Six silent television screens are tuned to six different channels on the third-floor offices of the Media Research Center in Alexandria, producing a discordant TV tableau. On a recent afternoon, one screen shows a woman crying on the “Dr. Phil” show, while on another screen, director James Cameron is promoting a documentary that purports to show the tomb of Jesus.
It’s all in a day’s work for the center, whose red-bearded founder, L. Brent Bozell III, chuckles cheerfully as he guides a visitor on a tour.
In a nearby room, he points to row upon row of archived video recordings of news broadcasts, dating back to the founding of the conservative media-watchdog group two decades ago. In another room, banks of computers hum away, digitally recording the day’s news from every U.S. network.
“I think, in one sense, you could say we’ve exceeded all expectations,” says Mr. Bozell, whose organization will celebrate its 20th anniversary March 29 at its annual gala banquet.
“When we formally launched this in 1987, we had about seven staff. We had seven phones … two desks, a black-and-white TV and a rented computer, in an old brownstone town house in Alexandria. And without two nickels to rub against one another, we were proposing to confront a multibillion-dollar empire. I think you can say, 20 years later, we’ve been quite successful.”
Today, with an annual budget of $6 million the center’s offices on South Patrick Street are headquarters for more than 60 staffers running a high-tech operation that has more than 300,000 hours of video in its archives and continues to record and analyze TV news coverage at the rate of 560 hours per week.
And while liberal bias is still as problematic as ever, Mr. Bozell says, news consumers are more aware that reporters might not be getting the story straight.
“If you look at the surveys, we’ve accomplished our primary mission, which is to educate the American people about the bias that exists,” he says. “One survey in 1987 showed … that only 25 percent of the people believed there was such a thing as media bias. Today, according to a recent survey, that figure is 79 percent.”
The center’s primary mission of documenting distortions in coverage is carried on by its news-analysis division, headed by Brent H. Baker. It issues the daily e-mail CyberAlert, the weekly Media Reality Check and the fortnightly Notable Quotables, as well as special reports. That central mission is now augmented by other divisions of the organization:
The Business & Media Institute, headed by Dan Gainor, “is the only organization dedicated to correcting the media’s anti-free enterprise bias … and to promoting a fair portrayal of the business community in the news and entertainment media,” according to the center’s Web site (www.mrc.org).
Cybercast News Service (www.cnsnews.com), created in 1998 and under the editorship of David Thibault, is an online conservative “alternative news source” that specializes in “stories that are subject to the bias of omission and report on other news subject to bias by commission.”
The Newsbusters blog (www.newsbusters.org), created in 2005, provides a constant stream of updated reports about news coverage, while Times Watch (www.timeswatch.org) is devoted entirely to analyzing news coverage in the New York Times.
The newly created Culture and Media Institute, aims “to expose and counter the media’s corrosive effect on faith and traditional moral values,” says the institute’s director, Robert H. Knight.
An independent spinoff, the Parents Television Council, is based in Los Angeles and seeks “to ensure that children are not constantly assaulted by sex, violence and profanity on television and in other media.”
The idea for MRC was developed in a Texas rental-car parking lot at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in 1982, says Mr. Bozell, 51.
“I was then working for Terry Dolan at the National Conservative PAC, and we were discussing why it was that so many good people could get elected, and yet we didn’t seem to be getting our message to the American people. It was then that I suggested that, as a movement, we had developed great institutions in most arenas, but we hadn’t addressed the biggest problem facing the movement, which was a left-wing press that had, at the time, a virtual monopoly on information. … It was my suggestion then that we needed to launch a new organization that would expose and confront this leftist agenda.”
Mr. Bozell defines liberal bias as “censorship of the conservative worldview,” but says he doesn’t expect the news to be strictly neutral.
“Here’s the problem: There is no such thing as pure objectivity in the news media. Everything that comes out in the news media has, and must have, an element of bias,” he says. “Our position is that journalists should strive for objectivity as the Holy Grail, but it begins with recognizing their own biases, and making an effort to balance their stories.”
In recent years, the retirement of former “CBS Evening News” anchor Dan Rather has removed one familiar target from the center’s liberal-bias radar screen.
Mr. Rather was “the proverbial low-hanging fruit,” Mr. Bozell says, but admits a certain admiration for the veteran TV newsman. “I have very much mixed emotions about him, in this sense: After 9/11, in the days and weeks following, there was no one in the news media who was more eloquent in expressing a love for his country than Dan Rather.”
Mr. Bozell says he is encouraged by the rise of alternative news sources, but adds that conservatives still face major challenges.
“When we started this operation, the left had a virtual monopoly on news information. Today, the opportunities for information are virtually endless, thanks to talk radio and the Internet,” he says. “On the other hand, the cold dose of reality is that the broadcast networks still have amazingly huge audiences — far bigger than anything conservatives have. Fox News may be around 3 million [viewers]. The big three networks [ABC, NBC and CBS], combined, are around 30 million.”
That leaves plenty of work for the analysts at the center, which is constantly upgrading its operations to accommodate technological advances. The organization is converting its VHS videotape archives to DVD format, and is preparing for the advent of high-definition television (HDTV), while accumulating new digital footage at a rate of 64 terrabytes a year.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bozell keeps a sharp eye out for the latest “outrages,” such as Mr. Cameron’s documentary about Jesus’ tomb, which the MRC founder called “slanderous” in a Tuesday press release urging the Discovery Channel to cancel the scheduled program.
“To slander Christianity at the start of the Lenten season is unconscionable,” says Mr. Bozell, a Catholic and father of five. “What they’re really doing is attacking Christianity.”
Despite continued liberal domination of the news and entertainment industry, Mr. Bozell says conservatives have the upper hand in the war of ideas.
“I’d hate to be a liberal today. Liberals can no longer debate conservatives on the issues,” he said. “All their theories have been tested, and all have failed.”