In the 1980s and 1990s, I had the pleasure of working for Bob and Linda Lichter, co-founders of the Center for Media and Public Affairs and co-authors, with fellow social scientist Stanley Rothman of Smith College, of the groundbreaking 1986 book The Media Elite: America’s New Powerbrokers.
It was thus sad to read in Tuesday’s Washington Post that Linda Lichter has passed away at the age of 53, survived by her husband. Linda was someone who was charmed by Victorian values -- her always-spotless downtown D.C. office was furnished with antiques -- and she argued that yesteryear’s stricter roles for both men and women gave dignity and power to both sexes. Her last book, The Benevolence of Manners: Recapturing the Lost Art of Gracious Victorian Living, championed an age of politenesss that has indisputably been lost in today’s modern world.
But Linda’s more famous work was her collaboration on The Media Elite. Using both surveys of journalists and quantitative studies of news media content, Bob and Linda Lichter demonstrated that America’s newsrooms were overpopulated with liberals whose political views formed the template for media coverage of such issues as nuclear energy, oil prices and busing. Although the Lichters were political moderates, their exhaustive research helped move the issue of the media’s liberal bias from something dismissed as a crackpot conservative complaint to a widely-accepted view (even if many journalists still vehemently disagree).
The Lichters made their case in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and journalists hated it. The typical comeback from journalists in those days was that social science could not really study journalism (although the media had no problem citing social science experts about the presidency, Congress, interest groups, voters and every other actor in political life), and among those supporting the Lichters’ research were conservatives, so none of it could be trusted.
So it was striking that in Tuesday’s obituary for Linda Lichter, the Washington Post pettily devoted more paragraphs to critics assailing the Lichters’ work than explaining what they documented and its lasting importance -- affirming, I suppose, the old saying, “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” An excerpt:
In 1984, Dr. Lichter and her social scientist husband, S. Robert Lichter, founded the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. She was co-director for many years and most recently vice president.
She co-wrote several books arguing that evidence pointed to overwhelmingly liberal political leanings and religious secularism emanating from leading practitioners of journalism and TV entertainment.
These elite image-shapers were far to the left of Americans generally, wrote Dr. Lichter, who often collaborated with her husband and the social scientist Stanley Rothman.
Their best-known book, "The Media Elite" (1986), said the liberal tilt can affect coverage unconsciously. The authors focused on case studies of issues such as the energy crisis of the 1970s, nuclear power and busing to foster racial integration in schools.
The book became widely cited but was harshly criticized by media leaders, including then-Washington Post executive editor Benjamin Bradlee and Michael Kinsley of the New Republic.
Sociologist Michael Schudson, writing in the Los Angels Times, asked: "First, do journalists report their own views or do their stories reflect the division of opinion among powerful elites outside journalism?
"The former may be true, but the latter is the more powerful factor. If journalists' own views on busing, for instance, are as homogeneously liberal as the authors suggest, it is hard to explain why they find anti-busing themes dominant in the media in 1974-75, even in a paragon of liberalism like the Washington Post.
"Growing division about busing among politicians, however, is a likely explanation. Journalists report what legitimate authorities say."
Irrespective of what the Post has to say, The Media Elite was and remains an important milestone in the understanding that journalists are not a neutral political force, but actors who are influenced by their world view and who in turn exert influence on the political life of this nation. I hope that Linda Lichter was proud of her legacy, and I hope that Bob Lichter is today comforted by reflecting on the many contributions that he and his wife made to deepening the understanding of the media elite’s role in our society.