Media suffer from blindness to the right

February 14, 2002|By Jeffrey M. Landaw

THE NEWS MEDIA have been wringing their hands for years about the loss of public esteem that shows up in the polls, some of which rank us in the neighborhood of used-car salesmen, and audibly sighing with relief over a study that the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released in November.

According to Pew, 59 percent of respondents thought in early September that news organizations were politically biased; by November, that percentage had fallen to 47.

You take your good news where you can, but that percentage is still high.

And the same day, Dec. 24, that The Sun reported those findings, The Wall Street Journal reported that the proportion of Pew respondents who thought coverage of the "war on terrorism" had been excellent had declined from 56 percent in mid-September to 30 percent by November.

The media, The Journal said, were "almost alone among American institutions" in losing public respect during this time.

One observation from Pew that went unreported: "Conservative Republicans, for the most part, remain highly critical of the news media, and in many cases the media's image has improved only on the moderate-to-liberal end of the political spectrum."

Some of the dislike of coverage of the war in Afghanistan may be related to technical questions such as the military's refusal to let journalists near the front lines. (And Geraldo Rivera probably costs us 10 points all by himself.) But it seems as if the causes of the media's problems with the public haven't been touched.

Jonathan Z. Larsen, a veteran of Time and The Village Voice, asked a relevant question in the Columbia Journalism Review's November issue: Why did journalism decline so far in performance and respect during the Clinton era when "[n]ever before had journalists been so educated, so well paid, and seemingly so representative of readers served"?

That "seemingly" ducks something big: As the mainstream media strain to get the "right" mix of color, religion and gender into their newsrooms, they've stopped representing their readers' political and cultural views.

Thomas Edsall of The Washington Post makes this point in the July/August Public Perspective magazine, put out by the University of Connecticut's Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.

A study by the center and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 35 percent of the public identify themselves as "conservative" and 28 percent as Republican.

For "policy leaders" in the same poll, the figures are 18 percent conservative and 24 percent Republican.

For journalists, it's 6 percent conservative and 4 percent Republican.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors found that 22 percent of journalists identified themselves as conservatives in 1988 and only 15 percent in 1996.

Except for the political preference, the prestige media act out Adlai Stevenson's complaint of 50 years ago: We have "a one-party press in a two-party country."

Does this really matter? In 160 pages, CJR mentions the issue once, in the context of Spiro Agnew's "instant analysis and querulous criticism" speech of 1969. But there's hard evidence that our opinions keep us from doing our job.

"The media," Mr. Edsall wrote, "do not have good antennae to detect conservative forces at work in the electorate."

Mr. Edsall points out that "the press ... has been blindsided by some of the most significant political developments because so few members of the media share the views of the voters who have been mobilized by these movements. ..."[T]his blindness . . . [results] in the press playing catch-up, struggling in the aftermath, for example, to figure out what happened on Election Day 1994 [when the Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, won control of the House]; who these evangelical voters are; why people would care so much about Aid to Families with Dependent Children ... and where the drive to impeach President Clinton came from."

Worst of all, as Mr. Edsall writes, the media's one-sidedness actually threatens their long-term legitimacy.

If we wanted to work in echo chambers, we should have become sound engineers, not journalists.

Jeffrey M. Landaw is a makeup editor for The Sun and a lifelong Democrat.

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