Press Box

The Varieties of Media Bias, Part 2

The old litmus tests that sort journalists into left and right don’t work anymore.

Whenever conservatives talk to liberals about press bias—or vice versa—they talk right past one another. Both factions seem to work backward from their conclusions to the evidence and damn what the other side says. For a prime example, see the “Are the Media Liberal?” debate in National Review Online from last week. In it, conservative L. Brent Bozell III of the Media Research Center spars with lefty journalist Eric Alterman, author of What Liberal Media?

In his first response to Alterman, Bozell calls liberal media bias “obvious,” “documented,” and “proven” and cites a “national survey of the Washington-based media commissioned by the Gannett media organization” to demonstrate the press corps’ essential liberality. (Actually, the survey was commissioned by the Freedom Forum foundation, which grew out of a foundation started by publisher Frank E. Gannett but is completely independent from the Gannett news corporation.) Bozell writes that the study found that:

in 1992, by 89-7 percent, [press members surveyed] voted for Bill Clinton over George Bush; that by 50-14 percent they see themselves as Democrats over Republicans; and that while 61 percent describe themselves as liberal, only two percent dare call themselves “conservative.” …

Such lopsided numbers would turn anybody’s head. But how accurate are they? Not very. Reporter Robert Parry exposed the survey’s weaknesses in a 1997 piece: The polling group that conducted the survey sent its questionnaires to 323 journalists covering some aspect of Congress. Only 139 completed surveys came back, and nine of them left the question about their presidential vote blank.

While you might reap accurate results from a Vulcan mind probe of just 130 members of the Washington press corps, you’d want to make sure the 130 surveyed were the right 130. But that’s not the case with this survey. Only 60 of the 323 questionnaires went to journalists at the elite organizations that set the news agenda: the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, PBS, National Public Radio, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News, the Associated Press, and Reuters. Instead, the pollster told Parry, most of the surveys were sent to Washington staffers at regional newspapers (the Boston Globe, Denver Post, Dallas Morning News) or at the chain wire services (Knight-Ridder, Newhouse), with a quarter of the questionnaires going to pipsqueak pubs like Indian Country Today, Hill Rag, Washington Citizen, and Government Standard.

The survey guaranteed its respondents anonymity, so nobody knows who, exactly, returned surveys. But we can guess: Self-important big-shots surely round-filed the nosy Q & A, and flattered small-fry probably obliged. I’d be astonished if more than 10 of the 60 elite journos surveyed bothered filling out the form.

What’s more, Bozell and Co. ignore the changing face of politics when they attempt to prove the liberality of the press corps by rounding up Clinton voters. Clinton ran as a controversial (within his own party) centrist—not a Carter, Mondale, or Dukakis liberal. He also governed from that slice of the political spectrum. Conclusion? Case most definitely not closed.

Alterman matches Bozell’s lameness by “disproving” liberal bias with quotations from leading Republicans and conservatives—Rich Bond, James Baker, Pat Buchanan, and Bill Kristol. These figures either confess that they “work the ref” (the press) in hopes of winning favorable coverage for conservatives or concede that press bias really isn’t that big a deal. Bozell zings Alterman for ignoring the content-analysis work he and other conservatives have done and for plucking a quotation here and a quotation there from the vastness of Lexis-Nexis to make his point.

The ongoing sermons about media bias from right and left stink mostly because they rely on the ideological frameworks constructed by the bias-hunters of the early ‘70s. In the old days, it was easy to sort Washington journalists into left and right by lining them up against the wall and giving them a dozen litmus test issues—for or against, say, reproductive rights; gay rights; civil liberties; gun control; national health care; school prayer; capital punishment; arms control; free trade; welfare; crime; civil rights; the drug war; corporate power; the environment; porn; and deficit spending. Anybody who took the liberal line 75 percent of the time qualified as a liberal.

But the old litmus paper has lost its magic. While the media-bias interlocutors’ positions remain fixed—have any political views at the Nation changed in the last half-century?—the views of Washington journalists have shifted, as have those of the public. The journalists-formerly-known-as-liberals (TJFKNAL) are no longer reflexively against free trade, the drug war, and corporations, thanks, in part, to the centrist teachings of Bill Clinton. And they’re no longer reflexively for deficit spending, welfare, and porn. Likewise, traditional conservative views about the environment, civil liberties, the deficit, arms control, and health care have morphed, allowing President Bush unilaterally to cut the nuclear arsenal, propose new drug subsidies for the codgers, and budget for deeper deficits.

The litmus paper doesn’t work perfectly on conservatives, either, who no longer conform to the convenient stereotypes. The Weekly Standard national greatnessconservative is a different breed than the orthodox conservative writing at National Reviewand the paleoconservative barking at Buchanan’s American Conservative, all of whom can quarrel with the the Bartleyite neocon Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Are Alterman and Bozell dense about the new politics or just loyal apparatchiks?

Some liberal markers endure—feminism (though it’s waning), separation of church and state, and labor, for example. But the average Washington TJFKNAL I come into contact with doesn’t fall neatly along old-school divisions/lines. Where the liberal reporter of 1979 would no sooner phone a Heritage Foundation analyst for a comment than he would somebody from the John Birch Society, today’s average TJFKNAL willingly speed-dials the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, or Cato Institute without wincing—in most cases without labeling the organization as right-leaning.

This is not to argue that there are no liberals in the press. Obviously there are. The New York Times’ Robert Pear still channels the ghost of Hubert H. Humphrey. But most modern reporters swear fealty to the story. (Case in point: If a conservative offered Pear an anti-lib story that got him Page One, he’d take it, but that’s not the side of the street he typically works.) If they have to savage a Clinton or a Gore or a Reich in the process, them’s the breaks. If there is an overarching bias in the press corps, it’s one in favor of official sources in government and business, the powerful people who hold the keys to information. The election of Ronald Reagan gave credence to conservative ideas, not because he turned liberals into conservatives but because liberals couldn’t get the story unless they approached conservative ideas with some semblance of balance. (I’ll get to the paucity of conservative reporters, lapsed or otherwise, in the reporter ranks, and I’ll also write about the profusion of conservatives in the commentariat.)

In his new book, Alterman archly dismisses the existence of the liberal media, writing, “Even the genuinely liberal media is not so liberal,” especially compared to the liberal media of Europe. (Of course, the European press follows a tradition in which a newspaper explicitly supports one political party over another while American pressmen are supposed to subordinate their personal views to objectivity.) According to Alterman, the top Washington journalists are social liberals and fiscal conservatives, not card-carrying Americans for Democratic Action members from the days of yore. Alterman credits this critique to the lefty critics at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, which commissioned a survey and study—no less flawed in design, participation, and execution than the poll cited above—to assert the public’s views areto the left of the press corps’!

Bozell’s Media Research Center team counters with less than transparent studies they say prove the American public perceives an overwhelmingly liberal bias in the news. Could it be the public automatically thinks the media is liberal because the right wing has hammered away on this point ever since Nixon declared war on the press 35 years ago?

Once again, left and right talk past one another.


Previously in this series: Who threw the first punch in the press bias brawl?

Next in this series: What the readers of this series make of media bias, and more.


I read my e-mail at Send your comments, advice, and vitriol.