Journalism Should Own Its Liberalism

And then manage it, challenge it, and account for it

The floodtide of e-mails and letters to New York Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt after his September 27 column on the paper’s failure to promptly investigate the conservative-initiated stories about Van Jones and ACORN testifies to the failure of the mainstream press to deal with the issue of liberal bias.

“Many readers were not buying [the] contention that liberal bias had nothing to do with the slow response to ACORN and, before that, to the resignation of Van Jones, a White House aide,” Hoyt wrote this past Sunday.

Hoyt quoted correspondence from angry Times readers: “‘So, beside Jill Abramson, Bill Keller and Barack Obama, were you able to find anyone, not resident in a cemetery, who was so tuned out?’ asked Charles Harkins of Spartanburg, S.C. Jerry Komar of Collingswood, N.J., charged that Times editors ‘hoped the story would blow over. They were caught in their own web of bias.’”

Glenn Beck, FOX, and a couple of conservative video reporters have, in effect, forced the editors and ombudsmen at two of the nation’s leading newspapers, the Times and The Washington Post, to assume a full-scale defensive posture regarding charges of liberal bias.

At the Times, according to Hoyt, managing editor Abramson and executive editor Keller have assigned an editor to keep an eye on the “opinion media.” At The Washington Post, executive editor Marcus Brauchli confessed to ombudsman Andrew Alexander that “we are not well-enough informed about conservative issues.” Brauchli announced to Alexander his intention to “challenge our reporters and editors with great frequency to look at what is going on across the political spectrum … at the extremes, among the rabble-rousers, as well as among policymakers.” Undoubtedly, Alexander (and Brauchli) are experiencing the same e-mail campaigns that plagued Hoyt.

The actions at both the Post and the Times are ad hoc reactions to the latest blow up, and do little or nothing to address the underlying reality at most papers.

The mainstream press is liberal. Once, before 1965, reporters were a mix of the working stiffs leavened by ne’er-do-well college grads unfit for corporate headquarters or divinity school. Since the civil rights and women’s movements, the culture wars and Watergate, the press corps at such institutions as The Washington Post, ABC-NBC-CBS News, the NYT, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, etc. is composed in large part of “new” or “creative” class members of the liberal elite—well-educated men and women who tend to favor abortion rights, women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights. In the main, they find such figures as Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Pat Robertson, or Jerry Falwell beneath contempt.

In a UCLA study of media bias, reporters were found to be substantially more liberal and more Democratic than the public at large. Hoyt, in a column last year, acknowledged this finding: “Being human, journalists do have personal biases, and a long line of studies has shown that they tend to be more socially and politically liberal than the population at large. There is no reason to believe Times journalists are any different.”

If reporters were the only ones allowed to vote, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry would have won the White House by landslide margins. More specifically, reporters and editors tend to be social liberals, not economic liberals. Their view of unions and the labor movement is wary and suspicious. They are far more interested in stories about hate crimes than in stories about the distribution of income.

But, and this is a mega-but, even though the mainstream media are by this measure liberal, ending the discussion at this point would be a major disservice to both the press and the public. While the personnel tend to share an ideological worldview, most have a personal and professional commitment to the objective presentation of information, a commitment that is not shared by the conservative media. FOX News, The Weekly Standard, National Review, The Washington Times, Drudge, The Washington Examiner, The American Spectator, CNS News, Town Hall, WorldNetDaily, Insight Magazine are all explicitly ideological. FOX makes the bizarre and palpably untrue claim of ideological neutrality, “We Report, You Decide”—a claim it violates so routinely that no one takes it seriously.

While the mainstream media often fail to live up to their own standards, their committed pursuit of neutrality and objectivity is crucial to the quality of American journalism. That commitment is the main reason the mainstream press is so intensely sensitive to allegations of bias. The refusal of mainstream media executives to acknowledge the ideological leanings of their staffs has produced a dangerous form of media guilt in which the press leans over so far backward to avoid the charge of left bias that it ends up either neutered or leaning to the right. This happened at The Washington Post and was reflected in weak and sometimes fawning coverage, first of the opening years of the Reagan administration, and even more so during George W. Bush’s first term—when not only the lead-up to the Iraq invasion but key domestic initiatives went largely unexamined, with disastrous consequences.

So, to quote Lenin on behalf of the mainstream media, What is to be done? There are a few things.

An important first step is to abandon the notion, popularized by Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas?, that white working class voters are suckers, willing to cast ballots against their economic interests because corporations and evangelical Christians have scared the bejesus out of them with phony issues like gay marriage, abortion, government takeover of the healthcare system, and distribution of condoms in the schools.

