In the 1970s or 1980s, a typical exchange over liberal media bias went something like this:
CONSERVATIVE: “The media is biased.”
JOURNALIST: “No, it’s not.”
CONSERVATIVE: “Yes, it is.”
While conservatives could cite anecdotal evidence as to liberal bias in the media, journalism’s defenders always replied that such examples did not mean anything There was, as Clinton lawyer Lanny Davis used to say, “no pwoof.”
In the 1980s, this began to change, albeit slowly. A few surveys---often done by the Media Research Center (MRC)---provided some astounding numbers, such as the fact that when 52% of the voters selected Nixon in 1972, 81% of the media voted for George McGovern. A 1980 MRC survey of hundreds of editors, broadcasters, and publishers found that only 8% of the media elites attended church or synagogue regularly---compared to more than half of the American public---and that some 86% seldom or never attended church services.
Typically, the MRC studies were dismissed by liberals as “unscientific” or “predictable” or as coming from a “right-wing think tank.” But as polling became more common, it was only a matter of time before journalists themselves were polled. The results revealed the self-identification of media elites, if not their behavior. For example, a 1996 Roper Poll of journalists found that only 9% defined themselves as conservative or “moderate-to-conservative,” while 61% called themselves liberal or “liberal-to-moderate.”
The next fallback position was, “Well, journalists have definite views, but their liberal slant is not reflected in their reporting.” Oh really?
Technology is a wonderful thing, and the rise of information retrieval systems, such as LEXIS-NEXIS, have provided a new way to examine the claim that journalists don’t “let their liberalism affect their reporting.” Computer-based search engines permit “content-analysis” searches for key words or phrases in conjunction with other words and phrases. Journalists’ own use of “loaded” terms or their systematic application of labels suddenly could be brought to light. No longer could they hide behind the facade of probabilities (“Sure, I wrote that, but how was I to know that Mr. X would also use the same phrase?”)
So far, the results don’t look good for those who claim the media is “fair” and “balanced.”
Eron Shosteck, in an April 27th, 2000 column (“Pencil Necks”) for the National Journal, conducted an extensive LEXIS-NEXIS database on political terminology in journalism. Shosteck found the term “partisan Republican” appeared 85 times in a 90-day period, whereas “partisan Democrat” only appeared 58 times in the same three-month span, whereas “partisan Democrat” only appeared 58 times in the same three-month span. The term “hard right” (used 683 times) and “far right” (267) appeared more than twice as often as “hard left” (312) or “far left” (130). Worse, when searching for references to “extreme right,” the database search collapsed because it exceeded 1000 citations, whereas a search for “extreme left” only produced 58 citations.
But journalists did not need the labels “right” and “left” to portray someone they disliked in a bad light. Take the last presidential campaign, for example. The Democrats attempted to tar George W. Bush with his support of the death penalty, and in June 2000, Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly Michael reported a NEXIS search of stories that mentioned “George W. Bush” at least three times and “death penalty” at least three times netted more than five hundred hits for a single week!
What about “bigotry?” A NEXIS search for bias in another area---a candidate’s willingness to tolerate “bigotry”---revealed that George Bush’s visit to Bob Jones University (supposedly an anti-Catholic school) received more than 884 hits on a Nexis search, but Al Gore’s visit to meet with Al Sharpton, a race-baiting demagogue from New York, netted only 323 hits.
A more detailed study, of the use of language by “the elite press of the nation” (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post), covering an astounding 1500 articles from January 1, 1990 to July 15, 1998, contrasted coverage of the National Rifle Association with Handgun Control, Inc., the NAACP, the ACLU, and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). Among the instances of media bias documented by the study were subtle uses of pejorative labels for the NRA, such as “rich and paranoid,” loaded verbs of attribution (“claims” or “contends” rather than “said”), and adjectives to discredit sources. He also found that NRA officials were quoted less often than officials in the other organizations in the study; that flattering “feature” stories appeared on Sarah Brady, but never pro-gun advocates, such as NRA President Charleton Heston; and that the press was more likely to write a story solely on a press release or press conference of the AARP, Handgun Control, or the NAACP than the NRA. The author of the study, Brian Patrick of the University of Michigan concluded that the “data support a conclusion of systematic marginalization of the NRA in the elite newspaper coverage as compared with other interest groups.
Technology has also allowed content analysis studies of issues covered by the mainstream television news. The results reveal blatant leftward bias. For example, guests on morning and evening news-talk shows are more likely to represent a pro-gun-control position by a ratio of 5:1 to 10:1 over anti-gun-control guests. During the debate over the “Brady bill,” a gun registration bill, analysis of networks pro- and anti-Brady bill coverage by the Media Research Institute found that 59% of the network reports were “anti-gun” and that only 4% could be considered “pro-gun,” and that spokesmen in favor of the Brady Bill outnumbered people opposing the bill on the four major news networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN) by a ratio of three to one.
