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June 17, 2004

Editor and Publisher Wants Answers: Are Newsrooms Too Liberal? Very Tricky Question.

Major trade journal enters the bias battle looking for answers. It wants to know: how liberal are the nation's newsrooms, really? "Liberal journalist" does not automatically mean that the news has a liberal slant. But if the goal is to gain ground in the bias wars, it's the opposite. Then liberal journalist does mean "news biased toward liberalism." Automatically so.

“The recent Pew survey raises more questions than it answers,” announced Editor and Publisher’s Greg Mitchell last week, “and we intend to answer them.” In the world of press think, this counts as news: Major trade journal enters the bias wars looking for answers:

How “liberal” are the nation’s newsrooms? What does “liberal” mean, anyway? Should editors embark on an ideological affirmative action program?

Certainly those are explosive—and important—questions. The Pew Research Center survey that Mitchell mentioned was released on May 23. It contains, as any such survey would, findings of particular interest in the bias wars, which I define as the permanently politicized discourse we have about fairness and equal treatment in the press. There are institutions dedicated to continuing it. As with any war sustained over time, supply lines have been established. From the Pew study:

The percentage identifying themselves as liberal has increased from 1995: 34% of national journalists describe themselves as liberals, compared with 22% nine years ago. The trend among local journalists has been similar ­ 23% say they are liberals, up from 14% in 1995. More striking is the relatively small minority of journalists who think of themselves as politically conservative (7% national, 12% local). As was the case a decade ago, the journalists as a group are much less conservative than the general public (33% conservative).

Nearer the frontlines, The Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group, headlined its summary of the Pew Report this way: “Five Times More Journalists Are Liberal Than Conservative.” And with that another shell got lobbed. It was a simple device (and common in journalism): the artificially explosive headline. In fact, a majority of journalists, by the same study, said they were neither liberal nor conservative. “In terms of their overall ideological outlook, majorities of national (54%) and local journalists (61%) continue to describe themselves as moderates.”

“Five times more”— that’s war materiel. “Majority say they’re moderate”— that’s not. To show how far this war reaches, Jeffrey Dvorkin, ombudsman for NPR, actually misstated the results in a column that tried to be critical of the study: “It found that a majority of American journalists say they are liberals” (which is false). He said this finding “is likely to follow news organizations around for the rest of the political year like Marley’s ghost” (which is probably true.)

But as Dvorkin also pointed out, knowing how many journalists are liberals does not tell you very much about their performance in crafting the news. “Liberal journalist” does not automatically mean “news account inflected with liberalism.” (Although it might.) But if the goal is to gain some ground in the battle over bias, an opposite logic applies. Then liberal journalist does mean “news biased toward liberalism,” and it does automatically. In a war zone thinking has to become automatic; that’s one of the costs of war.

Some of the Pew study’s other key findings have little directly to do with the bias conflict. But each strikes a note of alarm. (Based on surveys of 547 journalists and news media executives by telephone and online, March 10, 2004 through April 20. Rest of the study design here.)

If the numbers are accurate that’s a worried profession.

In Mitchell’s announcement, there are three kinds of questions Editor & Publisher plans to ask. The first examines whether the Pew survey is, in fact, reliable. What do other studies show? The second inquires into the term “moderate.” When 61 percent of local journalists describe themselves that way, “I’m not liberal, or conservative, I’m moderate,” what does that actually mean?

The third kind of question accepts the Pew findings as accurate, and goes on from there:

Reporting that raises questions is much easier than promising to get answers. (Safer too for a trade journal.) I salute what Mitchell is doing, and look forward with interest to the results, which will be published in the August issue. Impressed as I am with some of the questions, I wanted to know more about how Editor and Publisher was going to pull this off, and why Mitchell, as writer and editor, decided to enter a discourse that is a war zone.

