CMPA's Response to Greg Beato's "Midnight Bias: Can the nation survive without fair and balanced Sarah Palin Jokes?"

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Editor's Note: We generally don't run letters about reason online pieces (that's what the comments section of the blog is for). One of the exceptions is when a source or a subject in a story makes an objection. Here is a note from Donald Rieck of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, whose work is cited in a recent article by Contributing Editor Greg Beato. It's followed by a reply from Beato.

In his article "Midnight Bias: Can the nation survive without fair and balanced Sarah Palin jokes?," Greg Beato questions the logic behind the following quote and data analysis in a recent Fox News online article:

"Not everyone seems willing to be so logical. Last week, for example, the Center for Media and Public Affairs shared its latest findings with Fox News: In the five weeks after John McCain announced Palin as his running mate, the CMPA revealed, Jay Leno and David Letterman told 286 jokes involving those two candidates, and only 42 jokes involving their opponents Barack Obama and Joe Biden. "Generally the Republicans get targeted much more often than Democrats, but this election is driving it off the charts," CMPA Executive Director Donald Rieck explained."

Beato cited data from varying time parameters (January 1 to September 16 of this year; January 1 to August 24 of 2004; and what he termed as a "14 month" count during the 2000 election) to point out that Republicans are not excessively targeted by political jokesters, and that to characterize the ratio of jokes as being "off the charts" makes no sense other than to suggest the unfunny business of a partisan agenda. "The path Rieck traveled to arrive at this conclusion is impossible to trace," he writes.

The Fox reporter asked how previous Republican and Democratic general election candidates fared in similar (post convention-general election) periods and I noted that, generally, Republican candidates are "much more often" the target than their Democratic counterparts. 

Here is the total (post-convention) general election political humor data for presidential candidates 1992 through 2006:

Year

GOP Candidate

GOP Candidate Jokes

Dem. Candidate

Dem. Candidate Jokes

1992

George H. Bush

161

William J. Clinton

66

1996

Robert Dole

208

William J. Clinton

164

2000

George W. Bush

254

Albert Gore

165

2004

George W. Bush

261

John F. Kerry

135

884

 

530

In his article, Beato also seems to try to place CMPA on one side of the debate over the fairness doctrine. CMPA, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan affiliate of George Mason University, conducts these studies to improve the debate on media coverage and not to favor any party, candidate or policy. We cannot police how reporters or pundits use our data, but we always try to give them the full picture and point out the limits of what can and can't be said.

Sincerely,

Donald Rieck, M.A., M.B.A.
Executive Director
CMPA/STATS
Washington, DC

Greg Beato responds: I appreciate Donald Rieck's interest in my piece, and the additional information and statistics he provides in his response. In the Fox News article, Rieck is quoted as follows: "Generally, the Republicans get targeted much more often than Democrats, but this election is driving it off the charts."

In his response to my piece, Rieck explains that he was responding to a fairly specific question; apparently the Fox reporter asked him "how previous Republican and Democratic general election candidates fared in similar (post convention-general election) periods."

Since the Fox News article makes no explicit reference to "general election candidates" or "similar (post convention-general election) periods," and since Rieck prefaces his remark with the word "Generally," I assumed that he was speaking about late-night comedy coverage of presidential elections in general, with no qualifiers or distinctions.

To get a better idea of what Rieck meant by "much more often," I went to the CMPA website to look at the statistics it compiled from past elections. What I found there is the information I include in my piece. The time periods I cite—"January 1 to September 16 of this year" and the others—are simply the time periods that CMPA used in its previous studies. That is, I didn't make any effort to pick time periods that would show greater balance in candidate joke coverage than Rieck's quote implied; I simply used whatever information CMPA had posted on its site.

As I show in my article, that information makes it clear that when you remove distinctions such as "general election candidates" and "post convention-general election periods," overall late-night comedy coverage of presidential candidates is fairly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Given Rieck's stated commitment to giving reporters and pundits the full picture, I am sure he can appreciate my desire to add context to the narrow portrait of late-night comedy election coverage that the Fox News article presents.

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  1. I reiterate. These are comedians. This is outside the scope of political discourse and bordering on petty.

  2. Wow. Boring.

  3. Obviously the Democrats have to start nominating sillier candidates or the Republicans less silly ones.

  4. I reiterate. These are comedians. This is outside the scope of political discourse and bordering on petty.

    Whether you think it is inside the scope of political discourse is immaterial. If it has an effect on the electorate it’s worth discussing. I think negative political ads are the are some of the most ridiculous things I have to bear witness to every election cycle and certainly don’t advance the “political discourse.” But to discount them as having no effect and not worthy of comment is narrow minded.

  5. “Obviously the Democrats have to start nominating sillier candidates or the Republicans less silly ones.”

    Biden is pretty effing silly. He does not intend to be but he is. He reminds me of Bush in his first term.

  6. I’m hearing more McCain/Palin jokes than Obama jokes. Way more. But really, who cares? It might be because Palin makes a funnier target?

  7. “It might be because Palin makes a funnier target?”

    Honestly, I think at least part of it is fear of being called a racist. If Obama were white people would have made jokes about his (admitted) drug use in the past. Since he is black that subject is taboo.

  8. You’re hit with… jokes. You respond with… stastical analysis. It must be fun to be a Republican.

  9. I call shenanigans. To be really valid, the data should *at least* go back to 1988 and Dukakis. Jesse Jackson probably got some abuse, too, but he didn’t get to the general.

