Bias and Baloney


November 27, 1992|By TRB

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- According to a new survey by the Freedom Forum, a philanthropic spinoff of the Gannett media empire, 44.1 percent of journalists consider themselves Democrats and only 16.3 percent Republicans. This is far larger than the gap in polls of the general population. At a time when Republicans are toying with a variety of stab-in-the-back theories of why they lost the last election, most involving the press, such findings are red meat to right-wing conspiratorialists.

Why do journalists tend to be liberals? The extent of this tendency is exaggerated in paranoid conservative minds. And there is the countervailing reality that media owners and editorial pages tend to be conservative. Two decades after George Will was discovered sipping a cherry soda at a local drug store, the Washington punditocracy -- on the op-ed pages and TV yak shows -- also has a definite conservative slant. Nevertheless, the general liberal inclination of journalists would be hard to deny.

Perhaps I am not the best person to try to solve the mystery of why. My own political views are more or less liberal. They were not genetically implanted, and I hold them under no form of compulsion except that of reason. It seems to me they're the sort of views a reasonable, intelligent person would hold.

Since most journalists I meet are reasonable, intelligent people, the mystery to me is not why journalists tend to be liberals but why so many other reasonable, intelligent people are not. But it's not hard to come up with plausible theories to explain the gap, having to do with psychological disposition and so on.

The point is that there is no conspiracy going on here. People freely choose their politics and freely choose their careers. No one is forcing journalists to hold liberal political views, and no one is preventing or even discouraging conservatives from becoming journalists. If it just happens to work out that way, on average, so what?

A political preference is not itself a ''bias.'' Any journalist who has had this argument with a non-journalist knows the frustration of being accused of ''bias'' by someone whose political views are of such red-hot intensity that your own pale by comparison. Many who will wave this Gannett study as proof of a press liberal ''bias'' will refuse to accept that their conservative views make .. them ''biased'' too.

But should journalists be different? Some media critics, and some journalists themselves, think that the press ought to function as a sort of sacred priesthood of political celibates, purged of the ideological longings that inflame ordinary folks.

The executive editor of the Washington Post famously goes so far as to refrain from voting. Perhaps he also succeeds in having no opinion about whom he would vote for were he not so scrupulous. If so, his self-discipline would do credit to any monk. Journalists, by definition, are inquisitive people with an interest in public affairs. To expect them to form no conclusions about the people and policies they report on is absurd.

What do conservative media critics want? Presumably they would not favor a quota program for right-wingers, some kind of Americans with Political Disabilities Act, whereby people handicapped with conservative political opinions would get preference over better-qualified liberals for the same job. What they, and everybody else, can reasonably expect is for reporters to tell the story as straight as possible.

Evidence about journalists' political preference says nothing one way or another about how they are performing that function. Most national reporters, on TV and in print, do it pretty well. Certainly of the two newspapers here in Washington, the one whose writers and editors make no effort to avoid slanting the news is the conservative Washington Times, not the supposedly liberal Post.

Two other silly studies, released recently, purported to compute whether television reports and/or newspaper stories during the election campaign were pro- or anti- one candidate or another.

One study, from the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government (an organization whose very name takes up half of any news story dedicated to reporting its findings), actually measured hundreds of news stories on a scale of one (very positive) to five (very negative).

The study, which covered February through May, found that Mr. Bush's average score was 3.3 -- a full 0.9 more negative than Clinton's 2.4. The implicit premise of this pseudo-scientific exercise seems to be that in a perfect world every candidate would score an exact 2.5. But at a time when Mr. Bush was presiding over a stagnant economy, running an inept campaign and being bashed from inside and outside his own party, a perfectly ''balanced'' press coverage would itself be evidence of bias.

The press brings these studies on itself. Not by displaying bias, but by its hunger for respectability and professionalization. That's what leads to the creation of things like the Freedom Forum and the Barone Blah Blah Blah, which then need to keep themselves busy by commissioning studies and heartaching over the meaning of it all. The expanding supply of solutions creates an increasing demand for problems.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.

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