So I sent him some questions. He said he got a flood of e-mail after announcing his intentions. “I think a lot of people really want an open-minded look at this and we will do our best to respond.” The focus will be not on the “liberal bias” charge generally but “the newsoom composition issue,” meaning the mix of liberals and conservatives at a newspaper, how that affects the news, and what might be done about it— if we buy the proposition. The E & P report, he said, will not be “yet another commentary on liberal bias in national coverage, yes or no.” Instead:

Our small “team” of reporters will first look deeply at the Pew numbers and methodology, and try to find every other survey in recent years on make-up of newsrooms and beliefs. We will also see what’s out there in surveys of j-school students, their poltiics—and what happens to them afterward. There’s a theory that the liberal types go into newspapers, the non-ideological to TV and radio, and the conservatives mainly to publicity and other business-oriented fields. True? Maybe not.

We will also look at j-school faculty, what is their political orientation, what do they teach about “objectivity,” and what do they think of all this. Then we will interview dozens of editors at papers big and small about what they think of the make-up of their newsrooms, do they see many conservatives applicants, what questions do they ask of applicants, what do they think of bias at their papers, etc. Then we will ask them, and some outside observers, whether there needs to be an ideological “affirmative action” program at newspapers. And there are many other issues as well….

Greg Mitchell has been writing some biting commentary lately, and he has an interesting background. For eight years (1971 to 1979) he was executive editor of the famed counterculture and music magazine, Crawdaddy. During the 1980s, the height of the nuclear freeze campaign, he was the editor of Nuclear Times, kind of a trade journal for that movement. He also co-wrote with Robert Jay Lifton a book about (and against) capital punishment.

More recently, and of relevance to the bias study, Mitchell has published two works of political history that examine the media’s role. Campaign of the Century (1992) is about Upton Sinclair’s 1934 race for governor of California (as a socialist) and “the birth of media politics.” Mitchell saw that race as a laboratory for the kind of campagn where driving up an opponent’s negatives is the strategy. Six years ago he published a book on Richard Nixon’s 1950 Senate race against Helen Gahagan Douglas, “widely remembered as one of the dirtiest ever,” as his publisher, Random House, put it.

I asked Mitchell how much of his interest in media bias was connected with his books on attack politics. “Every one of my recent books,” he said, “have had major themes of ‘biased’ media coverage, so you might say this is one of my passions.” That’s true for readers of PressThink, too, where the comments section—attracting both liberals and conservatives, plus others, including journalists—frequently becomes a skirmishing field.

There is no question that this is one of the passions of the day. Media bias discussions (including dismissals of the bias charge) are a popular way of participating in the news— and of intervening in journalism as it rolls along. They are an entry point into a news system that is without a lot of good entry points. And so I pay close attention to the bias discourse. I try to understand how it works, why it’s so popular, what it’s really about.

But media bias is not one of my passions. Nemesis is more like it. For in my line of work—discovering press think, and then getting people to reflect on it—bias is what all discussion threatens to become. Despite this black hole effect, some important things are said, done and thought about as the war drags on. Here’s some of what I mean:

First Complication: Attack Politics. Mitchell’s interest in attack machines, or what Hillary Clinton called “the politics of personal destruction,” is not unrelated to the bias wars. In fact, the connection has been explicitly drawn by John Caroll, editor of the Los Angeles Times, in his Ruhl Lecture on Ethics delivered at The University of Oregon and published in the Times May 6th.

Carroll talks there about charges from the right that the Times interfered in the California recall election last year, and that it wanted to sink Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger by reporting on his habit of groping women in a front-page story published just five days before the election. Rejecting the charge outright, Carroll points to an “effort to discredit the newspaper” after it published the allegations. He didn’t mention that 10,000 subscribers were angry enough to quit the Times after the groping stories. (See his column explaining the decision here and PressThink on it here and here.)

