[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.]
THE MEDIA ELITE
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
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,
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
Self-described liberal 65% 27%
Self-described moderate 18 41
Self-described conservative 17 32
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:
"There's an Our Town quality to official Washington
-- a very small, incestuous world of politicians and press who
are now almost interchangeable. The press was once known as ink-stained
wretches. But in their tuxedos and evening gowns at an event like
the White House Correspondents Dinner, they resemble nothing more
than the politicians they cover." (4)
Newsweek columnist Jonathon Alter concedes:
"I'm a part of this so-called overclass -- and so are
my bosses and many of my colleagues at Newsweek and elsewhere
in the national media. There's no point in denying it." (5)
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.
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
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
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
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
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:
"[Pundit] journalism today is very different from what
it was 10 to 20 years ago. Today, op-ed pages are dominated by
We have a tremendous amount of conservative
opinion, but this creates a problem for those who are interested
in a career in journalism after college
If Bill Buckley
were to come out of Yale today, nobody would pay much attention
to him. He would not be that unusual
because there are probably
hundreds of people with those ideas [and] they have already got
syndicated columns." (7)
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
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
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,
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.