—Richard N. Bond, reported in the Washington Post, Aug. 20, 1992
Do Republicans only complain about media bias as a strategy to “work the refs”? Some use an accurate quotation out of context to suggest a former chairman of the National Republican Committee admitted Republicans only complain about media bias as a strategy to get more favorable press coverage.
When President George H. W. Bush was running for re-election in 1992, the Republican National Committee chair at the time, Rich Bond, objected to a newspaper headline about Bush’s running mate, Vice President Dan Quayle:
During the convention at the Astrodome, Republican Party Chair Rich Bond was so affronted by one Houston Chronicle headline – “Quayle Tries to Play Up Martyr Role” – that he kept displaying it to journalists as evidence of media bias.
On Aug. 20, 1992 the Washington Post published a story by writer Lloyd Grove in its “Style” section. Grove’s story, “Media to the Left! Media to the Right! The GOP, Shooting The Messengers” gives us the quotation that led to our fact check. Grove wrote about the Republicans’ complaints about the press and mentioned Bond’s objection to the Chronicle headline:
“Some of it is frustration, no doubt about it,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Rich Bond, still angry over a recent network decision not to carry a Bush speech on the Balanced Budget Amendment and still steaming over what he called an “unfair” headline – “Quayle Tries to Play Up Martyr Role” – in Tuesday’s Houston Chronicle.
“But there is some strategy to it,” he went on. “I’m a coach of kids’ basketball and Little League teams. If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is `work the refs’ ” – meaning the media. “Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one.”
Bond’s statement about working the referees later found its way into works defending the media against the charge of liberal bias, such as those of Eric Alterman. Alterman wrote a book called “What Liberal Media?” and featured the Bond quotation in the introduction, portraying Bond as one of the honest conservatives who admit their complaints about liberal media bias serve mainly as a way to manipulate media coverage.
Analyzing the Rhetoric
We’ve confirmed Bond said complaining about liberal bias can serve as a strategy to help manipulate media coverage. In analyzing the rhetoric we’ll look at whether it’s reasonable to take Bond’s statement to mean that Republicans don’t truly believe liberal media bias exists but rather pretend for the sake of manipulating the media.
First, as a matter of logic, we note that using the complaint of liberal bias to influence reporters is entirely consistent with a sincere belief in liberal media bias. Complaining about unfair coverage might move journalists even if liberal bias suffuses their work.
Second, we note that it would not serve Bond well to complain about liberal media bias and during that same campaign admit he complained insincerely.
Third, we note a lack of affirmative evidence showing Bond complained insincerely. On the contrary, in our judgment the Chronicle headline Bond criticized was plainly an interpretation of events, not a reporting of events. It was news analysis at best and editorializing at worst. News analysis and editorializing do not belong in a front page headline from a newspaper claiming to adhere to the “objective news” paradigm. Bond had good reason to complain.
These three points make it extremely unlikely Bond was insincere in his belief in liberal media bias. It makes sense to view his remark about working the referees as simply referring to the practical utility of complaining about unfair press coverage.
Dropping the context
We looked into the history of liberals’ use of the Bond quotation.
Taking Bond out of context appears to have started with the left-leaning media watchdog organization Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. We found two figures from FAIR misusing a version of the Bond quotation. The first instance we found came from a 1996 story in the Los Angeles Times. The story paraphrased FAIR’s Jeff Cohen:
To buttress his point, Cohen often cites a quote from former Republican Party Chairman Rich Bond, who said in 1992 that “I’m the coach of kids’ basketball and Little League teams. If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is work the refs. Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack the next time.”
FAIR’s Seth Ackerman, writing in 2001, used the same version of the quotation that Cohen used:
Years ago, Republican party chair Rich Bond explained that conservatives’ frequent denunciations of “liberal bias” in the media were part of “a strategy” (Washington Post, 8/20/92). Comparing journalists to referees in a sports match, Bond explained: “If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack next time.”