These voters are not stupid. Unlike upscale youngsters in Cambridge, the Upper West Side, and Berkeley, who are equipped financially and psychologically to go with the sexual flow, the children of folks casting ballots for Republicans often get into big trouble when they get pregnant (see, Sarah Palin’s daughter) or tell their teacher to go to hell. To many of their parents, the school system has no business handing out condoms, in effect encouraging early sex. The overwhelming majority of Republican voters already have health insurance and they have genuine concerns about the damage to that coverage that government might do. These are people who arguably lose some of what they have when resources are redistributed under policies mandating, for example, affirmative action and busing. The mindset that perceives these voters as dumb jerks is what permitted a reporter and a series of Washington Post editors to let a description of evangelical Christians as “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command” go unquestioned into a front-page story.

Along the same lines, reporters might consider carefully the question of why the party of the left in this country, the party that claims to represent Jane and Joe Sixpack, has such trouble winning the votes of the white working class. The answer may lie more in the issue of redistributed benefits than in a right-wing conspiracy.

Reporters might also attempt to think outside the prism of their own experience. Why did so many fail to see the news value when they learned from Glenn Beck that Van Jones, Obama’s environmental czar, had signed a 2004 petition accusing the Bush administration of deliberately allowing the 9/11 attacks to occur, calling for an “immediate inquiry,” and noting that a survey of New Yorkers showed 41 percent believed “US leaders had foreknowledge of impending 9/11 attacks and ‘consciously failed’ to act?” Similarly, what form of ideological myopia prompted the mainstream press to miss for days the story of ACORN staffers advising a self-proclaimed pimp and prostitute on ways to illegally get federal grants and to falsely fill out loan applications?

One of the virtues of liberalism is its empathy and its willingness to see the good in human nature. Empathy, however, can run amok, as it did in a front page Washington Post story from 1991 that sought to balance the good side of Henry “Little Man” James, age sixteen—he’d give the mothers of his kids cash, diapers, and other caring gestures—with the bad side—riding in the backseat on 295, he told his buddies he felt like “bustin’ somebody,” rolled down the window, and shot Patricia Diann Bigby Lexie, age thirty-six. James had already been accused of two random, motiveless shootings, was described by police as running a violent crack cocaine ring in his neighborhood, and was implicated in a third shooting. The day after his arrest, 200 neighbors signed a petition asking that he be kept in jail without bail. The Post headlined the story “Conflicting Views Of I-295 Suspect; Teenager Seen as Mean, Nurturing,” The response of many readers was outrage.

The Van Jones and ACORN cases are the extremes, but the more pervasive and subtle form liberal ‘blindness’ takes is in routine coverage. Stories, local and national, of virtually every culture-war issue commonly reflect reporters’ allegiance to social insurgents against traditionalists—and readers, who include many with traditionalist leanings, sense this. The facts and quotes from the school board meeting or Congressional debate are accurate. But something is missing in the reporting on the parents who do not want explicit sex education taught in the third grade, or the pro-lifers who are convinced that abortion is murder. These people exist all too often as stick figures or caricatures whose views are delegitimized.

The liberal outlook of reporters and editors is clearly not an easily resolved issue. But perhaps the worst strategy is to avoid recognizing it—taking steps to hide one’s own views, for example, by not voting.

Attempts by journalists to conceal deeply held political convictions can be dangerous. While no agreed-upon mechanism or forum exists, at present, for editors and reporters in the mainstream media to declare personal ideology and partisan leanings, the goal of improved objectivity is more likely to be achieved through individual self-scrutiny and institutional honesty among those in authority. A reporter fully aware of his or her own relevant political and moral beliefs, and conscious of how those views influence what and how he or she reports, is likely to produce better journalism, in which both left and right get their due, without resorting to the bland, forced neutrality found in many publications seeking to conceal the beliefs of their staffs.

Although it is the subject for another essay, the fact is that there are very few good conservative reporters. There are many intellectually impressive conservative advocates and opinion leaders, but the ideology does not seem to make for good journalists. In contrast, any examination of the nation’s top reporters over the past half-century would show that, in the main, liberals do make good journalists in the tradition of objective news coverage. The liberal tilt of the mainstream media is, in this view, a strength, but one that in recent years, amid liberal-bias controversies, has been mismanaged.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Thomas Edsall is the political editor of the Huffington Post and the Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.