Recrimination is sure to follow what now appears likely to be a major Republican defeat in the November election. The messenger, once again, not the message, is being set up to take the blame. The charge already is a political cliche: The media have a liberal political bias that taints the news, distorts the GOP's message to the voting public, and ultimately hurts Republican candidates. In short, the press is partisan and unfair.
Bob Dole is the latest to employ the strategy. In recent campaign stops, Dole has energetically blasted the media's "liberal bias." His rallying cry: "We are not going to let the media steal this election. The country belongs to the people, not The New York Times."
Most journalists are quick to deny the accusation of bias--perhaps too quick. It is disingenuous for a profession that makes a living examining America's institutions--warts and all--to automatically deny that its own is devoid of blinders or biases. Plus, polls show the media suffer from a crisis of credibility. Americans hold journalists in the same low esteem as the pols--just above tax collectors. Something is clearly wrong. But is it because journalism has a liberal political bias?
NO CORRELATION. The answer is no. Let's look at the charges. In criticizing the press, politicians often point to a poll released in April, 1996, by the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center and the Roper Center for Opinion Research Inc. showing that 89% of journalists voted for Bill Clinton in 1992, in an election that gave him only 43% of the popular vote. House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich, a frequent media critic, recently said that "[Reporters voted] 12 1/2 to 1 for Clinton over George Bush [in 1992] in a country which is 59% or 60% conservative." His conclusion: that stories from these reporters therefore are biased.
Not so. First, that poll had a universe of just 139 Washington journalists. There are thousands of professional reporters and editors in the U.S. Who knows how they vote? Second, there is no demonstrable correlation between personal voting and political coverage. Reporters and their editors, after all, are trained to bring fairness and balance to news stories. "How journalists vote isn't important," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's what you see in print that counts."
Or what you see on TV. And content analysis of television coverage of Clinton's first 18 months in office, by the Center for Media & Public Affairs, shows that the Administration was hammered by the "liberal" TV media the moment Clinton walked through the White House door. Some 62% of all major broadcast news stories were negative. In other words, that same group of journalists who supposedly had voted for Clinton actively took him to task for Travelgate, health-care reform, Whitewater, and the like. By contrast, President Bush enjoyed fairly balanced coverage during his first year-and-a-half in office, with only 51% of network stories containing negative evaluations.
On the print side, it is The New York Times, which Dole so aggressively accuses of bias, that broke the Whitewater scandal and the story of Hillary Rodham Clinton's financial windfall in commodities trading. The Washington Post frequently criticizes Clinton, hitting him especially hard on ethics and demagoguery regarding Medicare. It's the Los Angeles Times that unearthed the Indonesian campaign-donations scandal, a story Dole has said "nobody seems to care [about] in the media." The largest newspaper in the U.S., The Wall Street Journal, may have the nation's most conservative editorial page and Dole has won the endorsement of a solid majority of newspapers this fall, says a recent survey by Editor & Publisher.
Critics complaining of a liberal political bias in the press conveniently forget that the "media" is not monolithic. There are simply too many outlets beyond network TV, national newspapers, and magazines--from talk radio to online magazines to C-Span--to support any gross generalizations. "I never like conservatives to use the issue of liberal bias as an excuse," says William Kristol, editor and publisher of the conservative Weekly Standard, which has presented some of the most cogent and damning criticism of Gingrich's leadership and Dole's Presidential race.
If not political bias, what does drive media coverage? Reporters and editors who view politics as sport, who see the horse race as the defining event. There is too often an obsession with personality over policy, process over product, prediction over explanation. It is simply easier for national political reporters to cover the battles among powerful people in Washington, rather than the details of complex legislation. When Hillary Clinton was trying to sell her health-care plan, for instance, media coverage quickly shifted from health issues to Beltway politics. The Center for Media & Public Affairs, in conjunction with the Columbia Journalism Review and the Kaiser Family Foundation, found in a study of the press that "the politics of reform dominated the coverage, while stories about the potential impact on individuals and their families got ever-decreasing attention."
Similarly, when Republican Steve Forbes was trying to sell his flat-tax proposal during the Republican primaries, coverage often focused on how much the plan would save the wealthy candidate--not whether a flat tax would be good for America. "Political reporters didn't understand economics, and they didn't want to try," says Gretchen Morgenson, his former press secretary and an editor at Forbes magazine. "Their arrogance was amazing. TV was the worst."
Much of the conservative criticism of the press does come down to criticism of TV. Television emphasizes drama and entertainment, and conflict satisfies that need far better than exposition and explanation. "TV has even less time for detail and substance than print, " says Howard Kurtz, media critic for The Washington Post. "It has a bias toward stories with heroes and villains." Of course, many journalists argue that's what the audience wants.
If political partisanship isn't a problem in media coverage, class and cultural biases probably are. "On social issues, journalists tend to be to the left of the general population and often don't realize they may be giving short shrift to certain issues," says Kurtz. "But it isn't done out of any great love for the Democratic Party."
It may be that reporters and editors bring to their jobs a white-collar cultural bias rather than a liberal or conservative political perspective. College-educated journalists living in big cities are more likely to know people who are gay than those who are religious conservatives. They are apt to talk with white-collar corporate managers or entrepreneurs but not with blue-collar unionized workers. They tend to have two-career marriages and are pro-choice on abortion.
BLUE-COLLAR JOBS. It is not unreasonable to believe that these life experiences can lead to greater coverage of pro-choice rallies than anti-abortion marches, or that their analyses of the North American Free Trade Agreement focus more on the economic benefits of free trade than on blue-collar job loss. But support of NAFTA is hardly a "liberal" political issue. Dole and Gingrich endorsed the pact. And New Jersey Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman is pro-choice on abortion--along with millions of Republicans.
Media-baiting has a long history in America. But the caricature of journalists as liberal political partisans is untrue. What is accurate, however, is that the press often fails to cover what's important to the American people. Journalism--TV and print--shouldn't just be about picking winners and losers. It shouldn't give short shrift to working-class and religious issues. It should examine in a fair and balanced way the news and issues of the day that affect peoples' lives.