Liberal Bias

There are few people in American journalism whose political acumen and experience are as well respected as Elizabeth Drew’s. For the past 40 years, she has observed and thoughtfully written about the American political system. Although she is an old-school Liberal, she has a reputation for trenchant analysis of political figures irrespective of political affiliation.Yet, no one is perfect. It was the weekend before the 1980 presidential election between incumbent President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. On the political commentary television program Agronsky and Company, she was asked to handicap the upcoming election. She thought it was “too close to call.” Despite the fact that polls were already indicating a Reagan landslide only days away, this Liberal political expert could not bring herself to acknowledge that Ronald Reagan would almost certainly win the pending election. She could not bring herself to believe that the country was about to elect not only a Conservative, but the most important Conservative spokesman of a generation as President of the United States.

This does not make Elizabeth Drew a fool, but a human. She is limited, like us all, in her ability to see beyond her beliefs, passions, and hopes, unable sometimes to distinguish between wishes and facts. It is precisely this effect that makes the Liberal bias in the national media so problematic.

Of course, the media are not monolithic. Small town newspapers and local television stations around the country tend to reflect the biases and outlooks of their local communities. There are plenty of Conservative editorial pages and journalists around the country. However, there can be little doubt that the national media centered in New York City and Washington, DC are far to the left of the country as a whole. Even if they merely reflected the local populations of New York and Washington, they would be to the left of the great major of Americans.

The fact that the journalists in the national media are dominantly Liberal is really beyond serious question. Evidence was clear as far back as 1981 when the S. R. Lichter and Stanley Rothman queried 240 journalists working for the national media and found that 81% percent voted for the Democratic candidate for president for every election from 1964 to 1972. More recently, Thomas Edsall, political reporter for the Washington Post cites 2001 Kaiser/Public Perspective survey that, “only a tiny fraction of the media identifies itself as Republican (4%) or Conservative (6%). This is in direct contrast to the public, which identifies itself as 24% Republican and 35% Conservative…”

A survey of over 1000 journalists in 1996 by the American Association of Newspaper Editors found that 61% of newsroom staffers identified themselves as Liberal/Democratic while only 15% were Conservative/Republican. Further, the larger the newspaper, the more liberal the staff was likely to be. A survey by Freedom Forum, a “nonpartisan, international foundation dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people,” found that 89% of journalists voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 while 43% of the voting public did. Even the self-described Liberal Jack Germond, political commentator and former political correspondent for the now-defunct Washington Star and the Baltimore Sun, conceded in the September 1, 2001 broadcast of Inside Washington that more reporters are Liberal.

FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), a left-leaning media-monitoring group has tried to counter the mountain of evidence suggesting that journalists are Liberal at surveys of its own. However, these surveys, perhaps deliberately, do not query about abortion, affirmative action, or other social issues where differences between journalists and the rest of the population are most dramatic. Instead, they asked questions about international trade agreements like NAFTA where the difference are more between populism and elitism as opposed to Conservative or Liberal. Using an issue that both President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich agreed upon does not seem like an effective tool for discriminating between Liberals and Conservatives.

Despite the labors of groups like FAIR to suggest that members of the media are Conservative, perceptions of the public at large tell a different story. In a 1998 Gallup Poll sponsored by the American Journalism Review, twice as many people perceived a liberal bias as opposed to a conservative media bias. A Freedom Forum poll agreed with the Gallup results with respect to Liberal bias save the latter poll found the public perceived only a slight Democratic bias in the media.

The problem of dominance of Liberals in the press is not that journalists gather in secret cabals to deliberately slant news. Of course, there are a few who engage in a studied and deliberate slanting of the news, but the most common bias is the inadvertent bias of agenda. Liberal journalists find certain issues important and pursue them to the exclusion of others and certain groups are portrayed more sympathetically. Liberal media will seek out the National Organization for Women for comments on the women’s perspective, not because they represent a majority of women. They do not. Rather, these journalists are more likely to know and respect members of the group.

It is these Liberal journalists who will report for days on Matthew Shepard, a homosexual who was brutally beaten to death, because the crime represents a metaphor for an issue they feel passionately about. It is these journalists who will, the same time, ignore the brutal rape and murder of a 13-year-old boy by two homosexuals as not important as a national story.

It is Liberal journalists, unfettered by a Conservative critique by their peers, who will refer to Kenneth Starr as the Republican independent prosecutor, while rarely mentioning the fact that Gary Condit is a Democrat. CNN has even inadvertently called Condit a Republican. Others suggest Condit is a Conservative, while rankings of Conservative and Liberal interest groups place him to the slightly to the left of center.

It is these journalists who unfairly associated the Conservative ascent of the Newt Gingrich Congress with the Oklahoma bombing by an anti-government fanatic. These same journalists would never make the same dreadful mistake of associating the fanatical anti-technology killer Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, with Al Gore’s environmentalism.

This problem is less of a concern for Conservatives in the media. It is not that Conservatives are smarter or morally superior. Rather it is that they know that their ideas will receive greater scrutiny. Conservatives are not burdened by the tyranny of unspoken and unquestioned assumptions that can blind their Liberal counterparts. Liberal journalists do not have the friction of incredulity of peers against which to hone their work. The real solution is for there to be greater representation in newsrooms by Conservatives, providing a real diversity of perspective.

Robert Samuelson in a recent op/ed piece represented a lonely voice in the wilderness questioning the appointment of Howell Raines, the very Liberal and passionate New York Times editorial page editor as the executive editor of the paper. It is Raines who will now choose what issues to cover, how to deploy reporters and what ultimately gets reported as news by what is arguably the nation’s most influential paper.

The point is not that Raines will not try to be balanced. It is that there are no institutional safeguards to help Raise see beyond his own perspective. The failure of the New York Times to recognize the necessity for such a counterbalance is just one more piece of evidence cementing the notion that the national media are finding impartiality too difficult a goal to attain.

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