'Liberal' media isn't that liberal D.C. press corps is more conservative than public

July 19, 1998|By Jeff Cohen

For years, conservatives have painted a picture of the Washington press corps as a group of liberal crusaders bent on bashing corporations, bloating government and socializing health care.

This caricature is utterly deflated by a new survey of journalists. It turns out that on a wide range of economic issues, Washington journalists are more conservative - not more liberal - than the general public.

Take the charge that journalists are anti-business. The recent survey asked them a simple question: Do "a few large companies" have "too much power"? Washington journalists were somewhat divided on the issue, with 57 percent answering yes and 43 percent saying no. That's more conservative than the American public, which responds overwhelmingly in the affirmative to this question - by 77 percent to 18 percent in a Times Mirror poll.

Either the press corps does not have a leftist bias against big business - or the public has an anti-corporate bias even more extreme than that of journalists.

This is one of many insights that can be gleaned from the study conducted by Professor David Croteau of Virginia Commonwealth University. In consultation with Virginia Commonwealth's Survey and Evaluation Research Lab, Croteau sent questionnaires to 444 Washington journalists, targeted primarily at the country's most powerful news outlets. Almost a third of the journalists took the time to complete questionnaires. The survey was commissioned by the media watch group that I head, FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting).

Is the press corps hell-bent on "big government" solutions to health care problems?

On the contrary, the general public is far more emphatic that it is Washington's responsibility to "guarantee medical care for all people who don't have health insurance." When Croteau posed this question to journalists, they were somewhat evenly split: 43 percent pro, 35 percent con. By contrast, the public supported federally guaranteed medical care for the uninsured by a 2-to-1 majority (64-29 percent in a 1996 New York Times/CBS poll.

In a related question, Croteau asked journalists to prioritize economic issues for the president and Congress, including a proposal to "require that employers provide health insurance to employees." Only 32 percent of journalists chose that as one of the top few federal priorities - compared with 47 percent of the public.

To the extent that such findings are surprising, maybe it's because we've been dazed by the daily howls of "liberal" media that come - it's worth noting - from right-wing pundits, talk show hosts and columnists whose voices dominate the self-same media.

After all, many national journalists have prospered while hitched to giant corporations. And unlike much of the public, they rarely worry about health coverage.

Nor do these journalists worry much about today's economy. A nationwide Gallup Poll in March found that 34 percent of the public rated economic conditions as "only fair" or "poor" - while just 5 percent of Croteau's journalists shared that assessment. But then most journalists who filled out questionnaires declared annual household incomes of more than $100,000 and almost a third declared incomes over $150,000. The median U.S. household income is roughly $36,000.

While earlier surveys have asked journalists about their views on social/cultural issues such as abortion or gay rights (views often more liberal than the public), Croteau's may be the first to focus on economics. Far from a pack of leftists, the survey illuminates a conservative journalistic elite out of touch with average Americans:

* "Raise taxes on the wealthy"? That's quite popular with the public. Not so with the well-to-do media professionals who filled out questionnaires.

* "Reform entitlements"? Journalists want to slow Social Security and Medicare. In contrast, the public is more concerned with protecting entitlements against cuts.

* "Free trade"? While the American public is more negative than positive in assessing the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement on the United States, only 8 percent of the surveyed journalists judge NAFTA's impact as negative while 65 percent judge it positive.

It's too bad for President Clinton, the Republican leadership and corporate lobbyists that these journalists aren't the ones in Congress voting on whether the White House will get "fast track" authority to negotiate new trade deals. The survey shows that journalists would pass it in a landslide - 71 percent to 10 percent. Recent polls indicate that the public is more in accord with skeptical congressional Democrats, opposing fast track by upward of 2-to-1.

Croteau sees little contradiction between his survey revealing a press corps with right-tilting views on economic issues - and earlier research showing that some D.C.-based reporters voted heavily for Clinton over George Bush in 1992.

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