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Bias deeply embedded in the news you read

July 18, 2001

News stories about the 2000 census have been arriving with heavy spin attached. A front-page article in The Washington Post reported “huge increases” in the number of gay and lesbian households in the District of Columbia and across the country. The story leaves the impression that a major demographic shift has occurred, with heavy political implications. Indeed, one activist told the Post that the numbers are “a political weapon.” But the numbers are small, though percentage increases from a tiny base are large. The Post reported a 66 percent rise in gay households in D.C. since the 1990 census and “more than 700 percent in Delaware and Nevada.” But most of the hard numbers were missing, so it was hard to figure out what was going on.Eager to help, I pestered the census people by e-mail, and after spending 20 minutes with a pad and pencil, I am now prepared to announce the real story and offer it to the Post. In the 25 states for which the Census Bureau has now released data, plus D.C., there are 250,679 same-sex households, or just over one-half of 1 percent of all households. So the Post headline, “Census Shows Big Increase in Gay Households,” really should have been “Gay Couples Rise to .0054 of U.S. Households.”Why do news stories get mangled this way? Partly because the Census Bureau is releasing its data oddly, dribbling out the number of gay households state by state. But the main reason is the obvious one — the newsroom culture is sympathetic to the gay cause. Ask yourself: How many groups could make Page One by going from one-tenth of 1 percent in the household sweepstakes, all the way up to one-half of 1 percent in only 10 years?

Britt Hume of Fox News was talking recently about the newsroom culture. “If you work in the media for any length of time,” he told The New York Times Magazine, “you notice that reporters, editors, producers, correspondents — they have a common set of views on a range of issues. Abortion, the environment, gun control. There’s a resultant consensus so universal that it’s almost imperceptible to those who hold those views.”

As someone who has logged more than 30 years in the media echo chamber here in New York, I can confirm what Hume said. It is easier to discover a white truffle in Central Park than to find a reporter or editor who lacks the conventional set of newsroom opinions. (Well, almost.) The groupthink extends to welfare reform, the death penalty, school choice, racial preferences and the urgent need to smash the tobacco companies and penalize every last American who still smokes. Day care too. If any study shows that day care tends to have some bad effects on some children, the newsroom will erupt with articles proving the study untrue.

Justice Sandra O’Connor’s recent speech in Minnesota expressing reservations about the death penalty was widely reported. But in the same talk she had some harsh things to say about contingency fees and “the perverse incentives and the untoward consequences” they are creating, along with all the “overnight millionaires” among high-flying trial lawyers. Strong stuff, but you probably missed it. A computer search showed only one paper outside Minnesota running the AP copy of O’Connor’s litigation remarks. The newsroom looks kindly on trial lawyers. After all, they protect the common man and like the teachers’ unions (always treated gently) they fund the Democratic Party.

The Boston Globe recently ran a long, admiring profile of Dianne Luby, the new head of Massachusetts Planned Parenthood. I was struck by how closely the article followed the promotional and fund-raising material of Planned Parenthood, presenting Luby as a lonely heroine (“Dianne Luby Braves Threats,” said the subhead) beset by backward anti-abortion fanatics. In the newsroom culture, pro-choicers are allies; pro-lifers are dangerous zealots.

The newsroom is enormously fond of bias/disparity articles alleging that blacks get the short end of the stick in nearly every area of American life. Because these articles get so much space, activists turn out all the more bias surveys and allegations, many of them shaky.

Last week The Washington Post weighed in with a survey claiming that “whether out of hostility, indifference or simple lack of knowledge,” “broadly misinformed whites” were guilty of “the pervasiveness of incorrect views.” What did whites do wrong this time? Many think blacks are doing better economically than they really are. But why such a racial tongue-lashing over a belief (correct on the whole) that blacks are joining the middle class in great numbers? Because it “seems to explain, in part, white resistance to even the least intrusive forms of affirmative action” (ah, the point of the survey, reached at last — a newsroom plug for preferences, disguised as a news story).

Britt Hume’s remarks, quoted above, are from a magazine article trying to explain why Fox News is doing so well. There is a rather obvious explanation. Maybe a lot of people want to escape the newsroom monoculture. Just a thought.

From → Diversity, Media

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