One reason journalists report with a liberal bias is that they can’t help it---it’s who they are. Peter Brown, the editor at the Orlando Sentinel, conducted a survey using a professional pollster sent to reporters in five mid-size cities in the U.S., plus the large metro area of Dallas-Ft. Worth. Brown and pollster Bill Hamilton of Bethesda devised two separate surveys. One used 500 residents and 478 journalists in five cities, Dayton, Ohio; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Syracuse, New York; Roanoke, Virginia; and Chico/Redding, California; while the other survey used a massive (by polling standards) database of 3400 home addresses of journalists in 13 news organizations, including the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Washington Post, the Denver Rocky Mountain News, and many other large- to mid-city papers. In the first survey, the pollster phoned residents in those areas at random and asked the same questions posed to the reporters.
Responses to the Brown survey revealed a shocking disparity in lifestyles. Journalists were
more likely “to live in upscale neighborhoods, have maids, own Mercedes and trade stocks, and less likely to go to church, do volunteer work or put down roots in a community.” Taken together, though, the profile revealed a class of people far outside the lifestyles of “average” Americans: journalists lived in communities where residents “are twice as likely as others to rent foreign movies, drink Chablis, own an espresso maker and read magazine such as Architectural Digest and Food & Wine.” Journalists had fewer children (or, more often, none) and lived in expensive urban neighborhoods, but eschewed rural areas, auto races, bowling, whiskey, Wheaties, yard sales, coupons, or Chevrolets. With this patchwork of shared elite values, “advocacy of elite interests comes so easily that it scarcely seems like bias at all,” said one media observer.
Journalists are paid substantially more than the American average (42% of journalists earning $50,000 or more, compared to 18% of the public); were almost twice as likely to support abortion (82% to 49%, according to a separate Los Angeles Times survey); and were far less likely to support prayer in schools or attend church. Most important, while the media elites lived more like the rich than they did “average Americans,” they nevertheless held a deep-seated hostility to capitalism and conservatism.
Brown’s research got to the nub of the old journalism counter to the notion that the there was a “left-wing conspiracy” in the media. Editors and publishers indignantly denied such an allegation, usually, in the process, making the accuser look like a kook. But Brown showed that such clandestine meetings did not need to occur for every daily paper to run almost identical articles with a similar slant on the issues: the journalists operated out of a “conspiracy of shared values”---essentially, the media elites lived so differently from average Americans that it never crossed their minds that they were biased.
Naturally, then, journalists tended to downplay what “ordinary” Americans deem important. Religion, for example, is virtually ignored by the mainstream media’s news outlets. One study found that between 1993 and 1996, of 176,000 reports on the major networks’ prime news shows, about one percent touched on religion, and in 1996 the television networks all completely ignored the 12 most important religious news stories of the year
By the 1990s, readers had become suspicious of the print media. A national poll taken by Editor and Publisher Magazine showed that 44% of regular readers of newspapers thought that the paper they read “has favored one candidate over the other in their news coverage” and that 2/3ds of those who thought that bias existed thought that the Democratic candidate was favored by this slant. (Perhaps that explains why newspaper circulation has fallen: as of 1998, the New York Times, Dallas Morning News, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Detroit Free Press, Arizona Republic, Boston Globe, and even the Wall Street Journal had all seen circulation fall by about .02 to 1.3%).
Some publishers may have dismissed diminishing circulation, but a better indicator that journalists were concerned could be seen in April 2000, when the American Society of Newspaper Editors embarked on its “Journalism Credibility Project.” This internal review sought to answer the question “Why do so many Americans distrust what they read in newspapers?” Although panels met and “experts” debated various theories, few got to the essence of the problem. Stuart Garner, CEO of Thomson Newspapers, Inc., lamented that newspapers no longer were “useful” to people: reporters took “ego trips” and he observed that too many reporters “want to save the world, whether the world wants to be saved or not.”
In 1976, less than 30% of all Americans had a “great deal of confidence” in the press. By 1983, that number had dropped to a pathetic 13%. A Gallup organization poll in 2000 ranking the top ten confidence-inspiring institutions had “newspapers” and “TV news” coming in at #9 and #10, respectively (the military was #1 and church was #2).
Television news also felt the pressure of FOX News and the Internet: from 24% of the sets in use tuning in to CBS News in 1985, by 2000 that percentage had been cut almost in half. Likewise, ABC, which had 21% of the viewers in 1985, had just 16% fifteen years later, and NBC had dropped from 21% to 16%. Executives had to admit that indeed their market had been shrinking: “ABC producer Phyllis McGrady said as early as 1997 the numbers “were really dropping . . . At first I thought it was just sort of a blip. Then I realized it was more than a blip.”
Bernard Goldberg’s recent bestseller, Bias, opened a few eyes regarding bias in the press. But journalists could (and did) deflect its main criticisms easily enough by contending Goldberg’s evidence was anecdotal, hearsay, or even fabricated. While “insider” books can make an important contribution, they are, ultimately, subject to the charge of letting a few experiences shape their own (tilted) reporting.
The good news is that there is now hard data out there, and lots of it. Content-based LEXIS-NEXIS searches and sociological studies such as Brown’s have established the liberal bias of the mainstream news organizations without a doubt. Apparently, the readers and viewers have some bias of their own---for truth, fact, and accuracy---when it comes to getting their news.