Political bias—raw and wicked—blights American newspapers and TV news. Upon this bold declaration, press critics of both the left and right are able to agree.
But their cozy consensus collapses at second glance.
Critics on the left—surprise!—insist the press tilts hard right, allowing a vast conspiracy of think tanks, Republican political operatives, and columnists to set the media agenda. The lefties say the press brown-noses George W. Bush, cheerleads the warmongers, and sides with big business. No—for that matter, the media is big business, owned outright by General Electric, Murdoch, Disney, Cox, Bertelsmann, AOL Time Warner, Microsoft, Knight-Ridder, Viacom, Gannett, et al. In recent weeks, liberals Al Gore, E.J. Dionne Jr., Paul Waldman, and Joe Conason have joined the many busy beavers at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting in diagnosing and denouncing a rightward lurch of the press. MSNBC.com blogger and Nation columnist Eric Alterman has written an entire book, What Liberal Media?, attacking what he calls the myth of the “so-called liberal media” (or in Alterman’s parlance, the SCLM).
Critics who bat right make—surprise!—a parallel set of claims. They say the press slants left on the abortion issue, sympathizes with Saddam Hussein, applauds big government, promotes gay issues, disparages religion, and is unconscionably cruel to conservative politicians. They cite survey data to prove that reporters are overwhelmingly liberal. The conservative Media Research Center finds so much liberal bias in the media it’s able to tweeze the stuff out daily. Such critics include MRC’s L. Brent Bozell III, Michael Kelly, Jonah Goldberg, Reed Irvine and Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media, Thomas Sowell, switch-hitting “liberal” Bernard Goldberg, and conservative blogs too numerous to name. (Read the Alterman/Bozell face-off here.)
The crude symmetry of the left and right media critiques suggest that 1) having over-tuned their radars, partisan press critics sometimes detect media bias even where it ain’t; 2) if both liberals and conservatives are partly right about the media, as I suspect they are, bias of an ideological nature should cancel itself out in the long run, nudging the press toward rough balance if not absolute fairness on the political spectrum; 3) when the left and right talk about systemic, chronic media bias, they’re not talking the same language; and 4) it’s hard to put much stock in what left and right press critics say because their views are so patently motivated by ideology. In other words, the intense and public biases of the press critics make them unreliable readers of press bias.
“Media bias is easy to talk about in a specific way,” says my friend David Corn, Washington editor of the Nation. “And even easier to talk about in a general way.” Over the next couple of columns, I intend to speak about specific bias and general bias in ways that don’t sound as glib and partisan as what you hear from the folks mentioned above. I’ll be reading your e-mail responses as I compose the next installments and hope to mention the best insights forwarded to me. But first, a little history. …
The first accusation of press bias surely flew the day the first newspaper was published. Modern liberals, however, trace their displeasure with the press to the Roosevelt era. FDR called the press “200 percent Republican.” Harry Truman liked to say that publishers and editors were Republicans but that all their Washington reporters were Democrats. Truman and Adlai Stevenson protested, rightly, the “one-party press” distortions of such Republican publications as those owned by Col. Robert R. McCormick, William Randolph Hearst, Scripps-Howard, and Henry R. Luce. The Alger Hiss case and the search for Red spies polarized the American press, with press liberals deriding the investigations as “witch hunts” and press conservatives stalwartly defending them.
The mass media veered left in the ‘50s, but it rarely slid any further than the center, where the Cold War consensus lay. (Remember, the CIA teemed with liberals back then.) Liberal papers such as Dorothy Schiff’s New York Post may have worn their politics on their sleeves, crusading for unions and social welfare programs, but the New York Times captured the era’s centrist sensibility by passing over the liberal Stevenson to endorse Dwight Eisenhower for president—not once but twice. Given Richard Nixon’s lifelong grudge against the press, one would guess that journalists had mauled him as he made his name as a young politician prosecuting the Hiss case. That’s the way he saw it. But in a forthcoming book, Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image, Slate contributor David Greenberg writes that the press mostly gave Nixon good notices for his Hiss performance. The young Nixon suffered no more bad press than your usual politician.
