Media Bias: Familiar and Enduring

What we’ve long known or suspected is confirmed by a new study from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press: America’s media are way to the left of most Americans.

We’ll get to the so-what question in a minute. First, the findings. To wit: “Journalists at national and local news organizations are notably different from the general public in their ideology and attitudes toward political and social issues.” Although a plurality of the journalists asked describe themselves as moderates, “news people, especially national journalists, are more liberal, and far less conservative, than the general public.”

Thus, while 34 percent of national journalists call themselves liberal, “that compares with 19 percent of the public. Moreover, there is a relatively small number of conservatives at national and local news organizations. Just 7 percent of national news people and 12 percent of local journalists describe themselves as conservatives, compared with a third of all Americans.”

I should interject that the Pew operation, despite its founders’ conservative pedigree, is a frequent target of the right, owing to the alleged portside tilt of its non-family leadership team. In other words, the purpose of the Pew study wasn’t to suggest kinship between Bill O’Reilly and St. John the Evangelist or Tom Brokaw and Lucifer.

What is new about the Pew findings? The substance of the report is by now familiar. The point to notice, perhaps, is the endurance of the problem.

And it is a problem, as I regularly assure students in my “Media and American Society” course at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Ideological one-sidedness need not produce one-sided coverage, but as consumers of news understand too well, it frequently does.

Ideological bias doesn’t mean just a twist here and a distortion there. A journalist can lie — or, shall we just say, tilt coverage in a particular direction — by what he leaves out or puts in.

The Iraq war is a case in point. The New York Times‘ William Safire asks this week if you’re reading headlines such as “Monthly U.S. Combat Deaths Down by Half in May” and “Radical Shiite Cleric’s Militia Decimated in Holy Cities.” Oh, you’re not? No wonder, says Safire. “In Gloomy Gus newsrooms, good news is no news.”

It makes you wonder about another Pew finding: that “reporters and editors in national news organizations … feel the press has gone too easy on the Bush administration.” It has? If so, the administration needs to brace itself for when the media decide to get really rough.

And the point? An audience that distrusts you isn’t going to stick around just to watch you perform. Doubting your credibility as a bearer of news, that audience will seek different sources of news. Enter Fox News Channel, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and so on.

Which is fine, up to a point. The only trouble with flight to ideologically compatible sources is that it tends to segment the audience. More and more, we’re getting in the way of news and viewpoint only what we agree with: a prospect I have resisted throughout my 35 years of reading The New York Times daily and Sundays. How else would I know what the so-and-sos were up to?

The Pew center reports that half of national journalists see their profession as moving in the “wrong direction.” Nearly three-quarters of these “say the distinction between reporting and commentary has seriously eroded.” I might myself, after 40 years in journalism, interpret this mood as disquiet with the consequences of unchecked power.

Unchecked power is the thing we conservatives hate and fear more than anything else in this world, given the way it breeds arrogance and plain old bad behavior.

The arrogant forever need taking down a peg — a purpose, an aspiration, that many journalists once saw as sacred. There must surely be a few of those old-fashioned journalists left. Now, if they could just start to speak up — loudly, magisterially!