we really can’t say. But neither can the folks at Pew. Sorry, readers–people who work sixty days and call it a hundred should not set the standard for excellence.

Tomorrow: Here’s the fact you haven’t heard: News reporting was more favorable to Bush in every category the Pew people studied.

 

The occasional update (5/21/01)

Problems with the truth: We can already hear you complaining–the Pew people simply took a sample of the first 100 days. It’s perfectly fine to study 60 days as a sample of the first 100. Sorry. It would have been perfectly easy to start this report with a sentence that was actually accurate. Here’s how Pew’s first sentence would read if Pew simply reported what it actually did:

REVISED REPORT: Contrary to Democratic complaints, George W. Bush did not get an easier ride from the American media in the first 60 days than Bill Clinton did in his famously rocky start.

But that wouldn’t have sounded nearly as good. "100 days" is the magical term, and Pew wanted to prance and pose big-time.

The instinct to embellish was denounced all last year, often in the context of gimmicked-up stories ginned up by he press corps to "prove" preferred points. When Pew does it, of course, it’s just dandy. But honest researchers say what is accurate. Yes, it’s just a trivial point, but Pew got off to a comical start–and as we’ll see in future HOWLERS, things went straight downhill from there.