By the beginning of the ‘60s, television was loosening newspapers’ monopoly on the news. Centrist pundit James B. Reston of the New York Times spoke for the insider press when he observed that the press corps “no longer cover the president; they smother him.” TV commentators fell for the telegenic president, and more important, sympathized with the civil rights struggle, a “bias” in news reporting that few would criticize today. A generation of working-class reporters found themselves replaced by college graduates schooled by a liberal elite that had made books such as The End of Ideology, The Vital Center, and The Liberal Imagination required reading. The bilious right-wing papers lost much of their venom, with the Los Angeles Times abruptly changing from a political vehicle for conservatives to a blandly liberal publication run by a newly professionalized crew who preached objectivity over partisanship. Most influential papers happily drifted with the Kennedy liberal zeitgeist. (Or did the papers create the zeitgeist? Send me mail.)
The way we argue about press bias took its modern shape in 1964 with Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. Goldwater “unmade” the tidy generational “end of ideology” consensus, as Rick Perlstein writes in his valuable book Before the Storm, by reintroducing conservative arguments—about entitlements, unions, the size of government, and the role of the press—to the political mainstream. At the nominating convention, Eisenhower denounced “sensation seeking columnists and commentators” and nearly caused a riot—the delegates howled and shook their fists at the network anchors’ boxes. From Goldwater on, press bashing became a winning issue for Republicans, with every GOP presidential candidate (with the possible exception of Gerald Ford) doing his best to bully reporters or at least neuter them.
Goldwater was too blunt a personality to communicate persuasively his ideas to the masses, and his foes—and the press—successfully painted him a warmonger and hateful extremist. Yet he was no more a Dr. Strangelove or a psychopath than Kennedy or Eisenhower was. The bias against him was palpable. On CBS, reporter Daniel Schorr described the candidate’s trip to Germany as “a move by Senator Goldwater to link up” with German rightists. Others in the press corps didn’t think there was anything untoward about giving political advice to Goldwater opponent Lyndon Johnson. When Johnson told reporters he’d cinched the election and was looking for Republican House members to campaign against, the reporters suggested he visit Bob Dole’s district.
Unlike previous presidents, Nixon had no interest in cultivating and spinning the press in his favor. He assigned Vice President Spiro T. Agnew the task of labeling the fourth estate “nattering nabobs of negativism” and protesting the TV commentators’ critical “instant analysis” of Nixon’s speeches. Oddly, the anti-press blitz commenced in November 1969, after nine months in which the press essentially left Nixon alone. Greenberg theorizes that the press wasn’t Nixon’s only intended audience. He wanted to communicate a political message directly to the public: that the liberal press was out of touch with what he called “middle America.” Or, to put it another way, he used the age-old resentment of the press to punish the liberal elite. Nixon’s message helped propel him to a landslide victory in 1972.
Not until the ‘80s did lefties begin to adopt the Nixon/Agnew methodology of an ongoing anti-press offensive. Today, they’ve organized their own advocacy organizations to study press bias, developed their own media bias experts, published their own books about media bias, and taught their politicians how to shout bias, too. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to be so reflexively pro-press in the name of First Amendment sanctity that they’ve put more energy into bashing individual reporters (e.g., the Michael Isikoffs and Susan Schmidts who busted Clinton) than the whole institution.
Just because you can excavate a political component from any accusation of press bias doesn’t mean all press criticism is partisan or motivated by self-interest. Clearly, unadulterated bias contaminates many stories and can even infect the entire Washington press corps from time to time. But because most charges of bias are never distant from somebody’s active political agenda, no discussion about press bias—specific or general—should begin without this extended throat clearing.
Having cleared my throat, I’ll be writing several more installments about press bias, assaying alleged examples from the press and from television, and sticking my fork into what the academicians say. Send your thoughts and criticisms to email@example.com.