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Liberal Media? I’m Shocked!

May 30, 2004

A new survey by the Pew Research Center says journalists have political and ideological leanings more liberal than those of the general public. Or, as a sensible headline might have put it: “Researchers ferret out the obvious yet again.” One amused blogger wrote: “In other news, a second Pew study shows that the Earth is round and that the government’s habit of taxing its citizens is likely to continue.”

Pew reports that just 7 percent of journalists and news executives call themselves conservative, compared with 33 percent of the general public. The self-identified liberals (34 percent) are five times more common as conservatives in the news business. As you might imagine, this got very little play in the mainstream media. Howard Kurtz did a good job with it at The Washington Post. But that was about it. Those who did report or comment on the survey tended to play up the large number of news people (54 percent) who call themselves moderate. Why is it such a big deal to have a newsroom that’s only a third liberal? asked Eric Alterman, author of “What Liberal Media?”

I would say that the big deal is that media workers are becoming more liberal at a fairly rapid pace — up from 22 percent nine years ago to 34 percent now, according to Pew. It would be a bigger deal if the hiring of liberals reached the point (as it has in the academic world) where conservatives don’t bother to apply for jobs.

In addition, there is debate over what “moderate” means in the survey. My experience is that liberal journalists tend to think of themselves as representing the mainstream, so in these self-identification polls, “moderate” usually translates to “liberal.” On the few social questions asked in the survey, most of the moderates sounded fairly liberal. Asked whether homosexuality should be approved of by society, 88 percent of journalists agreed, compared with only 51 percent of Americans.

Some 82 percent of the journalists were able to list a news organization that was “especially conservative” (most named Fox News), but an amazing 62 percent could not name any news organization that struck them as “especially liberal.” Good grief. Even 60 percent of the Homer Simpson family could probably figure out that The New York Times or National Public Radio qualify as liberal.

In response to the survey, some argue that personal social and political views make no difference if a reporter plays the story straight. Well, yes. But nearly half of those polled told Pew that journalists too often let their ideological views color their work. This is a devastating admission, something like an umpire’s union reporting that half its membership likes to favor the home team.

Even apart from loaded reporting, the selection and framing of news stories have a way of reflecting the opinions of editors. That’s why the steady march toward a more liberal newsroom is so puzzling. The news media have to cope with a declining readership and viewership and intense scrutiny of their wayward practices by right-wing outlets and relentlessly critical bloggers. Yet the mainstream media have only those few in-house conservatives who might warn their bosses when news reports are skewing left.

Why does the news business keep hiring more and more people who disagree sharply with the customers, many of whom are already stampeding out the door for a variety of reasons? One explanation is that national journalism is now an elite profession, staffed by people — black and white, female and male — who went to elite colleges and who share the conventional social views of their class.

This was not true a generation ago. When I was at The New York Times, the leadership was full of people who had gone to the wrong schools and fought their way up with brains and talent. Two desks away from mine was McCandlish Phillips, a born-again Christian who read the Bible during every break, no matter how brief. Phillips was a legendary reporter, rightly treated with awe by the staff, but I doubt he would be hired by most news organizations today. He prayed a lot and had no college degree.

The news business is deeply concerned — I would say obsessed — with diversity, but it has a narrow and cramped view of the word, rarely applying it to background and social attitudes. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew survey, said the fact that “conservatives are not very well represented” is having an effect. He added: “This is something journalists should worry about. Maybe diversity in the newsroom needs to mean more than ethnic and gender diversity.” Do tell. A great many thick skulls still must be penetrated by this idea. But eventually it will get through.

From → Media, Politics

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