“Never has falsehood in America had such a large megaphone,” he added in ranging over that incident, the rise of Fox News and its star, Bill O’Reilly (who joined in the outrage over the Schwarzenegger stories), and the talk show climate of instant accusation. “Pseudo-journalism,” he called it, almost indistinguishable from propaganda. “The propaganda technique that has invaded journalism is of a particular breed,” spoke Carroll. “It springs not from journalistic roots but from modern politics — specifically, that woeful subset known as attack politics.”

In attack politics, the idea is to “define” one’s rival in the eyes of the public. This means repeating derogatory information so often that the rival’s reputation is ruined. Sometimes the information is true; sometimes it is misleading; sometimes it is simply false…It is the netherworld of attack politics that gave us Roger Ailes, the architect of Fox News.

Let’s underline what Carroll is saying, in a speech he worked carefully on and clearly saw as his statement: The bias wars are—at least in part—the eruption into the press of the “attack” style in politics, but instead of defeating a candidate, the goal is to drive up the negatives of news organizations like the Los Angeles Times.

Fox News Channel, in Carroll’s view, is a dangerous hybrid: a news and propaganda organization, with some of the codes of entertainment thrown in. Its president, Roger Ailes, is a man accustomed to “smearing politicians.” He has changed industries, “but his bag of tricks remains the same.” Fox gains, of course, every time the mainstream media is successfully smeared. And pseudo-journalism gains every time people choose to believe it.

There is defiant tone in Carrol’s remarks, a willingness to draw lines separating real journalism from its counterfeits. “All across America,” he said, “there are offices that resemble newsrooms, and in those offices there are people who resemble journalists, but they are not engaged in journalism. It is not journalism because it does not regard the reader—or, in the case of broadcasting, the listener, or the viewer—as a master to be served.”

Instead, politics is the master, and manipulation the desired end. Crying bias is just a tactic. From this angle, what appears to be a conflict between “liberal” and “conservative” leanings in the newsroom is actually a struggle between real newsrooms and propaganda shops. What appears to be a complaint about a disservice to readers because of liberal bias is actually an instance of attack politics, where bias is the wedge issue.

Those who play the attack game will always find material with which to batter an opponent, the Carroll story says. He mentions in a tone of pity the “talk-show fans who know the Los Angeles Times only for its ethical outrages.” People who see the newspaper this way have had the Los Angeles Times defined for them by the propaganda machine, in roughly the same way that Michael Dukakis was defined by the Willie Horton ads run against him in 1988.

Opponents are trying to drive up our negatives. So Carroll took the platform to drive home some of Fox’s negatives, as if to say: you’re trying to define me? Well, I’m going to define you…. as “pseudo-journalism.” That’s an editor (whose newspaper won five Pulitizer Prizes this year) fighting back with blunt words and named names. Ailes, who likes to mix it up with journalists in his public statements, replied in the Wall Street Journal opinion pages, June 2.

Carroll’s “pathetic attempt to smear Fox News Channel will only drive his paper’s circulation down, as it should,” he wrote. Ailes then demanded an apology from the editor for “insulting comments.” When I say bias “wars,” it’s this kind of exchange I have in mind. Of course, it’s a war of words—and statistics!—with a highly ritualized quality. Dvorkin of NPR caught some of this:

So if there is tough reporting around the Bush campaign, critics will say it must be because of the inherent liberal bias as cited in the Pew poll. If the media is tough on the Kerry campaign it may be viewed as an overcompensation to show that the media isn’t as liberal as the Pew poll indicated.

In a follow-up column published today, Mitchell included reactions from readers. Jerry Carroll, of Hot Springs Village, Arizona, was already on a war footing: “Having somebody like you in charge of investigating liberal bias in the media is like, oh, putting Reynard the Fox on the case of the chicken house break-in.”

Complication Number Two: The Other Pew Study. How seriously we take Carroll’s perspective may be affected by a later Pew Center report on the credibility ratings of major American news organizations. It was released June 8th.

