VISION & VALUES: How Did the Press Get That Way?

December 1, 2002 | by | Topic: Media & Culture, Vision & Values MailingsPrint Print

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following lecture was presented at Grove City College on November 12, 2002.

Introduction
Whenever I am invited to give a talk, I like to remind my audience of Lord Northcliffe’s classic definition of a newspaperman. “It is the task of the journalist,” he said, “to explain to others things that he himself doesn’t understand.” So I can’t promise any hard and fast answers to the question of “how the media got that way.” There are days when I think that the thing I least understand is my own profession. The framers of our Constitution, of course, clearly believed that a free press was indispensable to republican government. They didn’t write the First Amendment to the Constitution because they viewed the press as incapable of error. They understood quite well the limitations of the ink-stained wretches who regularly distorted the news or served as paid shills for one faction or another. But they still thought it worthwhile to make sure that government would keep its hands off the press. Over time, they were confident, truth would win out.

Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to a friend in 1787, explained it this way: “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Well, if Thomas Jefferson were alive today, I suspect he would have some second thoughts about that – especially after watching the shouting matches on Capitol Gang or the McLaughlin Report. And I’m sure he would have some doubts about whether the First Amendment ought to apply to Hustler Magazine.

Not that the press in Jefferson’s day was very genteel itself. Indeed, it could be viciously partisan and highly biased, even salacious. Jefferson himself apparently hired an English hack journalist named James Callender to dig up dirt on his arch-rival, the first secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton. And when Callender didn’t receive the compensation he felt was his due, he turned on Jefferson. He was the first to bring light to the rumors of Jefferson’s alleged affair with one of his slave girls, Sally Hemmings – allegations that are still the stuff of vigorous debate today. But Jefferson’s point about the value of a free press was sound enough: not only should government have internal checks and balances, but the people should also have the tools they needed for casting informed votes and otherwise holding government accountable. A free press is one such tool – and arguably the most important.

Bias in the Media
But having worked in three different newsrooms over the course of nearly 40 years, I have grown increasingly concerned about our ability to deliver on this promise. More important, perhaps, the public appears to doubt it, too. It’s not just that we regularly get things wrong. The public is adult enough to know that the first rough draft of history, as journalism is sometimes called, will be full of errors. Most often, though, these amount to venial sins. What really concerns people, I suspect, is the self-evident bias that so plainly shines through much of what the mainstream media – the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, ABC, CBS, NBC, even the news sections of the Wall Street Journal – prints and says.

Survey after survey has shown that the leanings of the media are well to the left of the rest of American society. To cite just a few:

* In the mid-1990s, the Los Angeles Times published a study that compared the attitudes of the press with those of the public. Among the public, 40 percent called themselves “conservative.” Among the press it was 5 percent.

* A 1996 study by the Roper Poll of 139 national reporters and bureau chiefs in Washington found that 50 percent described themselves as Democrats. Four percent described themselves as Republicans.

* And then there was the famous poll of the national press corps after the 1992 elections. It found that 89 percent of the Washington reporters had voted for Bill Clinton, while 5 percent voted for the first George Bush.

Now, I know a lot of fine reporters and editors who strive to filter their biases out of their work and tell it straight. Nevertheless, an American Society of Newspaper Editors survey several years ago found that 78 percent of American adults agree there is bias in the media. And a poll by Editor and Publisher magazine during the 2000 election found that two-thirds of those who describe the media as biased believe it was biased in the direction of Al Gore, the Democratic candidate for president.

The bias shows up in many ways. With a limited amount of space and airtime available to them, journalists and editors must select what they want the public to see. It tends to be heavy on stories that fit the liberal template: poverty studies (often put together by left-wing organizations); environmental alarm studies (brought to media attention by environmental organizations with a heavy interest in fund-raising); and allegations of racism and discrimination (most frequently raised by civil rights groups with an interest in keeping the issue front and center).

Often the bias is a fairly subtle thing – the journalistic equivalent of a wink and a nod. After the Michigan primary elections last August, for example, here is how one major daily described the impending race for governor between Republican Dick Posthumus and Democrat Jennifer Granholm in the lead story on its front page: “Michigan will have a clear choice for governor in November: Dick Posthumus, the steady, experienced hand who champions Gov. John Engler’s popular conservative philosophy, vs. Jennifer Granholm, the relative newcomer who promises a fresh, more moderate approach to running the state.” [Emphases mine.]

