Mainstream News Media: Why So Liberal?

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET

We're adults, right? So let's talk straight about the liberal U.S. news media. Which is to say, that part of the news media populated by social liberals. Which is to say, probably a majority of people still in the national press, particularly writers and reporters.

I say news people, rather than news organizations, because this is an important distinction when it comes to bias, especially in this day of increasing media ownership by big corporations and the influence of their political ties on the news they disseminate.

And national, as opposed to local, because, as citizens, news people tend to share the concerns and politics of the localities they serve. The smaller and less urban a market is, the more conservative its reporters are likely to be, while the larger, more diverse markets attract news people of a more liberal bent. Reporters who make their way to the major newspapers or network news organizations tend to be, as a group, the most liberal.

In an ideal world, personal politics would not color a correspondent's reporting, and over the years, this ideal has been a core value of the American newsroom. If anything, the influences on reporters - from corporate pressures, to the need to rely on established sources, to the fear of being labeled liberal - have pulled news toward the right. Yet, by any standard, bias has been largely absent from the national news report.

Lapses occur, of course, among reporters liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat. But for the most part, such bias is unintentional; it's the kind that slips past an editor who shares the bias and therefore doesn't see it. Though infrequent, this "bias blindness," is one of the main raps conservatives lay on the national media, by way of demonstrating how pervasive newsroom liberalism is.

The Right also loves to argue that the "mainstream" media - from the wire services to the New York Times, to CBS News - give applicants some sort of "liberal test" before hiring them. It's an assertion that has reached folklore status, and it is pure fiction. In my 15 or so years as a writer, editor, and producer at the Associated Press, ABC and CBS News, I was never asked by management about my politics - or directed to slant a story in any way. Never.

Even Fox News Channel, where I worked for six years and was urged to slant my writing (which I refused to do), doesn't flat out ask applicants if they're Democrat or Republican. Most new hires must pass a written test, though, in which they are asked, among other questions, "What does 'fair and balanced' mean to you?" (A "Democrats: Answer with Care!" warning should accompany that one but doesn't.)

As I think back, most of the corporate bosses I've worked for in the media - and, early on, many of my newsroom supervisors - were old-line Republicans. I had to think back, because this just wasn't an issue at the time; political bias in any direction was simply taboo, and editors did their jobs with implicit impartiality.

This is no longer a given, thanks in good part to Fox, the success of its partisan pandering, and its weak-willed cable competitors, who shamefully have followed Fox's lead into the dregs of opinion-as-news.

Still, I think critics of the mainstream media are correct when they say it is predominantly staffed by liberals. From what I have seen, this is much less the case today as newsroom staffs become younger and younger. But it is solidly true of my generation of news writers and reporters, who came up during the 1960s and '70s and have held the most influential newsroom positions since then.

The question is, why is this so? Why are there so many liberals in this country's major newspaper and broadcast network newsrooms?

I think the answer is, first of all, generational. The 1960s in particular were a time of great social upheaval in America, primarily because of the civil rights movement. We all may agree now on the legitimacy of that cause - (Who but the most racist of Americans would still advocate segregation?) - but it was no slam-dunk then. Whatever their personal politics might have been, reporters witnessed first-hand the horrors of racism: the lynchings and church bombings, the "whites only" lunch counters, the fire hoses and attack dogs that tossed civil rights marchers around like rag dolls. (When my children, now in their 20's, saw film clips of this in high school, they couldn't believe it was America.)

Is it surprising that reporters came away from these things more liberal?

Then there's the matter of open-mindedness. As news people advance to larger markets with broader audiences, they naturally encounter more points of view. If they're honest and diligent, they find that facts don't always support the establishment or majority position. Many begin questioning even their own parochial views. They become more tolerant of others in society who challenge authority. They find a certain nobility in underdogs, and in championing, if not their causes, at least their right to be heard. Sometimes this tolerance blinds reporters to facts; even underdogs can be wrong or dishonest. Even so, such liberal leanings are fairly inevitable, it seems to me.

In addition, I think most dedicated news people, whatever their politics, have a strong allegiance to the First Amendment. They cringe at even the idea of censorship, and they are inclined to resist attempts to impose it. They're skeptical of those who wave the flag to stifle speech, and of those who would impose not only a particular religious belief, but religion itself, on any segment of society. This is not so much a Democrat-or-Republican issue, but I think it is an important factor in explaining news media liberalism.

Add to this the nature of reporting itself; of asking probing questions, looking under rocks, nurturing inside sources, and hounding those in power. These things require a sense of skepticism and a willingness to offend not only people in office, but the public which put them there.

This is not to suggest that liberal politicians are any less deserving of oversight than conservatives, or any less prone to criticizing reporters who expose their foibles. But I think one difference that journalists have experienced, at least in the past half-century, is that the criticism they get from the Right is sharper, more personal, and in many cases, further below the belt than that from the Left. Republicans and conservatives are more likely to deflect scrutiny by labeling reporters and their profession as "unpatriotic" or "godless."

In fact, the Right has waged open warfare on the news media since the 1960's. Richard Nixon set the tone with his "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore" concession speech after the 1962 California governor's race, then, a decade later, retooled his media-bashing as President to obscure his role in Watergate. The first President Bush rallied voters in 1992 with bumper stickers that read: "Annoy the Media: Re-elect Bush." And the current President Bush, while proclaiming "great respect for the media," boasts nevertheless that he "rarely read(s)" newspapers.

(I laughed out loud at that comment, made in a 2003 interview with Fox's Brit Hume. Bush explains that, "a lot of times there's opinions mixed in with the news." To which Hume replies, "I won't disagree with that, sir." I'm sure anyone who has watched Hume's straight-from-the-GOP-playbook "reporting" - or, for that matter, much of what passes for news on FNC -- wouldn't disagree either.)

My point here is that liberalism in the news media, where it exists, does so in part because it has been consigned to that role by the constant labeling and antagonism of the Right.

But conservatives can take heart: the landscape is changing. There are fewer newsroom liberals to worry about these days, especially in television. Politically speaking I have no problems with this, but the reasons for it are disheartening.

First, more and more young people with little or no experience are producing news at the network level, particularly in cable. Back in the day, news people worked their way up to the networks. They developed their writing and reporting skills in small and medium markets, immersing themselves along the way in the issues, personalities, and politics that make news. They were driven by a desire to inform and a respect for the principles of journalism.

Nowadays, as news and talk shows proliferate, and as 24-hour cable news operations increasingly draw staff from the ranks of the inexperienced, these venues have become the first stop for more and more young people aspiring to careers in television - not news.

But tangential to this, and even more important, is the changing nature of the newsroom culture. With the retiring-out of people with solid backgrounds in news (and the principles that guide it) there is little to prevent it from becoming a corporate culture. In fact, if Fox is any indication, the transformation has been made already. There, it is not the news, but network management, that shapes the daily report. In Fox's case, the guiding force is partisan politics. But whatever the corporate concern, if it controls the news, it runs contrary to the liberal principles that, I believe, keep news free and honest.