This was an audience study. It got much less publicity, but that’s odd because the results were even more troubling for the press. “News Audiences Increasingly Politicized,” said the headline. The survey showed one thing clearly: Fox is having a deep effect. First, it’s still gaining viewers. “Since 2000, the number of Americans who regularly watch Fox News has increased by nearly half from 17% to 25% while audiences for other cable outlets have been flat at best.” But it’s more than that.

John Carroll’s suggestion was that Fox can be understood on the model of a political campaign, which also makes marketplace sense. It’s attack politics aimed at a vulnerable opponent: the “liberal media.” According to Pew, it’s not only working for Fox’s ratings. It’s changing CNN into a “Democratic” network— whether or not the bosses have any such intention. “CNN’s once dominant credibility ratings have slumped in recent years, mostly among Republicans and independents. By comparison, the Fox News Channel’s believability ratings have remained steady both overall and within partisan groups.”

In other words, Fox has been able to drive up CNN’s negatives (or is the beneficiary of others in that line of work) without adding at all to its own. The wedge effect is starting to show: “Fox ranks as the most trusted news source among Republicans but is among the least trusted by Democrats.” As every student of politics knows, a wedge maneuver is not supposed to make you wildly popular. It’s supposed to divide the electorate to your side’s advantage. Republicans and conservatives are thus leaving the likes of CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS (although they still watch them, just as Democrats watch Fox).

They are also changing their opinion of the traditional news powers. In 2000, according to Pew, 27 percent of Republicans “believed all or most” of what they heard from CBS News. By April of 2004, only 15 percent did. In 2000, 29 pecent of Republicans believed NBC News. In 2004, it was down to 16. CNN fell from 33 to 26 with Republicans. But Fox rose from 26 to 29. “Political polarization is increasingly reflected in the public’s news viewing habits,” says Pew. And for the first time, “The overall audience for cable TV news exceeds that for network television news by a narrow margin.”

But the effect is wider than just TV News. The Wall Street Journal’s believability among Republicans fell from 46 to 23. What explains that? NPR slipped from 20 to 15. Are you listening? Trust in C-SPAN declined from 32 to 23 among Republicans. Among Democrats on the same measure—trusting all or most of what is heard as news—CNN came in at 48 in 2000 and 45 in 2004. CBS News went from 36 to 34. NPR from 36 to 33. C-SPAN: 38 to 36. Not the same dynamic there.

Thus the news climate is becoming more polarized, more like the political climate overall. And what does it say to the high church in journalism when only 14 percent of Republicans believe the bulk of what they read in the New York Times, while 31 percent of Democrats do? It’s not possible, I think, to answer hard questions about the political affiliations of journalists, (“where are all the conservatives?”) without reckoning with the shifting affiliations of the news audience— and the possible success of the wedge.

The rule in attack politics is define the other guy or be defined by him. CNN is slowly getting defined as news for Democrats whether CNN likes it or not. If that is indeed happening, then one of Mitchell’s questions, “Should editors embark on an ideological affirmative action program?” looks entirely different. A righteous journalist may warn against politicizing the news, and that is an important thing to do. But if the audience is being polarized this is not entirely on point.

Ask Michael Dukakis. It’s hard to know what to do when your negatives are going up. It’s not easy to know why it’s happening, either. (C-SPAN took a hit?) Of course one explanation is obvious: If half the press corps believes that journalism is “going in the wrong direction,” maybe they’re right. In a situation like that, the old time newsroom religion sometimes gains force, precisely because in new times nobody knows where things are headed. To me, the whole picture is unstable, like a television set that’s about to lose its vertical hold.

For instance, there’s nothing to stop Fox from “coming out” as the conservative network and sharpening the conflict even more, a rhetorical step that campaign manager Ailes has so far refused to take— for tactical reasons, I think. Fox’s friends all know, so why not be open? But the pressure is equally real for CNN and MSNBC. If their viewer base continues to skew Democratic, how long before someone makes the argument: let’s come out of the closet and claim our market? That’s when the old picture begins to break apart. All this lies in the background of the Editor and Publisher’s project, but not very far in the background.

