The Myth of the Liberal Media

The words liberal and media go together like bacon and eggs–at least that’s what we’ve been led to believe over the past 30 years. Indeed, to listen to any of the scores of conservative politicians and pundits in America, you’d think the New York Times and CBS News were run by snarling Marxists hell-bent on mobilizing the proletariat and and ushering in the next class war. But a recent survey by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), the progressive media watchdog group, unearthed little revolutionary zeal among reporters, editors, producers, and bureau chiefs in the major media–unless you count their fevered support for free trade.

‘This survey calls into question the conservative claim that journalists’ personal views are to the left of the public,” writes David Croteau in Extra! (July-August 1998). “On economic issues, the minority of journalists not in the ‘center’ are more likely to identify as having a ‘right’ orientation. When polled on specific economic policies, journalists were often to the right of public opinion.”

FAIR, in consultation with the Survey and Evaluation Research Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University, polled nearly 450 Washington-based journalists in early 1998. The 141 responses revealed a pattern of opinions on national issues that clearly repudiates the liberal media myth (see accompanying chart). On major economic priorities, for instance, journalists leaned more toward the center (64 percent) and the right (19 percent) than the left (11 percent) when asked to identify their political orientation. So it was no surprise to discover they were much more likely than the general public to favor measures to slow the rise in spending for entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security; they also were much more willing to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to include other Latin American countries and less willling than the general public to make health insurance reform a top priority.

On social issues, the journalists polled were slightly more liberal, with 57 percent placing themselves in the political center, 30 percent on the left, and only 9 percent on the right. Still, they found themselves to the right of the public on the issues of corporate power and taxing the wealthy. Only when asked about the importance of stricter environmental laws did the liberal media betray any significant left-leaning sentiment: 79 percent of the journalists polled said they believed such laws were worth the cost, while 63 percent of the public surveyed in a 1996 Pew Research Center poll agreed. “This result may not be very surprising,” writes Croteau, “since the economic cost of environmental regulation is often perceived to be carried by workers in the form of lost jobs–a problem that may not be of immediate salience for professional journalists.”

Of course, the bottom line of such a survey is more significant than simply bursting a well-worn conservative canard, Croteau notes. The real significance of these findings is how it helps us understand the inherent biases in our national news coverage. “Their adherence to the middle of the road and conventional wisdom is consistent with media outlets owned and funded by corporations that benefit from the status quo and are threatened by alternative analyses,” he concludes. “Unfortunately, this too often leaves citizens with policy ‘debates’ grounded in the shared assumptions of those in positions of power.”

Spot the Liberal
The left, as represented on TV news shows, is more conservative than you think.

Pundit Sam Donaldson
Soapbox Resident liberal on ABC’s This Week
Left-Wing Credentials Shouted challenging questions at President Reagan in the ’80s
True Colors Referred to the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev as “a terrorist system;” called Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega a “dictator.”

Pundit Cokie Roberts
Soapbox ABC’s This Week
Left-Wing Credentials Works for National Public Radio
True Colors Advised Bill Clinton to “move to the right” after the 1994 Republican Congressional sweep, spoke in favor of “fast track” trade legislation, and came out against stronger unions in the wake of GATT and NAFTA.

Pundit George Stephanopoulos
Soapbox ABC’s This Week
Left-Wing Credentials Former high level advisor in the Clinton White House
True Colors Called for Saddam Hussein’s assassination, vigorously defended Clinton’s “pro-business” budget leanings, and recently joined conservative pundits advocating impeachment of his former boss.

Pundit Bill Press
Soapbox CNN’s Crossfire
Left-Wing Credentials Former chair of the California Democratic Party
True Colors After the 1994 GOP victories, he opined, “We have to reshape our agenda and stress the issues that appeal to the haves, like welfare reform and maybe some marginal kind of things like health reform, but no big global thing.”

Pundit Mark Shields
Soapbox PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer
Left-Wing Credentials Worked on Robert Kennedy’s political campaigns
True Colors On Lockheed Martin’s payroll for appearing as a regular panelist on a Washington, D.C. radio talk show; critic of media’s “anti-military bias.”

Pundit David Broder
Soapbox NBC’s Meet the Press
Left-Wing Credentials Not as conservative as George Will
True Colors Critic of “runaway entitlement spending,” blasted the Carter Administration’s “environmental extremism,” came to Robert Bork’s defense against “quick-lip liberals,” and defended the U.S. invasion of Panama.

Adapted from Extra! (July/August 1998). Subscriptions: $19/yr. (6 issues) from Box 170, Congers, NY 10920-9930.

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