[Editor's note: This is an old section from the essay "Myth: The U.S. has a liberal media." It rebutted the following conservative criticism: 1) that most journalists are liberal, and 2) they inject their personal bias into the news. In 1980, premise 1 was accepted as true by both the left and the right, the only debate being the truthfulness of argument 2. However, recent studies show that premise 1 is no longer true: the nation's journalists are centrist, not liberal. However, I include my original rebuttal here, for historical interest.]


On the other side of this debate is the book The Media Elite, which produced research showing that journalists are predominantly liberal. Although this basic finding is not in dispute, what it means is the subject of considerable academic controversy. The Media Elite attempted to argue that these journalists give a liberal bias to the news itself, but most scholars have not bought this argument. In fact, they regard The Media Elite as a marginal work, typical of the right-wing think tank movement that produced it. (The book was produced by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which is funded by all the usual right-wing foundations: Olin, Smith-Richardson, and Coors being among the largest.)

The demographic traits of journalists

In 1979 and 1980, S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman interviewed 240 members of America's dominant media for their opinions on various issues. Among other organizations, their subjects came from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, and all the major public broadcasting stations. Their subjects represented a cross section of these organizations: reporters, department and bureau heads, syndicated columnists, anchormen, producers, news executives, and correspondents. Here is what they found:

Comparison of traits between media personnel and the general public,
1980 (1)

Demographic                  Media   Public
White                         98%      61%
Male                          92       49
From Northeast corridor       61       38
From metropolitan area        68       65
From "professional" family    39        6
College graduates             77       21
Postgraduate study            37        6
Personal income           $135,000   $17,700
Family income             $186,000   $23,700

Political Outlook
Self-described liberal        65%      27%
Self-described moderate       18       41
Self-described conservative   17       32

Religious Factors
Agnostic or atheist/none      45%       9%
Protestant                    14       56
Jewish                        24        2
Catholic                       8       28
Other                          6        2
Attends church weekly          6       42
Attend church seldom/never    89       25

Voting Record (presidential elections)
Voted Democrat in 1964        83%      61%
Voted Democrat in 1968        83       43
Voted Democrat in 1972        77       38
Voted Democrat in 1976        60       50

The small sample size of this survey (240 members) sparked debate over the validity of its results. To clarify matters, the Los Angeles Times conducted a study of 3,000 journalists at 621 newspapers in 1985. Its results closely confirmed the Lichter/Rothman study: "Members of the press are predominantly liberal, considerably more liberal than the general public." Since then, numerous studies have repeatedly found that media personnel tend to be more liberal than average.

This might discomfit many liberals at first, but in fact this observation becomes more embarrassing to conservatives when one considers the larger picture. For it has always been a truism that those institutions which traffic most in knowledge and information tend to be liberal -- that is why universities, science, trading centers, world-travelers and cities have always been more liberal than average, and it is why the media are more liberal as well. When people investigate the real world, the lessons learned tend to be liberal, not conservative. And that is a generalization which stands up across the whole of human history.

Another disclosure from the Lichter survey is that the media tend to be much more educated than the general public. This, of course, is not a bad thing, and conservatives could not make it one if they tried. The disparity in education reflects more on the general public, not the media. Once again, the ramifications become more embarrassing to conservatives upon considering the larger picture. Numerous studies have found that greater education, higher I.Q.'s, liberal attitudes and non-religious beliefs are all substantially correlated to each other. (2) If an editor uses education as a criterion for hiring the best talent he can find (a natural and expected practice), then it is inevitable that these other traits would come with it.

Unfortunately, the above observations are only generalizations. It is still quite possible for liberals to become seduced by the money and power of corporations, as all too many "limousine liberals" have done. The first thing to notice about most celebrity journalists (regardless of their politics) is their salaries. Each year Diane Sawyer makes $8 million; Ted Koppel, $5 million; David Brinkley, $1 million; George Will, $1.5 million; Cokie Roberts, $700,000. (3) These salaries place them in America's richest 1 percent (actually, the top one-twentieth of the top 1 percent). Keep in mind that the top 1 percent saw their wealth explode during the 80s, eventually coming to own 40 percent of America's wealth. These celebrity journalists live and work in centers of power like Washington D.C and New York City, where they rub elbows with the nation's political and business elite.

Says PBS producer Stephen Talbot:

Newsweek columnist Jonathon Alter concedes: And all evidence shows that celebrity journalists identify with the various elites they cover. Recently, ABC weathered a scandal (due to lack of coverage, naturally) in which its journalists were criticized for accepting huge speaking fees before big business groups. It turns out that corporate lobbyists cultivate "friendships" not only with politicians, but TV journalists as well. They were paying Cokie Roberts, David Brinkley and Sam Donaldson between $20,000 and $35,000 per 40-minute speech. David Gergen collected over $700,000 from speaker fees in one 16-month period alone. In general, the speeches have been very friendly to big business, and that is why lobbyists were willing to pay such huge honoraria. In a 1992 speech, for example, David Brinkley described Bill Clinton's tax increase on the rich as a "sick, stupid joke." (This was even before he called Clinton "boring" on the eve of his 1996 reelection.) In July, 1994, ABC finally advised its journalists to stop accepting speaker fees from corporations and lobbying groups. The decision was immediately protested by Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts, David Brinkley, Brit Hume and others. (6)

The ironic thing is that Cokie Roberts is a Democrat, as are many of her colleagues. Again, this underscores the fact that inside the Beltway, a "liberal" is often no more than a moderate conservative.

