Mass media displays a liberal bias: Whether you receive this as a statement of the obvious or dubious assumption might well depend upon your own political proclivities. Whatever the case, I reached this conclusion in my most recent previous Inside Pages blog post, surprising about half of you and promising further explanation this week.
A few things you must know. I do not believe this bias to be iron-clad. I do not believe it to be conspiratorial. And by the way, no one I work for has taken me behind the woodshed for revealing an embarrassing family secret after seeing last week’s post. I’m not in BIG trouble.
Before I delve more deeply, one important caveat: I’ve spent my entire professional career working at Beaufort County’s two (comparatively small) daily newspapers, which are far removed from the newsrooms of major metropolitan publications. As such, I’m hardly qualified to speak authoritatively about the inner workings of the latter. My thoughts should be taken with that grain of salt.
However, I know the work they produce, I know what I’ve heard from others in my profession who work for larger operations and I’ve spent some time considering what has been said and written on the subject. Two works in particular seem consistent with my (admittedly limited) experience. The first is Coloring the News by William McGowan, whose bylines have appeared in Newsweek International, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. The second likely better-known — former CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg’s Bias.
The upshot of both books seems well captured in a review of Coloring the News by Trevor Butterworth, who wrote in Washington Post Bookworld: “The irony here is that McGowan’s charges do not disclose an incorrigibly liberal press, as conservatives would charge, but rather an illiberal press, which works to restrict the free market of ideas.”
Indeed, in my experience, most journalists regard the stated ideals of the profession — fairness (if not objectivity), balance, their roles as government watchdogs — as nearly sacrosanct. Even those who believe strongly in advocacy journalism do not seem to me to be consciously engaged in naked pursuit of a political agenda, but merely try to do what they think is right ... even when it is left. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.)
But as Butterworth suggests, many critics of the mass media seem to assume we’re willing minions in a grand Progressive conspiracy. (If some in the news media are, I haven’t received the memo.) The problem with failing to understand the influences that can tilt media leftward is that critics who have not devoted some thought to the subject come off as irrational — to both those already disinclined to their viewpoint and those who otherwise would be sympathetic. In addition to intellectual laziness, I sense in some of my conversations with those who accuse these newspapers of political bias a bit of intellectual dishonesty, to boot. To wit: Their beef is not so much our infidelity to objectivity but a failure to adopt their biases.
A conservatively biased press that purports to be neutral would be no better than a liberally biased one. (I add the “purports to be neutral” because I think great, thought-provoking work is done by publications such Mother Jones, the American Spectator and others of their genre that are forthright about their political viewpoints.)
But there are reasons that at this time, in this country, media tends to pull leftward:
• Some of the biases I explained previously help explain this one, too. For instance, progressives generally seek the betterment of man and society through the state; as such, our penchant for government reporting can lead to greater coverage — though not always advocacy — of “their” issues. So can our bias for change, at least to the extent “conservatism” is a defense of the status quo.
• Journalists generally are compelled by a noble (but sometimes misguided) urge to champion a cause, which makes them not unlike many people in other occupations that you probably admire. However, there is a subtle, but important, difference between getting into journalism because the work makes a difference and getting into journalism because you want to make a difference. The former motivation recognizes the value of scientific disinterest needed to inform opinions and provide the basis for rational decisions; the latter supposes the journalist knows what the rational decision should be and can cut a corner or two to get there, in society’s best interest, of course.
That might overstate things a bit, and I should hasten to point out that this tendency to shade, or even manipulate, the news is neither inherently liberal, nor inherently conservative. However ...
• Journalists tend to think alike. We tend to be people of similar ambition, similar motivation and (importantly) similar education. This can produce a newsroom of homogenous world views, as some opinion polling of mainstream-media journalists bears out.
That, in turn, leads to coverage that coalesces around pre-conceived narratives — of the “evil” rich, of the “noble” poor, of the belief in the efficiency of centralized power and the monolithic policies it produces. And we tend to rationalize the destructive personal behavior of people whose ideas we agree with.
Bear in mind, we can be — and often are — shaken from these narratives. President Bill Clinton’s infidelities, for instance, got reported. So did U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel’s tax problems and ACORN’s antics. However, the mass media is sometimes slow to these stories because they have to overcome inertia to begin the pursuit. If there aren’t at least a handful of contrarians in the newsroom, that force is difficult to muster.
The problem, then, is not so much that journalists have opinions — of course they do; this is unavoidable. It’s that they all tend to have the same opinions. There is no one to warn us of our myopia, to present “alternative theories of the crime,” so to speak.
Ironically, the industry seems to recongize just this sort of peril when it threatens a commonly held value — for instance, as with gender and race diversity in the newsroom. Such diversities have material value to readers if pursued with the aim of a more representative and nuanced product, and not just as mere indemnity from a civil-rights lawsuit.
But seldom does the industry seem to think of diversity in terms of political thought, even though that is equally vital to recognizing nuance and providing a rich, textured community forum. In fact, to the extent thought is not monolithic among those of the same gender or race, it could be argued political diversity is an even higher imperative.
Polling seems to indicate this problem is most serious in the largest of “mainstream” media, but I don’t think news outlets of any size are immune from the tendency.