    Ross Perot jokes probably deserve to be counted.

  10. “Honestly, I think at least part of it is fear of being called a racist. If Obama were white people would have made jokes about his (admitted) drug use in the past. Since he is black that subject is taboo.”

    Maybe, but he just isn’t very comical.

    I’m not sure his distant-past drug use is likely to be considered ripe material for comics. A candidate either has to have a hard-earned reputation as a party boy, like Bush, for that to come up. Either that, or the politician needs to be a current abuser like Marion Barry, or have used a transparently silly excuse like Clinton’s “I didn’t inhale”.

    A simple admission of some recreational drug use in one’s 20’s simply isn’t noteworthy – it’s banal, especially among the social groups that write and watch comedy shows.

  11. Obviously what we need is an equal time rule for the comedy industry.

  12. Honestly, I think at least part of it is fear of being called a racist.

    Or maybe white comics just don’t know how to make jokes about black people.

    It isn’t about race…it’s about attention and notoriety. And McCain can’t have it both ways.

    He can’t pick someone as his V.P. for the express purpose of energizing his campaign and getting attention and notoriety for his ticket…and then get upset when even comedians notice.

    After all, comedians just mine the subjects their audiences are most familiar with for comedy opportunities.

    When politicians purposefully go on the attack with over the top rhetoric from a new face – who also happens to be an relatively unprepared numbskull – well, you can’t blame the late night comics for appreciating comedy gold when they see it.

    Obama’s simply not doing anything people can joke about. McCain and Palin are. A lot.

  13. RE: Pain:

    Whether you think what I think is immaterial is immaterial.

    In defense of the rights of comedians, I’ll elaborate. Comedians and politicians might as well be two different species because comedians cannot succeed unless they are honest and politicians cannot succeed unless they are dishonest.

    There’s much too be said for what comedy has to offer the public, and anyone writing it or delivering it should have as much liberty to choose material as I should to use blue in a painting, or G in a scale, or the words “fuck you” in a comment post.

  14. 2000 George W. Bush 254 Albert Gore 165

    That one’s easy. Can you imagine anyone less funny than Gore?

  15. “Biden is pretty effing silly. He does not intend to be but he is. He reminds me of Bush in his first term.”

    Everyone was focusing on Tina Fey in the SNL sketch of the Palin/Biden debate, but they did manage to get some good jabs in on Biden as well. Unfortunately (or fortunately, perhaps), Palin took the focus away from him, otherwise he’d be a gold mine for an enterprising comedian.

  16. I don’t see any mea culpa in Beato’s reply, and it seems like there should be one. Rieck notes that Beato wrote “The path Rieck traveled to arrive at this conclusion is impossible to trace,” and Rieck traces it for him. Beato’s mistake is understable and not terribly serious, but it does seem that when Beato thought Rieck got his facts wrong, he didn’t check with the source to make sure the Fox reporter accurately reflected Rieck’s position.

  17. “relatively unprepared numbskull – well, you can’t blame the late night comics for appreciating comedy gold when they see it.”

    How is she less prepared than Obama? What evidence is there that she is a “numbskull”.

  18. What evidence is there that she is a “numbskull”.

  19. What evidence is there that she is a “numbskull”.

    Witches, dude, witches!

  20. If comedians tell a balanced mix of jokes over time, but emphasize the GOP right before an election, isn’t that even stronger evidence of bias?

    In other words, near election time, comedians take into account the fact that they are on TV, and select their jokes (in part) to promote a particular outcome.

    Jon Stewart is a classic example. He makes fun of GOP policies in contrast with Dem trivia.

    There’s a fundamental difference between the following topics:

    “Bush is an idiot.”

    “Kerry has silly hair.”

  21. Well, anyone who signs their correspondence with “M.A, M.B.A.” deserves a wedgie and getting shoved in the Girl’s Room.

    Was there no way to work his GPA and SAT scores into the conversation?

  22. “How is she less prepared than Obama?”

    Obama’s been thinking seriously about national issues for years, probably well before his 2004 Senate race.

    Palin has yet to start thinking seriously about much of anything, and most national issues simply weren’t of any concern to her prior to her appointment to run as VP.

    As mayor of Wasilla, she didn’t even have to deal with education or fire-fighting, which are some other government’s responsibility.

  23. “Palin has yet to start thinking seriously about much of anything, and most national issues simply weren’t of any concern to her prior to her appointment to run as VP.”

    I did not realize you were able to read minds. How do you know she was not thinking about national issues?

    “As mayor of Wasilla, she didn’t even have to deal with education or fire-fighting, which are some other government’s responsibility.”

    And, if we actually follow the U.S. Constitution, they are not the Federal Government’s responsibility either.

  24. How is she less prepared than Obama? What evidence is there that she is a “numbskull”.

    There’s been a lot written about this already…AND based on what I’ve seen, heard and read (which is all any voter has to go on), it’s pretty obvious not only to me but also to a large number of high-profile conservatives as well as an increasing number of voters that Obama has a lot more on the ball than Palin.

    But hey, if the difference is not apparent to you at this point, it would pretty much be a waste of my time to try and convince you otherwise.

  25. Madpad,

    In other words you have no evidence. Some conservatives do not like Palin this is true, some conservatives do not like McCain either it is important to point out.

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