“What Liberal Media?” by Eric Alterman was published in February 2003 and we found Alterman using the Bond quotation in The Nation around that time to support his claims that conservatives are wrong to say the media lean left:
Rich Bond, then chair of the Republican Party, complained during the 1992 election, “I think we know who the media want to win this election–and I don’t think it’s George Bush.” The very same Rich Bond, however, also noted during the very same election, “There is some strategy to it [bashing the ‘liberal’ media]…. If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one.”
Even if Alterman’s all wrong about the lack of liberal bias, he presents the Bond quotation without taking excessive liberties, implicitly crediting Bond with a sincere belief in liberal media bias.
Later in 2003, liberal media personality Thom Hartmann elaborated on the Ackerman spin. In October of 2003, Hartmann suggested Bond was admitting to a broad strategy among Republicans to control the media (bold emphasis added):
This aspect of the conservative strategy was outlined by former Republican Party chairman Rich Bond, who told the Washington Post (8/20/92) that their main goal was to convince Americans and, most important, journalists themselves – the referees of public discourse in America – that they should become hypersensitive to any story, writer, or source that may carry Democratic bias and thus only present the Republican side of the story. “If you watch any great coach,” Bond explained, “what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack next time.”
We don’t think it’s obvious Bond told the Washington Post what Hartmann claims Bond said. His quotation of Bond is nearly accurate, but his interpretation appears to lack any foundation. It’s perhaps notable Hartmann’s version of the quotation matches the one Ackerman used.
More recently, Alterman continues to recycle the anecdote in his continued effort to downplay liberal media bias. And authors Robert W. McChesney and Don Nichols used a version of the anecdote in their book “Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America.” An excerpt featuring the quotation appeared at Salon in 2013.
The version we ran across last week in a Facebook discussion thread matched Ackerman’s presentation, except with the word “just” added (bold emphasis ours):
Years ago, Republican party chair Rich Bond explained that conservatives’ frequent denunciations of “liberal bias” in the media were just part of “a strategy” (Washington Post, 8/20/92). Comparing journalists to referees in a sports match, Bond explained: “If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack next time.”
So it seems FAIR started the ball rolling with its slightly inaccurate version of Bond’s quotation. Others later adopted the out-of-context quotation as a handy anecdote for defending the mainstream media from the charge of liberal bias.
In context, there’s no evidence to support the view that Bond was revealing any part of an overarching GOP strategy to influence the mainstream press. It makes a great deal more sense to understand that Bond was pointing out a utilitarian angle to what people might otherwise count as simply whining. So Bond said it, but it doesn’t mean what some people say it means.
“If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.'”
Bond wasn’t admitting to any big Republican strategy for influencing the media.
Cohen, Jeff, and Norman Solomon. “Gop’s
Coaches' Work The MediaRefs’” The Seattle Times. The Seattle Times, 29 Aug. 1992. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.
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Alterman, Eric. “Bias, Slander, and BS.” Introduction. What Liberal Media? New York: Basic, 2003. 2. Print.
Berke, Richard L. “Departing Chairman Scolds Republicans Over ‘Zealotry’” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 30 Jan. 1993. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.
Randolph, Eleanor. “GOP Finds That Media-Bashing Is the Right Path.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 22 July 1996. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.
Ackerman, Seth. “The Most Biased Name in News.” FAIR. Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, 01 July 2001. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.
Alterman, Eric. “What Liberal Media?” The Nation. The Nation, 06 Feb. 2003. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.
Hartmann, Thom. “The Battle Hymn of the New Liberal Media: A Good Business Plan.” Common Dreams. Common Dreams, 16 Oct. 2003. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.
Alterman, Eric. “How Conservatives Treat Media Bias (Hint: Confusingly).” Center for American Progress Action Fund. Center for American Progress Action Fund, 04 Oct. 2012. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.
McChesney, Robert W. “From Fox News to Rush: Secrets of the Right’s Lie Machine.” Salon.com. Salon Media Group, Inc., 15 June 2013. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.