Complication Number Three: Those Moderates. When 54 precent of national journalists and 61 percent of local journalists decline the labels “liberal” and “conservative” and identify instead as moderates, what are they really saying? It’s possible, I suppose, that they’re all Joe Lieberman Democrats or Arlen Specter Republicans (the political reporter’s definition of a moderate) but it seems more likely this is a statement refuting the relevance of labels like liberal or conservative.

It’s not so much that newsroom moderates stand in the middle, ideologically, as that they stand to one side of the premise that their personal ideology even matters. Perhaps they don’t want to dignify the idea by discussing it. “We don’t think in those terms.” Many journalists treasure their apolitical interest in politics, and a good number have a “pox on both their houses” attitude (sometimes called cynicism).

This is not a liberal, or conservative, or moderate outlook. There’s an ideology to it, but not one that appears on the standard political spectrum. It’s a professional ideology—newsroom religion, if you will—and it has no single name. Objectivity is one way of putting it, detachment another, professionalism a third. “News judgment” is part of the ideology. This is what journalists have in place of all those political judgments that, according to belief, they prevent themselves from making because their professional codes of neutrality and factuality prohibit such.

The Reader is our only master is an ideological statement because it seeks to describe journalism as pure, “cured” of politics in a way that outside critics can never be. Or take this one: “If the left says we’re in bed with the authorities, and the right says we’re in league with the liberals, it’s because we play it straight down the middle, and don’t please either camp.” That’s an ideology, too, and may be part of what journalists mean by moderate: Put me in neither camp, I’m a professional news person. Without investigating this belief system, Mitchell and team will have a hard time grappling with liberals and conservatives in the newsroom.

This is one of the problems with relying on self-identification, an issue raised by one of Mitchell’s readers, Bill Steigerwald, columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Asking them to identify themselves is worthless,” he wrote, “because most of the liberals I know barely realize they are liberal, mainly because they never meet nonliberals, rarely read conservative magazines or columnists or authors and think that the New York Times editorial page and the New Yorker (all they read) are moderate.”

Complication Four: The Newsroom Diversity Dodge. Mitchell turns to the obvious solution when he asks: “Should editors embark on an ideological affirmative action program?” John Leo, columnist for US News and World Report, told Mitchell: “We all know that conferences changed the day the first black attended. And it was a very good thing…I don’t care how many Democrats or liberals there are in the newsroom, so long as we do something to change the one-note newsroom culture.”

That’s a good point. But efforts to diversify the work force in mainstream journalism almost never confront a big contradiction at the heart of that project. Diversity says: we need a better mix of perspectives, more members of under-represented groups. But “represent your group” is exactly what you are not supposed to do according to codes of the newsroom.

The whole logic of hiring more African-Americans or working class people or god-fearing conservatives is that they bring their own experiences, priorities and perspectives to the news— a different politics, we might say. Indeed, if they didn’t look at the world differently, why would it be an urgent matter to hire and keep them?

But once hired, these recruits join a newsroom culture intended to flatten out, or make irrelevant, the very differences that are allegedly so valuable to the operation. Compared to the headache of changing that, which would mean an overhaul in in newsroom doctrine and practice, the hiring of new faces from different places is easy. And in general that is what journalism has done: the easier thing.

This takes its toll on the recruits, who have to live every day in the contradiction their bosses tend not to acknowledge even once a year. The results show up in minority retention and morale (poor), the tenacity of a “one note” decision-making culture, and the simple fact that the news hasn’t changed composition much even with all the diversity hiring.