A reader might be excused for looking at that sentence and concluding that he or she had been asked to make a choice between a conservative ideologue and a “moderate.” How would you vote, given such choices? In the event, Granholm won 51-47 percent. But just how “moderate” and “fresh” was she? Only time will truly tell, but surely it’s significant that during the Michigan primary, when she appeared before the Detroit NAACP during a debate with her two opponents, she endorsed the idea of reparations for descendants of slaves. That’s a pretty radical idea which polls show that the vast majority of Americans reject. But it was barely mentioned in the press. And when the Republican candidate for governor sought to raise the issue, he was denounced on the same front page for “race baiting.”

In his book, Bias, former CBS News reporter Bernard Goldberg calls this sort of thing “identity politics.” He talks about how it works on national television. On camera, for example, the founder of the Eagle Forum, Phyllis Schlafly, was introduced as a “conservative spokeswoman.” Fair enough: that’s exactly what she is, and viewers deserve to know it. But liberal guests seem to get different treatment. On the same show, Catharine MacKinnon, as radical a feminist as you are likely to find, was introduced as a “noted law professor.” Not a noted feminist, or a far-left law professor, or even a liberal law professor. A “noted law professor.”

Another reporter, William Magowan, in Coloring the News, discusses how the crusade for ethnic diversity has corrupted American journalism further. Take the coverage – or, more exactly, noncoverage – of preferential admissions policies at so-called elite schools like the University of Michigan. It was fairly clear to those of us close to the scene that Michigan’s affirmative action policy had long ago become a policy of straight-out racial preferences. But none of the Michigan newspapers dared to look into this in any depth. It fell to Carl Cohen, a tenured professor of philosophy at the university itself, to file a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit demanding access to the school’s admissions records.

After more than a year of dodges by the university, he was finally handed reams of statistics that clearly showed minority applicants were being automatically granted a huge advantage over white applicants. Reverse discrimination lawsuits were promptly filed that are widely expected to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Notice the ironies here. Not only did Prof. Cohen use a law primarily intended to help the media keep an eye on government, but also the professor himself is a self-described Democrat and a liberal. This perfectly makes the point that the media’s bias is not so much liberal as illiberal. “Liberal” has come to mean unequal opportunity and unequal treatment before the law – the opposite of what liberalism has always signified.

Early Leanings
Much of the ranker bias began to creep into the media in the wake of the Vietnam War. At the beginning of the 1960s, a liberal was known as somebody who agreed with John F. Kennedy’s inaugural pledge that America would pay any price, bear any burden, in defense of liberty. By the end of the 1960s, many of my colleagues who had once considered themselves liberal seemed to doubt that freedom was worth defending. They had come to see almost any use of force by America as illegitimate, even immoral.

Just how deeply rooted this belief had become was brought home to me in the fall of 1983, shortly after I had left the Wall Street Journal to take up roost as editorial page editor of the Detroit News. The reality of local journalism is that you write mostly about local matters. But one Friday afternoon we decided to write an editorial about a dangerous situation developing on a far-off Caribbean island, Grenada, where a clique of Marxist thugs was terrorizing the citizens and inviting Cubans to expand the local airport so that it could handle military aircraft. American medical students stranded on the island were reportedly worried for their safety. So for Sunday we wrote an editorial titled “Invade Grenada.” On Monday, the usual left-wing street performers paraded around our building carrying signs: “Invade the Detroit News.” But on Tuesday morning, as I was coming to work, the radio was reporting that American troops were going ashore on Grenada.

My first thought was: I didn’t realize the Detroit News was that well read around Washington. My second was to wonder why, alone among 1,500 daily newspapers, we had been the only ones to suggest the obvious. The only explanation, I think, was political correctness. Force never solved anything, in this view. Not that the application of military power is always wise. But tell that to the American students who were liberated by that invasion. Upon returning home they were photographed kneeling to kiss the soil of their country and expressing gratitude to the president for acting. Meanwhile, the main press reaction was to grouse about the fact that reporters hadn’t been allowed to go ashore with the first wave of troops in the hastily-mounted operation.

