Journalists' Liberal Bias: Why It Matters, How It Hurts

Walter Cronkite, once called America’s most trusted man, once disagreed with me when I called most journalists “liberal.” “If by liberal,” he told me, “you mean open-minded, then, yes. This is true.”

Cronkite, no longer constrained by the journalistic creed of non-partisanship, now writes a weekly column. About liberal reporters, he now pleads guilty: “I believe that most of us reporters are liberal, but not because we consciously have chosen that particular color in the political spectrum. More likely it is because most of us served our journalistic apprenticeships as reporters covering the seamier sides of our cities — the crimes, the tenement fires, the homeless and the hungry, the underclothed and undereducated.”

Last week, I interviewed Mr. Cronkite and questioned him about his rationale behind journalists’ liberalism. If, I asked, journalists become liberal because they see the underbelly, the downtrodden, the miscast, how do you explain the conservatism of police officers, who, after all, see exactly the same things? Cronkite, apparently uncomfortable with the question, simply said, “Why should I?”

Liberal bias matters.

This bias affects consumers of “news” in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Here are some recent examples:

C-SPAN, last week, listed with voice-over the top best-selling non-fiction books: “Living History, the memoir by Hillary Rodham Clinton is first on the list. It is followed by Treason, conservative pundit Ann Coulter’s book. . . . Barbara Ehrenreich looks at the unskilled labor market in No. 3, Nickel and Dimed.” Hold the phone. As to Hillary Clinton, C-SPAN neither called her “liberal,” nor “extremely liberal,” nor “leftist,” nor even “progressive.” Barbara Ehrenreich writes for a number of publications, including one of the country’s most liberal periodicals, The Nation. Indeed, Ehrenreich is honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America. Yet while C-SPAN correctly identified Ann Coulter as “conservative,” Ehrenreich just got the good ol’ Barbara Ehrenreich — no adjective necessary — treatment. But it gets worse. C-SPAN also said, “Author and filmmaker Michael Moore comes in at No. 6 . . . ” Moore just received funding for his newest documentary, Fahrenheit 911, its apparent premise that the Bush family and the Osama bin Laden family, both in the oil business, combined somehow to create September 11! Moore, of course, castigated the Bush administration when he won Best Documentary Oscar for his liberal, anti-Second Amendment, anti-American documentary Bowling for Columbine. Yet C-SPAN simply called him “author and filmmaker” Michael Moore.

Here’s another one. The Los Angeles Times and Investor’s Business Daily recently reported on increasingly good economic news. However, both papers spun the news in dramatically different ways. Both listed comments from three economists. But in the case of the Los Angeles Times, the paper managed to find pessimistic economists who downplayed the news, and added a big “but.” One said, “But we’ll have to wait and see about jobs,” and another said, “But in 2004 . . . that’s going to fade.” One found no such qualifying “buts” from the economists quoted in the Investor’s article.

Californians, of course, face a gubernatorial recall election on Oct. 7. The Los Angeles Times recently ran the following headline: “[Lt. Governor] Bustamante Has Big Lead on Schwarzenegger.” Yet, only weeks earlier, the L.A. Times reported, deep in the article, that Schwarzenegger enjoyed a 45 to 22 percent lead over his nearest rival. The headline? “Davis Calls Recall an ‘Insult’ to His Supporters.” Similarly, on Aug. 13, 2003, the L.A. Times also noted that Arnold Schwarzenegger enjoyed a 20-point lead over his nearest rival. The headline? “The Recall Campaign: Pollsters Groping for Questions; A complex campaign and a crowded field a hard one for those who weigh public opinion.” So, in the L.A. Times, Cruz Bustamante enjoys a “big lead,” amounting to 13 percent. Yet, the same newspaper’s headlines neglect Schwarzenegger’s even “bigger” lead of 20 points.

Want more? The “Today” show’s Katie Couric questioned California gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger’s father’s Nazi past. Yet, Democratic lieutenant governor and gubernatorial candidate Cruz Bustamante once belonged to an organization called MEChA, with the following goal: Reclaiming Aztlan — which they roughly define as the “stolen” Southwestern states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado and Utah — for the Chicano (or indigenous) population. Their own literature states, “We are free and sovereign to determine those tasks which are justly called for by our house, our land, the sweat of our brows, and by our hearts. Aztlan belongs to those who plant the seeds, water the fields, and gather the crops, and not to the foreign Europeans. We do not recognize capricious frontiers on the bronze continent.”

Yet the media showed more interest in a 26-year-old article in which Schwarzenegger discussed his raunchy sexual behavior and use of drugs. But Bustamante’s membership in an organization that contemptuously calls whites “gringos” and “gabachos,” and has the stated goal of apparent military “reconquest” of the Southwest, drew comparatively less attention.

But, as Cronkite says, these examples no doubt simply reflect journalists’ “open-mindedness.”