Media Matters

Neutral Objective Facts

Why have the major media become more liberal than ever?

By 4.16.12

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Suppose that you picked up your paper this morning and the top story on the front page began something like this: 

Timothy Geithner proved himself as incompetent at political spin as he is at tax evasion, attempting Sunday to convince Americans that President Obama's economic policies "were incredibly effective."

In a series of televised interviews on all three major broadcast networks, the bumbling and dishonest Treasury Secretary lamely attempted to defend the failed policies of the incumbent Democrat, while dismissing as "ridiculous" and "misleading" recent comments by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate who hopes to replace the administration's wrongheaded statist policies with a growth-oriented program of tax reduction and deregulation.

You won't find such an article on the front page of today's papers. This is not how the story will be reported by the Washington Post, the New York Times or USA Today, nor will you see this kind of blatant tendentiousness in whatever accounts the Associated Press or other syndicates provide for the major metro dailies. Nevertheless, this story as reported by "mainstream" news organizations will not be entirely free of a perceptible slant, and conservatives have asserted for decades that the media are guilty of a liberal bias, providing ostensibly "objective" reporting that in fact clearly favors Democrats.

Conservative efforts to counterbalance such bias have taken many forms over the years, including the publication of journals such as The American Spectator and the formation of such organization as the Media Research Center. Talk-radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Laura Ingraham have flourished as part of the conservative pushback against media bias, as have websites like Hot Air, daily papers like the Washington Times and, perhaps most famously, the Fox News Channel. It is interesting to observe, however, that this concerted pushback has had a mixed record of success. The "Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy," as Hillary Clinton dubbed it in 1998, was incapable of persuading a majority of Americans that Mrs. Clinton's husband should be drummed out of office for his "high crimes and misdemeanors." Similarly, conservative alternative media could not prevent Democrats from winning control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections, nor prevent Obama's 2008 election. And, although Republicans took back Congress in a historic 2010 midterm landslide, the prospects for defeating Obama's re-election bid and unseating Harry Reid as Senate Majority Leader are uncertain at best, despite what most conservatives would view as the demonstrable failures of Democratic Party policies. Thus the question arises: "What are conservatives doing wrong in their efforts to expose, correct and offset liberal media bias?"

One answer to that question is to consider the obverse of the problem: What have liberals been doing right? Despite all the changes in the journalistic ecology in recent years, one fact has remained constant: Liberals dominate the "mainstream" media, both in absolute numbers and in terms of power and prestige. Consider the fact that Obama's White House spokesman, Jay Carney, is a former Time magazine reporter whose wife, Claire Shipman, is employed as a reporter by ABC News. The same network employs, both as anchor of Good Morning America and as host of its Sunday program This Week, veteran Democratic Party operative George Stephanopoulos. From this simple handful of facts, we may conclude that if ABC News should ever be accused of fairness toward Republicans in its political coverage, we would have to classify this as an inexplicable accident or perhaps even a miracle.

How do such things happen? Why would Stephanopoulos be able to go from Democrat operative to "objective" journalist with such ease, while no one seems to blink an eye when Carney goes through the media/politics revolving door the opposite direction? Why is it nearly impossible to think of comparable examples among Republican operatives? As research cited by the Media Research Center shows, the fact is that Democrats outnumber Republicans in our nation's newsrooms by at least 7-to-1. One survey found that, in 1992, nearly 90 percent of top Washington journalists voted for Bill Clinton, compared to just 7 percent who voted for George H.W. Bush. We have no evidence that Democratic preponderance has declined, and it may have actually gotten worse. The national press corps was so obviously in the tank for Obama in 2008 that even liberals themselves remarked on it.

Why have conservative efforts to rectify or counteract liberal bias so clearly failed? Several answers have been offered. More than 10 years ago, famed ABC anchor Peter Jennings suggested to me that journalism is, by its very nature, a liberal kind of enterprise. This is arguably true, insofar as one has the desire (as do so many in the profession) to "make a difference" by crusading journalism on behalf of the downtrodden and oppressed "victims of society." Peter Finley Dunne was being sarcastic when he described newspapers as seeking "to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," but many starry-eyed idealists in the news business view this as their sacred duty, and conceive of themselves as engaged in a species of humanitarian philanthropy. It is also true that, in the decades since journalism became a career requiring a college education, many in the news business have absorbed in their youth the left-leaning perspective that pervades academia. Thus we might say that selection bias is at work: More liberals than conservatives are attracted to the news business, and the process by which journalists are educated tends to inculcate liberal views. Once the news business became dominated by liberals, conservatives were discouraged from entering the profession and hindered in their advancement if they did seek journalism careers.

If journalists are so much more liberal than the average news-consumer, wouldn't competition for readers and viewers favor conservative alternatives? This seems logical, but ignores the difficulty of producing such alternatives, given the obvious shortage of conservatives in the news business. As I've often remarked, smart liberals go to journalism school, while smart conservatives go to law school. Among young conservatives, there are plenty of wannabe pundits -- clever writers who wants to be the next Ann Coulter or the next Charles Krauthammer -- but relatively few who want to spend years toiling in relative obscurity as beat reporters covering regular news, working their way up the ranks to become senior editors, producers and executives. Staffing a news organization with an all-liberal staff is a piece of cake in an industry where Democrats so vastly outnumber Republicans. Staffing a conservative news operation is more difficult, as was illustrated by the recent exposure of a "mole" inside Fox News.

In fact, it might be argued that Fox News has become part of the problem it was intended to solve. True, Fox News has been the number one cable network for the past decade, but its viewership is still only a fraction of the national new audience. In January of this year, the nightly audience for the three major broadcast networks' evening news programs averaged a combined 24.2 million viewers (9.3 million for NBC, 8.2 million for ABC, 6.7 million for CBS). By comparison, the highest-rated program for Fox News, "The O'Reilly Factor," averages less than 3 million views nightly. The very existence of a conservative-friendly TV news alternative, however, relieves liberals at other networks of any twinge of conscience about bias in their programming. They may well reckon, "If conservatives don't like it, let 'em go watch Fox." And given how liberals have demonized Fox -- portraying it as an all-powerful evil force in media -- some reporters may even feel the need to slant their coverage more stridently leftward, so as to counteract the exaggerated right-wing news menace.

Many conservatives, however, do not fully grasp how this phenomenon (which I've come to think of as "The Fox Trap") may actually result in mainstream media coverage that shows a shameless disregard for political fairness. Even if the audience for the major network news broadcasts slowly shrinks, that audience -- like the readership of liberal "mainstream" newspapers -- is still much larger than the audience reached by conservative alternative media. Yet too many conservatives have been lulled into complacency. Self-selecting their media choices (Fox News, talk-radio, conservative websites, etc.) many conservatives may believe that their viewpoint is adequately represented in the overall media ecology, when in fact the larger news industry is as liberal as it ever was, if not more so.

In this crucial election year, when Republicans are attempting to hold on to the House of Representatives, gain a majority in the Senate and retake the White House, the headwinds of liberal media bias can be expected to blow as fiercely as ever. Thus we return to the sarcastic example cited at the opening of this column: If you believe that the wrongheaded statism of the Obama administration's policies is harmful to the economy -- if you similarly believe that Geithner is dishonest and incompetent -- then you should not tolerate journalism that ignores those Neutral Objective Facts. Networks that hire Democratic operatives to anchor important news programs have forfeited whatever claim to "fairness" they ever had.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.