Six years ago, David Brock wrote a much-discussed article for Esquire in which he argued that conservative journalists are more slavishly loyal to their movement and its leaders than their liberal counterparts. (He debated its contents with Tucker Carlson in Slate.) Since then, Brock himself has become a counterexample to this thesis, cuddling up to Tom Daschle and Bill Clinton while he rips his former comrades on the right. Brock’s account of that transformation, Blinded by the Right, struck Chatterbox as factually dubious. Nonetheless, Chatterbox believed at the time, and continues to believe, that Brock was right when he said that conservative journalists are more obedient to their masters.
Now Michael Tomasky, a liberal journalist who was recently named executive editor of the (liberal) American Prospect, has produced some data to support Brock’s point. As a Shorenstein fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Tomasky spent much of this past spring comparing editorials from two liberal newspapers (the New York Times and the Washington Post) with editorials from two conservative papers (the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times). His findings:
[W]hile the pages are more or less equally partisan when it comes to supporting or opposing a given presidential administration’s policy pronouncements, the conservative pages are more partisan—often far more partisan—with regard to the intensity with which they criticize the other side. Also … conservative editorial pages are far less willing to criticize a Republican administration than liberal pages are willing to take issue with a Democratic administration [italics Chatterbox’s].
Tomasky’s method was to review 510 editorials that ran during the Clinton and Bush administrations. The editorials all addressed one of 10 pairs of incidents Tomasky judged to be comparable, e.g., the controversy about first lady Hillary Clinton’s health-care panel meeting in secret in 1993 and the controversy about Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy-policy panel meeting in secret in 2001. Some very big stories were necessarily excluded from Tomasky’s study. Quite rightly, he omitted any editorials about the Whitewater or Monica Lewinsky scandals on the grounds that nothing comparable could be found in Bush’s administration, and he omitted any editorials about 9/11 on the grounds that nothing comparable could be found in Clinton’s administration.
Tomasky’s findings are quite striking. The percentage of editorials in Tomasky’s liberal sample that criticized Bush (67 percent) was 22 points less than the percentage of editorials in Tomasky’s conservative sample that criticized Clinton (89 percent). Particularly dramatic are what Chatterbox will label the Praise Gap and the Self-Criticism Gap. The Praise Gap reflects the liberal papers’ general reluctance to praise anyone, ideological friend or foe. Thus the liberal sample praised Clinton a mere 30 percent of the time while the conservative sample praised Bush 77 percent of the time. The Self-Criticism Gap shows that liberal papers are well able to criticize ideological friends while the conservative papers really aren’t. The liberal sample criticized Clinton 30 percent of the time while the conservative sample criticized Bush a mere 7 percent of the time. The Wall Street Journal has a particularly strong aversion to self-criticism. Of the 40 Bush editorials Tomasky surveyed, only one criticized Bush. This was an editorial arguing against Bush’s support for steel tariffs, which violated the editorial page’s core principle of free trade but was discussed at the absurdly minimal length of 123 words. Yes, Virginia, there is a Conintern.
A third gap might be called the Civility Gap. This is hard to quantify, but Tomasky observes that conservative newspapers (especially the Journal) are more apt to express their views rudely than liberal papers are. Tomasky notes that the Clinton administration “had barely unpacked its bags when the Wall Street Journal referred to administration figures as ‘pod people from a “Star Trek” episode’ … genetically bred to inhabit the public sector.” Howell Raines, who ran the New York Times editorial page during the two Clinton administrations, did his best to close the Civility Gap by introducing similarly overheated rhetoric. Ironically, though, the worst of this rhetoric was hurled at the paper’s ideological friend, Bill Clinton, against whom Raines bore considerable ill will long before Clinton was found to have committed perjury.
The incivility problem at the Wall Street Journal was due largely to Editorial Page Editor Robert Bartley, who clearly had been in the job too long by the time Clinton came into office. That situation has improved somewhat since Bartley was replaced by Paul Gigot. The page has been no less critical of liberal policies, but it has managed to voice its disagreements less loutishly, and its propensity to invent stupid non-scandals is greatly diminished. Similarly, the quest to mirror the Bartley style (if not its politics) at the New York Times largely subsided when Raines was replaced by Gail Collins. Tomasky should perhaps have noted this.
A more serious problem with Tomasky’s study is his choice of the Washington Post as a representatively “liberal” paper. It’s true that the Post has that reputation, but, as Eric Alterman notes in his book What Liberal Media?, the reputation is 20 years out of date. (For an extended discussion of Alterman’s book, click here.) Under Meg Greenfield, the Post editorial page drifted rightward, especially on foreign policy. Since Fred Hiatt took over after Greenfield’s death, it has drifted a little further right. The Post’s editorial page is now best characterized as a notch or two right of center. A much better choice than the Post to pair with the liberal Times would have been the Boston Globe’s editorial page.
Still, Tomasky’s findings hold up when you compare just the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The Times supported Clinton 37 percent of the time and opposed him 37 percent of the time. The Journal, meanwhile, supported Bush 75 percent of the time and opposed him 3 percent of the time. The Journal opposed Clinton 83 percent of the time while the Times opposed Bush 68 percent of the time. The Journal praised Clinton 5 percent of the time while the Times praised Bush 8 percent of the time.
When the Brock piece came out, Chatterbox (then writing a media column for U.S. News) interviewed the conservative commentator David Frum about its thesis. Frum basically agreed with it. “What happens with the liberal press is that there are loyalties to causes,” he said. That’s correct. In Tomasky’s study, the Times editorial page supported Clinton on policy matters 52 percent of the time, a mere 7 percentage points less than the Journal supported Bush. But, Frum added, “[w]ith conservatives, I suspect there is much more of a loyalty to people.” And how: The Journal supported Bush on non-policy matters 95 percent of the time, whereas the Times supported Clinton on non-policy matters only 28 percent of the time. Raines’ anti-Clinton pathology may exaggerate this last statistic, but there’s no denying that compared to liberal editorialists, the conservatives march in lock step. You tell me who produces better journalism.