Does personal bias result in media bias?

Granted, liberals comprise the majority of the media, but what does that really mean? That most journalists give a liberal slant to their news stories? As we've seen above, the almost complete lack of stories about worker and consumer issues shows that this is not happening. If liberal journalists are indeed slanting stories -- a controversial charge that Lichter has not proven -- then we must conclude they only do it on stories that do not offend advertisers, parent corporations, or anyone else who wields true power over their careers. Unfortunately, their cowed silence affects some of the most critical issues before liberals: namely, corporate treatment of workers, consumers and citizens. And as for the rising media monopoly, it would be career suicide for a journalist to attack it.

Under normal circumstances, journalists get both sides of the story. This is a basic rule of thumb that every journalist knows, and is taught in every Journalism 101 class. It doesn't matter if you're liberal or conservative; it is widely considered unethical to present only one side of the story. The only time that this ethic seems to break down is when a conflict of interest arises between journalists and the corporations that pay their paychecks.

But this ethic doesn't stop corporations from "legitimately" biasing the media towards conservatism. All they have to do is hire pundits who are mostly conservatives themselves. Pundits enjoy a unique role in the media, in that they are expected to be biased. In fact, the more outrageous their opinions, the better. Whereas a reporter must stick to the facts, pundits are free to interpret them any way they want. What this means is that criticism of reporters for their alleged liberal bias is actually misplaced. It is really the political spectrum of pundits that we should worry about.

Unfortunately, there are far more conservative pundits than progressive ones:

Conservative pundits: Pat Buchanan, Fred Barnes, John McLaughlin, David Gergen, Robert Novak, William F. Buckley, Jr., George Will, William Safire, Rush Limbaugh, Cal Thomas, Jonathon Alter, Joe Klein, Robert J. Samuelson, James Kilpatrick.

Centrists (self-described): Sam Donaldson, Mark Shields, Michael Kinsley, Morton Kondrake, Al Hunt, Jack Germond, Hodding Carter.

Progressive pundits: Jim Hightower (cancelled), Barbara Eirenreich, Molly Ivins.

Conservatives freely admit to this bias themselves. Here's Adam Myerson, editor of the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review: In fact, no one can deny the extreme right-wing bias of the pundit spectrum after listening to talk radio. Conservatives have captured an entire media arm and devoted it almost exclusively to corporate and conservative propaganda. Liberal talk-show hosts are almost non-existent. Conservatives blame this on the low ratings of liberal talk show hosts, but this is a curious argument, since liberals form the largest political school of thought in America. The fact is that corporate owners simply do not promote liberal talk show hosts. When ABC first hired Rush Limbaugh, they spent millions promoting him, ghost-writing his books and arranging appearances on Nightline, The McNeil/Lehrer News Hour and even Phil Donahue. No liberal talk show host has received anything even remotely resembling this kind of promotion. It's just another way that corporations ensure the conservative slant of the media.

The Media Elite's attempt to portray liberal bias

The Media Elite, however, tried to argue that liberal bias in the media is present even in straightforward reporting. To prove this, they gave journalists a "neutral" sample story filled with many different perspectives, and asked the journalists to pick out the key elements of the story. Their answers were compared to those of a control group, to see what differences emerged. The journalists did make a more liberal interpretation of the story than the control group, but this is not surprising considering who the control group was: 216 business executives from Fortune 500 companies. One could just as easily say that businessmen tested too conservative. So which group was really the one out of the mainstream? No rigorous study has found that liberal journalists inject their bias into the news.

The authors of The Media Elite also analyzed the content of media coverage on three major issues during the late 1970s: the oil industry, busing to achieve school desegregation, and the nuclear power industry. From their analysis, the researchers concluded that a liberal bias existed in the reporting. But critics have pointed out that the author's selection of topics was bound to produce a liberal bias, given that the liberal position on them is popular. A "conservative bias" could have been detected by choosing three other issues, like the U.S. space program, coverage of the Third World, and especially labor.

Critics have also condemned The Media Elite for its unwarranted reductionism: namely, the argument that liberal individuals equate to a liberal media message. The media is composed of individuals, yes, but it is also composed of institutions, organizational structures, traditions and rules, and these also affect the media's message in profound ways. The omission of these factors in The Media Elite's analysis is so serious that most scholars do not accept its conclusions.


Return to essay: "Myth: The U.S. has a liberal media"

1. S. Robert Lichter, professor at George Washington University, and Stanley Rothman, professor at Smith College. A three-part series on the influence and attitudes of the media in society. National Federation for Decency Journal, August 1986 (television elite, pages 4 to 7); September 1986 (movie elite, pages 4 to 6); and October 1986 (media elite, pages 11 to 15).

2. See "The Effect of Intelligence on Religious Faith," Free Inquiry, Spring 1986. A summary of this article can be found at L-thinkingchristians.htm.

3. Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon, Through the Media Looking Glass: Decoding Bias and Blather in the News (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1995), pp. 6-8.

4. "Why Americans Hate the Press," Frontline, XV/October 1996.

5. Jonathon Alter, "Cop-Out on Class," Newsweek, July 31, 1995, p. 49.

6. Cohen, pp. 6-8.

7. Adam Myerson, editor of the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review, Newslink, 11/88.