Origins of Bias
One could go on. But you get the point: there are deep and persistent biases in the media. So let me try to deal with the truly interesting question here. Why is there such a uniformity of what I like to call “illiberal opinion” in the mainstream media? A number of possible reasons have been advanced. One is that journalism is the profession of the young and passionate. And it’s true that a lot of us go into this business out of idealistic hopes that we can change the world for the better.

But you will notice the flaw in that reasoning. As I have said, we’re talking not so much about liberalism as illiberalism. Modern-day conservatism is every bit as idealistic as old-fashioned liberalism. In many regards it’s the same thing, believing in the power of free men and women to build a better world for themselves. Today’s conservative-libertarians, I would submit, have a far stronger claim to youthful idealism than today’s brand of liberalism. Yet you won’t find many conservatives or libertarians in today’s newsrooms. And to the extent their views are known, they need not apply. Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and the editors of the New York Times and the Washington Post also belie the youthful naiveté argument. They sit astride the politically correct media, but they still seem to buy into the illiberal view of the world.

Another explanation might be self-interest. Public choice economists – those who point out that nearly everybody, including supposedly disinterested government bureaucrats, have vested interests to advance – might predict as much. That is to say, the reporters and editors in Washington have a vested interest in big government. It’s easier to take a handout from a government “expert” than go out into the messy, chaotic marketplace to find a story. More government programs give reporters more easy stories to write, which helps make the case for a higher salary. So it’s not too surprising that Washington journalists would vote for Democrats over Republicans by large margins. Republicans generally want to diminish the story that the Washington press corps covers. Democrats generally want to enlarge it.

But how about the people who really decide what goes into the paper or on the air – the owners and publishers? Surely they are by nature more conservative. At the very least, wouldn’t they see that their newsrooms were out of touch with the average reader and move to correct the situation? However, one of the surprising things you learn in this business is that many, if not most, media executives seem to share the newsroom view of things.

There are several reasons for that. These days the people who run the mainstream media organizations tend to be professional executives, not the owners themselves. Back in William Randolph Hearst’s day, an owner might have some strong views about things – and the ability to do something about it. If the newsroom didn’t do what he told them, the staff would be looking for new jobs.

In the age of the chain newspaper – for which we can thank our confiscatory inheritance laws, which give owners a huge incentive to sell out to corporations before they die – newspapers are run by a professional executive class which does almost anything to avoid controversy. Controversy can be quickly created by the people who work for them; the executives who run the papers tend to abdicate their leadership role under the excuse that it would be wrong to meddle in the sacred news process. Reporters thus are sheltered from the unpleasant news from the marketplace: that by and large, the dogs don’t like the dog food they are getting in their daily papers or in the electronic media.

And there is of course another reason for media executives to shy away from aggressively challenging the ideas that undergird big government. Big government can make life very, very difficult for them. TV and radio owners must obtain licenses from the government bureaucrats they are supposedly keeping an eye on, for example. Publishers must worry about Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigations, or lawsuits under the various antidiscrimination statutes.

Media apologists point out that there are plenty of examples of the media going after liberal politicians. Think of Whitewater, a story first developed by the very liberal New York Times. But we need to make a distinction. The media might be willing to expose the salacious details of a Clinton affair with an intern. That is just too good to pass up. But they very seldom subjected Clinton’s political ideas to similar scrutiny. There was never much questioning of what he stood for – and the press never sought to hold him to his promise that “the era of big government is over.” Instead they cheered him on as he delivered double helpings of little government.

But let the Republicans threaten to cut the budget, much less the growth rate of the budget, and the headlines and TV anchors are shrieking about “extremism” and “mean-spiritedness.” That helps explain, I think, why Ronald Reagan and later Newt Gingrich were totally unable to reduce the size of government, despite their clear commitment to do so. In reality, any effort to carry out such a plan would be a public relations disaster – as it proved to be in the government shutdown scare of 1995.

But ultimately I don’t think even self-interest fully explains things. More likely it comes down to the simple question of what those in the press believe. And by and large, the dominant media tend to believe that Big Government is both necessary and desirable; that high taxes are a sign of high moral commitment; that markets are irrational and fundamentally immoral; that religion is a dangerous force; and that the average suburbanite is simply a closet racist who drives a polluting SUV.

The Journalist’s Mindset
And why do the media believe these things? The most obvious reason is that these are the views held by the people they most admire – their colleagues. Having worked at three different newspapers, I can testify that peer pressure is strong in the newsroom. Indeed, there are few more closed-minded societies on earth than a newsroom – except maybe for a university, which brings me to the next point.

