• U.S.

Are The Media Too Liberal?

8 minute read
William A. Henry III

Two weeks ago, a woman called the reader line at the Seattle Post- Intelligencer with the kind of complaint that overheated partisans make to nearly every news organization in nearly every election year. “The picture on page 4 of Vice President Quayle,” she said, “shows his mouth screwed up, while beside him Candice Bergen as Murphy Brown looks very happy.” The same thing happens, the woman added, whenever the paper runs photos of President Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton, or for that matter other nominees of each party. “The Republicans are always frowning. The Democrats are always happy.”

Journalists tend to laugh off such hypersensitivity. Any veteran of a newspaper or TV newscast knows it’s a miracle the product gets out at all. Ideological conspiracy would be beyond the capacities of management — not to mention temperamentally implausible for the fractious, jostling group of egos found in any newsroom. Besides, most journalists are by nature opportunists whose ideology or other loyalties would never stop them from pursuing a career-making story. If there were bias, what difference would it make? Despite the supposedly pervasive liberalism of the major news media, American voters have put conservative Republicans in the White House in 20 of the past 24 years.

But this year, after countless breast-beating symposiums and innumerable studies about fairness, millions of Americans remain passionately resentful of what they consider a marked liberal bias. While few reporters will acknowledge the facts publicly, it is widely admitted in private that many journalists covering Bill Clinton feel generational affinity and unusual warmth toward him — and that much of the White House press corps disdains President Bush and all his works. Says White House reporter James Gerstenzang of the Los Angeles Times, one of the few who will speak on the record: “Reporters feel condescension and contempt for Bush. There really is that attitude. They’re openly derisive.” It is not hard to find savvy political journalists who think Bush may yet win. It is very difficult to find many who will vote for him.

There are plenty of reasons apart from ideology for the political press to favor Clinton. One is pure ambition: many reporters covering Clinton hope to follow him to the White House press corps, a major career move, while those who have had the beat during the Reagan and Bush years would gladly shift to editing or columnizing. Another reason is access. Out on the hustings, especially during the primaries, Clinton was inevitably more accessible than a sitting President, who must split his time between campaigning and governing. Moreover, as a matter of style and strategy, even when they are on the road, “access to the Bush and Quayle campaigns has been almost nil,” notes Josh Mankiewicz, political reporter at Los Angeles’s K-CAL. Says Mary Tillotson of CNN: “The President used to come back and schmooze with us on Air Force One. We haven’t seen him up close for months.”

By far the biggest factor, however, is a variation on the one that is apparently motivating voters: a simple yearning for change. After a dozen years of Republican rule, journalists hunger for new battles, new issues, above all new faces. A change in ruling party always energizes politics and boosts stories to the front page or the opening of the newscast. Says a Washington Post reporter: “God, I hope Bush doesn’t get re-elected. It’ll be so boring: no fresh ideas, the same old people running the show and more Capitol Hill gridlock. A Clinton Administration would be a much better story.” In all likelihood, four years from now the same reporters will turn on Clinton with the same jaded ferocity.

For all the charges of favoritism, Clinton has hardly enjoyed a free ride. The media — a term carelessly used to embrace everything from supermarket tabloids to the respectable press to prime-time sitcoms — gave Republicans much of their ammunition: the purported romance with Gennifer Flowers, controversies over his draft record and personal investments, allegations of favors to his mother and other allies. Indeed, there was something downright unseemly about the armies of reporters tripping over one another in Arkansas last spring, scrambling to dig up dirt on Clinton. But that was when polls had the Democrat third in a three-way race. As campaign reporters are quick to point out, the cheerier coverage and splashier play started when Clinton surged in the polls. Says David Lauter, who covers Clinton for the Los Angeles Times: “When people say Clinton has been favored in the press, there’s a certain amount of amnesia going on. For that matter, at the end of the Gulf War people were writing that the Democrats would be silly to bother running against Bush.”

Even now Clinton is being grilled about his record as Governor by news organizations that regret having taken at face value Michael Dukakis’ 1988 claims about the “Massachusetts miracle,” which dissipated into deep recession almost immediately after the election. Thus Clinton’s supposed allies in the press are doing to him exactly what the G.O.P. did to Dukakis four years ago: taking away the main advantage of his being a challenger by forcing him to run on his record rather than his promises. The general public apparently perceives the results as evenhanded. In a national poll taken Sept. 22 for Times Mirror, 71% of respondents thought Bush had been treated fairly by the press, and 74% thought Clinton had.

Having chastised themselves for spending too much time in 1988 covering tactics, symbolism and the who-will-win horse race, journalists this time laboriously boned up on details of economics and public policy. In a typical incident, after Clinton spoke about urban issues in Los Angeles in August, reporters converged on policy aide Bruce Reed, grilling him for so many intricate details that he had to telephone headquarters for more data.

Claims of media bias persist regardless of the outcome of any particular election. One has to ask which of the media: the Philadelphia Inquirer or the National Enquirer, the Wall Street Journal or the New Republic, Nightline or A Current Affair? And on which issues? Few people fall at exactly the same place in the left-right spectrum on everything from economics, the environment and foreign policy to such social issues as gay rights and abortion. On many economic and environmental matters — and even, to a lesser degree, on the social issues around which the Republicans focused their convention — the mainstream press mirrors the concerns of average Americans, according to many polls. If “bias” is defined as deviating from the statistical consensus, front-tier news organizations show bias mainly by lacking a sizable conservative minority to temper the prevailing view.

The pivotal question is whether reporters’ personal values actually color their stories. Although it seems self-evident that they do, some scholars, such as political scientist Michael Genovese of Loyola Marymount University, contend that there is no clear proof of it. ABC’s Brit Hume says his avowed conservatism never intrudes on his work: “It’s not hard to keep bias out; you just have to be conscious of it. Most reporters are in denial.” Some journalists go to great lengths to appear neutral. Executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. of the Washington Post abstains from voting and urges his staff, especially political correspondents, to do the same. Still, no one who reads the Post news columns regularly can have much doubt about the paper’s basic point of view.

As the late CBS commentator Eric Sevareid was fond of pointing out, there is plenty of biased reading and hearing as well as reporting. Many news consumers object fiercely to a story not because it is inaccurate but because the truth it tells is unhelpful to their side. Often the objection is not to the content but to the amount of attention it is given, and thus to the story’s effect on public opinion. That amounts to denouncing media manipulation while urging an alternative manipulation of the electorate’s right to know.

In truth, journalists are rarely loyal ideologues. Says syndicated columnist Richard Cohen: “Liberal or conservative, a reporter is a primitive being who would go after his own mother if he thought that was a good story.” Some of the toughest stories about Clinton have emerged from the liberal New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Bush’s two most ferocious critics, syndicated columnists William Safire of the New York Times and George Will of the Washington Post, are staunch members of his own party. That summarizes the deepest objection most politicians have to journalists — not that they are liberal, nor that they are conservative, but that they are stubbornly individualistic and persistent.

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