Press Box

The Liberal Media and How To Stop It

You can’t. But these days, how much does it matter?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

Just two nights ago on his show, Fox News Channel’s Brit Hume led panelists Fred Barnes, Morton Kondracke, and Charles Krauthammer in a discussion of the purported liberal coverage of the presidential campaign.

A greater collection of like minds may never have been assembled. Hume recently told the Los Angeles Times that he’s “a journalist first and a conservative second or third.” Barnes is executive editor of the Weekly Standard and author of the 2006 book Rebel-in-Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush. Krauthammer is a leading conservative columnist and thinker. Kondracke’s distinguishing feature is that he has no distinguishing feature—unless being a chameleon is distinguishing.

And so, without any sense of irony, the conservative quartet batted around the subject of liberal media bias. Nobody had a new idea to share, and because there weren’t any liberals on tap, no real critical view of the premise was aired. It was as predictable as a theological discussion among a foursome of atheists.

The panel’s general gist was that the press has preferred Barack Obama to John McCain. Hume came dangerously close to complicating the conversation by citing “widespread agreement” in the mainstream media of press biased in favor of Obama over Hillary Clinton, both of whom are liberals. Was Hume implying that Obama is more liberal than Clinton, hence the press’ favorite? But brevity being the soul of good television, nobody pursued the point, and the segment motored on to the usual touchstones of the press corps’ deficiencies in reporting out Obama’s connections to Antoin “Tony” Rezko and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. For some inexplicable reason, coverage of the William Ayers connection didn’t come up, so those playing the Fox News Drinking Game at home probably cried in their shot glasses.

Although I don’t think the New York Times or Washington Post or any of the other prestigious media machines have tilted toward a candidate this year, the bellyaching conservatives do have a point. The press, especially the Washington press, is still overwhelmingly populated by liberals. I should know. I’ve been working here as a (nonliberal) journalist for the last 26 years, not counting a four-year furlough to the liberal burgs of San Francisco and Seattle.

I can’t say I’ve ever taken tissue samples from Washington reporters and scanned their DNA for liberal markers, but whenever I do a tally—formal or otherwise—the numbers come back liberal. For instance, while editing Washington City Paper in the early 1990s, I sent a freelancer to the voter registrars’ offices to check the party affiliations of what I considered the top 30 or so Washington Post editors and reporters. I don’t have the clip handy, but as I recall about 80 percent were registered Democratic, about 15 percent independent, and about 5 percent were Republican.

One of the registered Republicans (I’m pretty sure it was Tony Kornheiser, but I beg forgiveness if I am wrong) explained that he and his wife wanted all of the campaign literature from both parties mailed to their home, so each election cycle they flipped a coin to determine how they registered. That year he registered as a Republican because he lost the flip.

A similarly lopsided count of media liberals can be found at Slate, where we report this week that Obama got 55 of the 57 votes cast by staffers and contributors. That’s an extraordinary turnout. I doubt that Obama will garner 96 percent even in his home precinct of Hyde Park. Editor David Plotz theorizes that Obama polled so well at the magazine because 1) most of us live in extremely Democratic cities on the East and West coasts (as if geography was political destiny!); 2) the staff skews young, and all polls show younger voters favoring the Democrat; 3) several of the magazine’s contributors are Obama advisers; and 4) “we are all journalists,” and liberals, as our beloved founder Michael Kinsley wrote in 2000, are naturally attracted to the profession.

Kinsley holds that a journalist’s personal political views say nothing, one way or the other, about what sort of stories he’ll file and that “any liberal bias in reporting is more than counterbalanced by the conservative tilt of the commentariat.” (Note to thinkers who argue that a Democratic voter isn’t the same thing as a liberal: Stick it in your ear.) 

My personal experience confirms Kinsley’s hunch that liberals flock to media jobs. In the 10 years that I hired at Washington City Paper and SF Weekly,only one reporter or editor job went to a self-identified conservative. I can’t be guilty of any pro-liberal bias partly because liberals—I’m thinking Timothy Noah—tend to creep me out. Yet year after year, the best applicants were almost exclusively liberal.

Even so, the Obamavalanche Slate recorded this year, like the similar blowouts for Kerry and Gore in 2004 and 2000, require additional meditation. In theory, Slate is a quasi-liberal magazine about politics and culture that publishes opinion, interpretive journalism, essays, straight reporting, and more. But I’ve never witnessed any top editor applying a liberal litmus test to a prospective hire or freelancer, and I’ve been here since before the magazine’s 1996 launch.

Far from practicing monoculture, the Slate farm has always planted conservative and libertarian ideas in its Web pages, as can be gleaned from scanning the archives, where you’ll find the bylines of such writers as James Q. Wilson, Steve Chapman, Steven E. Landsburg, Brian Doherty, Richard A. Epstein, Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Caldwell, Michael Young, William F. Buckley Jr., Eugene Volokh, Herbert Stein, Ben Stein, Daniel Drezner, Karen Lehrman, David Brooks, Anne Applebaum, Sam Tanenhaus, Jonah Goldberg, Tucker Carlson, Mark Steyn, Matt Labash, Alex Kozinski, Jack Goldsmith, Douglas W. Kmiec, David Frum, Richard A. Posner, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., Ross Douthat, Lucianne Goldberg, Viet Dinh, James Pinkerton, David Klinghoffer, Dinesh D’Souza, Wladyslaw Pleszczynski, Norman Podhoretz, Nick Gillespie, Midge Decter, Abigail Thernstrom, Stephan Thernstrom, Cathy Young, Radley Balko, Jill Stewart, Charles Paul Freund, and William McGurn. And I’m not even counting those heretics Kaus and Hitchens.

So if Slate is so keen on conservative and libertarian ideas,why do so few staffers tilt that way? One explanation could be that like-hires-like in almost every field, and that editors depend on their social networks to fill positions. But that’s a pretty thin explanation if their social networks are big enough to assign pieces to conservatives and libertarians but not hire them. Another explanation could be that Slate knows it can’t be taken seriously as a magazine of ideas without considering ideas outside of its quasi-liberal wheelhouse. But that seems pretty thin, too. This magazine has never been a debate society. Its mission has been to prowl for the vital, the new, and the urgent.

I can’t solve the Slate Obamavalanche conundrum. But that doesn’t mean I’d support an affirmative action program for conservatives just because they think they’re underrepresented. Screw that. Conservatives put their minds to filling the ranks of the commentariat, and they did OK there. If they want to fill more mainstream reporter and editor jobs, let them tug harder on their bootstraps.

And if the folks at Fox News Channel really think that the mainstream media is doing such an awful job of reporting the 2008 campaign, they should direct their complaints to their boss, Rupert Murdoch, who owns the second-biggest newspaper in the country, the Wall Street Journal. The best press criticism isn’t a column or a moan of disgust into a TV camera. It’s writing a better story.


I stole my nifty headline from a book that I recommended last May: The Future of the Internet—and How to Stop It. I sought guidance for this piece from notorious liberal Timothy Noah, whose insights proved worthless, thereby proving that there is a liberal conspiracy to undo me. Thanks, Tim! Send liberal complaints via e-mail to (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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