Not surprisingly, our increasingly “well-educated” journalists imbibe huge doses of political correctness in our nation’s universities. Moreover, it is often left-wing academics who, in their classes and their books, set the terms of debate for the media. Another important source for political reporters are the government bureaucrats themselves. The bureaucracy controls the statistical information on which so much reporting is based. They also have a large vested interest in making sure that government always expands. When reporters come looking for a story, the bureaucrats are usually eager to oblige. As my colleague Stan Evans likes to say, both groups subscribe to the (statistically impossible) belief that they cannot rest as long as one single American remains below average.

Okay, but does all this matter? After all, Ronald Reagan was elected despite the hostility of the media. So was George Bush, who was widely derided as a lightweight. Conservatives seem to be able to connect well with the public despite the press. Again, however, it may be less important who is president at any given moment than what the people believe about the underlying issues. If they can’t get a fair and balanced account of things from the press, what are they to believe? And if they are constantly told that it would be monstrous and immoral to trim the size of government, we shouldn’t wonder that the founders’ fear that government might eventually become so overwhelming as to snuff out our basic liberties might be coming true. Thus, the spotlight of the press seems always trained on the imperfections of the marketplace and seldom on the imperfections of government. The people aren’t being told that there are two sides of the story, even if they sometimes suspect it.

Just as bad, perhaps, is that those who govern are themselves being misled. What is often forgotten is that they, too, derive much of their information from what they read in the press or see on television. If they aren’t being accurately informed about what the people want and believe, how can they arrive at sensible policy decisions? Hopefully the press itself will wake up one day to the peril in which it is placing itself. While the country’s population has increased by nearly 100 million since 1960, the weekday circulation of daily newspapers has remained virtually the same, at about 58 million. The networks have been steadily losing market share, too. There could be many reasons for that, but surely one reason is that the journalistic establishment has forfeited so much of its trust.

That lack of credibility makes the media vulnerable to even more direct attack. We are engaged in what President Bush calls a “different sort of war” – a twilight struggle against a shadowy enemy. This sort of war has no front lines, and it’s not easy for the media to cover. It is the sort of war that is sure to place a lot of strain on media-government relations, as well as on public perceptions of the media.

Abraham Lincoln had the wisdom to let the press accompany Sherman’s march to Atlanta, one of the more brutal campaigns in history. But will future presidents have the wisdom to give the press the access it needs to make sensible judgments about the war on terror? If we in the media don’t have credibility with the public, perhaps not. There have already been some serious run-ins between the press and the Pentagon over access to the action in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Yet why should the public believe us when we say it’s important that we get a close look at what the military is doing? We promise objectivity, but too often what we deliver is opinion and bias. And we promise to be the watchdog on government, but more often we seem to be the lapdog.

Conclusion
I am not entirely pessimistic. I think the good sense of the American people will prevail against those who would try to sever their sources of information about what their government is up to. And I see signs that the market, in its remorseless way, seems to be going around the mainstream media. New technologies, like the Internet and cable TV, are placing a world of alternative views at the fingertips of the middle class and, increasingly, even the poor. Old technologies, like radio, have proven to be powerful purveyors of conservative voices like Rush Limbaugh, who is listened to by an average of five million people at any given moment. My old friend and colleague Tony Snow, once deputy editorial page editor at my newspaper, is providing a “fair and balanced” alternative on the Sunday morning talk shows.

And surely it tells us something that books like Bernard Goldberg’s Bias not infrequently fetch up on the bestseller list. Even Bill McGowan’s book, Coloring the News, received an award from none other than the National Press Club, home to those Washington journalists I have been ranting about. But if the mainstream media isn’t more honest about its work, it is likely to have a tough time surviving the technological and cultural revolutions that are taking place.

Thomas Bray

Thomas Bray

A graduate of Princeton University, Thomas Bray writes a twice-a-week column on political, economic and social issues for the Detroit News, where he served as editorial page editor from 1983 to 2000. Under his leadership, the award-winning Detroit News helped lead fights in Michigan for lower taxes, welfare reform, environmental balance and educational choice. He also writes a weekly column for OpinionJournal.com, the website of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page. Bray's columns frequently appear in the Washington Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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