The Project for Excellence in Journalism conducted a study to determine why the immigration-reform bill died on the floor of the Senate — and readers can guess who gets the credit and the blame. Their exhaustive study, apparently completed and published in six weeks, claims that conservative talk radio set off a frenzied mob by using the word “amnesty”:
Opposition from key talk radio and cable TV hosts helped kill the immigration bill in Congress, a study out today concludes.
“What listeners of the conservative talk radio media were hearing, in large part, was that the legislation itself was little more than an ‘amnesty bill’ for illegal immigrants, a phrase loaded with political baggage,” it says.
The study by the nonpartisan Project for Excellence in Journalism quantifies what White House and Capitol Hill phone lines and e-mail inboxes already indicated: Talk radio focused on the immigration debate more intensely than the mainstream media did from April to June.
Conservative hosts touched off a brushfire in the Republican base that President Bush and other party leaders were helpless to contain.
The study concluded that talk-radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage devoted 16% of their second-quarter airtime to immigration. Liberal talk-show hosts only devoted 5% to the topic. Using this calculation, the study concludes that the talk-radio shows overpowered liberals who supported the bill, and therefore foiled passage of the bill.
Well, maybe. However, this sounds like the study’s authors confuse correlation with causation. They don’t study how all of this chatter actually affected the Senate vote. We assume it did — on that much we can agree — but that’s all this study does as well. No one studied the use of the word “amnesty”, either. Did that really affect listener comprehension of the bill, and was it fair or unfair to use it when describing the bill?
The authors also fail to consider that the bill was just a poorly-written piece of legislation. Its sponsors and Harry Reid did whatever they could to jam it down the Senate’s throat quickly enough to avoid scrutiny and to keep any amendments that could actually fix its myriad issues from succeeding. That backroom process angered many voters on its own, as well as a good percentage of the Senators who had to vote on it. Talk radio didn’t have much to do with any of that.
Liberals weren’t thrilled with this bill, either. People on both sides of the divide opposed it, although the most passionate were the conservatives. And some center-right talk-show hosts didn’t oppose the bill, at least not outright, Hugh Hewitt among them. Some of the talk-show hosts wanted to work in some amendments that would make the bill palatable.
Why didn’t they catch that? Their sample only included two conservative talk shows per day. They only tracked Rush Limbaugh every day, and then alternated between Sean Hannity and Michael Savage. For liberal talk radio, their sample was even smaller; they sampled one show per day, alternating between Ed Schultz and Randi Rhodes. The rest of their radio study consisted of ABC’s headline service and NPR.
This study reminds me of CBS polling. It fails at the sample, and then draws a lot of unsupported conclusions.