Tuesday :: Mar 29, 2005

How the Liberal Media Myth is Created - Part 6

by eriposte

This is a continuation of a series on how the "liberal media" myth is created. Previous installments covered myth-creation using "tone" of media coverage (Part 1), "catch-phrases" like 'right-wing extremist' v. 'left-wing extremist' (Part 2), "newspaper headlines" (Part 3), "topics" covered (Part 4) and "think-tank" citations (Part 5). This part highlights attempts to create a "liberal media" myth using surveys of journalist ideology or voting preferences.

Ever so often, hapless readers are treated to yet another survey or "study" showing how "most" journalists are "liberal" in their ideology or voting preferences. This is usually accompanied by the expected braying by the usual suspects on the Right about how journalists are therefore biased "liberal" in their news coverage. This is not a new phenomenon. As David Brock has pointed out in his seminal book "The Republican Noise Machine", one of the earliest such "studies" was in the book "The Media Elite: America's New Powerbrokers" by S. Robert Lichter et al. (bold text is my emphasis):

The revelation that most reporters surveyed voted Democratic, even in years of Republican landslides like 1972, was one from which the media's reputation for objectivity probably never recovered. Most people are not trained journalists. They either don't know, or don't believe, that the profession aspires to impartiality. They have little idea of how competitive and commercial concerns, pressure to conform, deference to power, a desire to avoid being labeled "liberal" by right-wing critics, and myriad other biases can influence a story at the expense of any personal political beliefs. They do know that news stories are not churned out by a computer and that personal judgments must enter into the equation somewhere along the line; they presume that politics naturally does, too. For many, this one statistic about how workaday reporters and editors tend to vote, and the attendant presumption that voting habits determined any bias in their work, closed the case before the subject of the voting patterns of media owners, executives, and top editors could even be broached. That was a question, among many others, that The Media Elite hadn't bothered to ask.

The Lichters used a very small sample to reach their sweeping conclusions. The study relied on the voluntary responses of 238 print and broadcast journalists out of 210,000 editors and reporters and 47,000 TV journalists then working in the field.21 And the Lichters' ideological profiling was slippery. By choosing the "business elite," a traditionally conservative group, as a point of comparison, rather than, say, teachers, or truck drivers, or even a sampling of general American public opinion, the authors seemed predetermined to make the media appear more liberal and out of touch with mainstream values than it actually was.22 
"Liberal bias" was a handy rallying point that the Lichters failed not only to prove, but to even charge.

Though the book's reviewers suggested the opposite, the authors concluded that the media was not liberally biased - a concept the authors defined as calculatedly unfair. They stated flatly that the media's social liberalism did not manifest itself in coverage of Democrats or Republicans, of legislative debates, or even of liberals and conservatives. They pointed to the great ideological diversity within news organizations, claiming that the Washington Post was more "pro-environment" but far more economically conservative than the New York Times. Many years later, in a 1997 interview with the Moonie magazine Insight, Robert Lichter said: "Conservative columnists all over the place were saying that we proved that there was a liberal bias in the press, which at the time we had not."
At several points in the book, the authors knocked down entirely the idea that the media's "ideological profile" biased its coverage. For example, they wrote: "When leading journalists confront new information, they usually manage to process it without interjecting their own viewpoints."

Since then, of course there have been many more such surveys or "studies" and I cover some of them at ICM (e.g., see, Sec. 2.2, Sec. 2.8, and Sec. 4.1). One of the general points that emerges from some of the later, somewhat more credible, surveys is that the majority of journalists claim to be centrist rather than liberal or conservative (on social and economic issues) - but, of the remainder, more tend to be liberal on social issues and conservative on economic issues, than the other way around. Now, even if we believe these surveys, do they somehow prove overall "liberal bias" in news coverage? The answer is a resounding NO (partly explained below). Why do some conservatives in the media then persist in pushing this spin point at every opportunity? Because they can. Because they could care less about facts. And....because the ICM lets them.

Let's also look at this from another perspective. The media is awash with conservative commentators, op-ed writers, columnists, talking heads and talk show hosts. Clearly many of these people are strong supporters of the Republican party and vote Republican. If those among them who peddle the above theory actually believe it, then it means they also accept that they themselves are completely biased and cannot be trusted with anything they report on or write about because it would not be "fair and balanced". Or at least one would think they accept that. But when Fox News comically keeps insisting that they are "fair and balanced", they are actually making a claim that it is possible to support a particular political party and ideology and yet be "fair and balanced." So which one is it folks? Make up your mind.

Now, since I am trying to address serious and credible media critics, let me summarize why a so-called "liberal" journalist ideology has not resulted in overall "liberal media" bias:

  • Because newspaper publishers and media owners (and often even editors) historically tend to be more conservative and endorse/vote for Republicans rather than Democrats - and they usually have much more control (and censorship) over news coverage than the journalists who are farther down the chain, especially in this era of corporatist media "monopolies". (Not to mention that publisher/editor-driven newspaper endorsements have a higher probability of influencing votes than journalist preferences.)
  • Because the repeated and egregious mainstream media malpractice and fraud against leading Democrats is well known, to the point that even conservatives have been forced to admit it (albeit in "softer" terms).
  • Because the coverage of Bush (and the GOP) has long been fawning and/or largely uncritical (and not just on 9/11 and Iraq), such that a Democratic president would have been impeached in this country over far, far less (and don't forget this).
  • Because even many of the so-called "liberals" in the media have a demonstrated record, especially in recent years, of being afraid to tell the truth, unlike their counterparts on the Right (in the media) who are never afraid to mislead or lie to their readers/viewers
  • I could go on and on....but the "on and on" part is reserved for future posts about why the media is actually conservatively biased overall - so you'll have to bear with me (or you can just go browse ICM) :-)

Conservatives who keep recycling the magical "liberal bias" meme despite the (above) facts, may best be remembered as being the Bernard Goldbergs of the world. Why? I'll let the incomparable Bob Somerby explain:

GOLDBERG (page 13): “Then what about the mainstream media’s treatment of Clinton? You can’t possibly think they went easy on him, can you?” is what liberals always ask.

It’s a fair question. And the answer is, no, they didn’t go easy on Clinton. The truth is, reporters will go after any politician—liberal or conservative—if the story is big enough and the politician is powerful enough.

Strange, isn’t it? The press corps is swimming in liberal bias—but they “didn’t go easy on Clinton,” this generation’s most important liberal pol! (Bernie doesn’t mention the trashing of Gore.) But then, Bernie can talk his way out of anything. Here’s the way he gets around the media’s coverage of Bush:

GOLDBERG (pages 10-11): Perhaps the charge liberals have been making most often to back their claim of conservative bias is that the media have given George W. Bush a free ride on some very important issues involving foreign policy and national security. For a while you could hardly open up a liberal magazine or go to a liberal Web site without finding some bitter screed about how the press was sucking up to the president on everything from the war in Iraq to supposed civil liberties abuses at home. But the truth is, all the media were doing was what the media always do in times of war: They were rallying round the flag.
Can’t you see? There’s an answer for everything! In BernieVille, the media can “go after Clinton” and give Bush “a free ride,” but they’re still thick with that rank liberal bias! [eRiposte emphasis]
eriposte :: 10:55 PM :: Comments (2) :: Spotlight :: Digg It!