Press Bias In Action At The Denver Post

Megan McArdle has a post up on her blog today regarding one type of press bias, where the mainstream liberal media use an ideological label when referring to conservative or libertarian types, while failing to identify liberal groups as such.  For example, the Heritage Foundation is usually described as a “conservative think tank,” while its counterpart on the left, the Brookings Institution, often is not described as a liberal group.

Shortly after reading that post, I wandered over the Denver Post website and quickly encountered a very similar kind of bais.  It seems that “the nonprofit American Council of Trustees and Alumni, graded 714 colleges and universities across the U.S. — 15 in Colorado — on their requirements for students to study seven core subjects: composition, math, science, economics, foreign language, literature, and American government or U.S. history.” 

The rating standards seem to be completely apolitical:  “The criteria call for: a writing class focused on grammar, style, clarity and argument; a literature survey course; three semesters of foreign language; a broad American history or government course; basic economics; college-level math; and a course in biology, geology, chemistry, physics or environmental science, preferably with a laboratory component.”  The reporting, in contrast, strives mightily to interject a political angle into the story.

Let’s start with the headline:  “Conservative group criticizes U.S. colleges for curricula failings.”  The political leanings of the group that did the study is irrelevant.  I could understand the relevance if the group were attacking colleges for the prevalence of gender- and race-studies classes or similar nonsense.  But all the group did was look at what many of us would consider to be core classes for a basic education and see whether they are required for graduation.

Moreover, the headline isn’t even accurate.  I looked at the website for the study, and it is not exactly attacking U.S. colleges. It is providing information about them.  Here is the Colorado page.

In case you missed the conservative reference in the headline, the Post story repeats it right up front: “Colorado’s colleges continue to earn respectable rankings in U.S. News & World Report’s Best College survey, but a conservative group says the schools aren’t giving students the underpinnings of a complete education.”  Note also how the lede buries the “conservative group[‘s]” study behind the U.S. News & World Report’s Best College survey.  So what?   This is an apples and oranges comparison. 

The ACTA apparently looked at a simple mix of classes and determined whether they are required or not.  Once the criteria were set, it appears to be a simply objective yes or no determination. 

The U.S. News & World Report’s survey is a mix of objective and subjective elements that appear to have nothing to do with what courses are offered or required at the college, such as class size, faculty salary (pus benefits), incoming student SAT and ACT scores, per-student spending, and the percentage of living alumni who give money to the school.  The only reason to even reference the U.S. News & World Report’s survey results, much less lead with it, is to try to undermine the credibility of the “conservative group[‘s]” study.

After reporting a bit more detail about the results of the study for Colorado colleges, the story closes with more loosely veiled ad hominem argument:

Liberal groups have attacked Washington, D.C.-based ACTA, founded by former Vice President Dick Cheney’s wife, Lynn Cheney, saying the organization engages in an ideological attack on higher education.

In a 2001 report, the nonprofit said college and university faculty have been a weak link in America’s response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

If the group engages in ideological attacks on higher education, the Post offers no evidence of it.  But it was started by Lynn Cheney, so it must be up to no good.

And there are dozens of publications available on the ACTA website.  If you are going to charge someone with engaging “in an ideological attack on higher education,” one would expect something more recent, relevant, and explosive than a 2001 report concluding that college faculty “have been a weak link in America’s response to the Sept. 11 attacks,” whatever that means.

Maybe the Denver Post could try writing the story like this:  Who did the study.  When.  What was studied.  How.  And What results. 

Then we, the readers, can make up our own minds about the legitimacy of the study and the group performing it.  This is not that hard. 

Is it any wonder newspapers are dropping like flies?  We want you to tell us what happened, not what to think about it.  You report.  We decide.

Published in: on August 19, 2010 at 3:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

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