The problem, I regret to report, is a philosophical one. It is political too. It is ethical, and also practical. There is no reason to think that adding “endangered conservatives” to the affirmative action list would change any of this. I do not deny that there are marginal benefits, such as John Leo mentions. Major benefits await major action to revise the standard newsroom creed. You can’t add new voices and expect much benefit if work routines and professional acceptance depend on the journalist de-voicing herself. Ultimately that problem must be faced. In the meantime, denial works well enough. At least it did until the Internet.

Finally, an observation about Editor and Publisher itself. This was once a sleepy trade journal. But it is reviving itself after taking a hard decision in January to cease weekly publication, go to monthly in print, and put more into daily content and commentary on the website.

“The Internet demands voice,” wrote Washington Post columnist Dan Froomkin in a recent Online Journalism Review essay. E & P is allowing the logic of this demand to work itself out, and the result is a more exciting publication. It’s a sign of how major change may one day come to the traditional press. First, you say the Internet demands voice, and you permit more of it to those working for the online edition. They’re Internet journalists, you decide; different rules apply. Then one day you declare, because it’s true, “we’re all Net Journalists now.” Presto: everyone gains voice. This might improve journalism, but it would not reduce bias. (And which of those is more important?)

“I’ve simply tried to make E & P more responsive to current events and related issues, in the magazine itself and especially on the web site,” Mitchell told me. “This has taken us into more ‘political’ areas but E & P is not a political magazine.” He reports that traffic to the web site has tripled since February to 2.3 million page views last month and half a million unique users. “This is simply not the ‘old’ E & P and clearly our coverage of topical issues has a lot to do with it.”

I say the Web is working its magic, and Editor and Publisher is one to be watched, especially its August issue.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links….

Pew Center study: Bottom-Line Pressures Now Hurting Coverage, Say Journalists. (May 23, 2004) Later Pew study: News Audiences Increasingly Politicized. (June 8, 2004)

Eric Alterman of The Nation and MSNBC on the Pew study: “True, 34 percent calling themselves ‘liberal’ is a bit more than the national average, but if I’m not mistaken, these same right-wingers have been crowing endlessly that the entire media was controlled by liberals. If the number is only a third — with 54 percent calling themselves moderates, then just what’s the problem?”

John Leo of US News and World Report writes:

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.

Geneva Overholser, former editor of the Des Moines Register, former ombudsman at the Washington Post: “I am hopeful that we are now arriving at a closely related yet broader awareness: That the old “‘liberal media’ charge is largely hooey, and dangerous hooey at that.”

For those with a deep interest in the subject, see Andrew Cline’s patient and detailed framework for understanding media bias. From Rhetorica:

Is the news media biased toward liberals? Yes. Is the news media biased toward conservatives? Yes. These questions and answers are uninteresting because it is possible to find evidence—anecdotal and otherwise—to “prove” media bias of one stripe or another. Far more interesting and instructive is studying the inherent, or structural, biases of journalism as a professional practice.

Robert J. Samuelson of Newsweek echoes this post: “The latest Pew survey confirms—with lots of numbers—something disturbing that we all sense: people are increasingly picking their media on the basis of partisanship.” (June 28 issue)

Columnist Vincent Carroll in the Rocky Mountain News (June 19):

Yes, that’s just what we need: an in-depth investigation to determine whether liberals outnumber conservatives in the media. Perhaps Editor & Publisher can then turn its attention to solving such equally elusive mysteries as the location of the Statue of Liberty and the fate of the Titanic….

For professional reasons, many journalists are reluctant to classify themselves at all, so “moderate” becomes a handy way to signal their lack of bias. Some also dub themselves moderate in comparison with the people around them. In my experience, however, many of these moderates are center-left and presumably vote Democratic…

“Should editors embark on an ideological affirmative action program?” No. There’s too much gender and ethnic bean-counting in hiring decisions already. Don’t lard on another category. Why should a mediocre conservative reporter get a leg up on a liberal with a first-rate portfolio of clippings?

Posted by Jay Rosen at June 17, 2004 9:10 PM