Veteran reporter Thomas Edsall is again sounding the alarm on the political imbalance of today's news media, though his proposed solution, illustrated by the headline to his Thursday post at Columbia Journalism Review, might not satisfy critics: "Journalism Should Own Its Liberalism."
Edsall, now a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, was quite the liberal reporter himself during his days as national political correspondent for the Washington Post. Yet he has also long seen a problem with modern media's clear liberal tilt.
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.
Edsall marveled at how "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." Edsall dismissed both newspapers' responses as meaningless "ad hoc reactions" that failed to wrestle with the underlying issue:
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.
Then Edsall made some excuses and provided some caveats, claiming that most liberal journalists do have "a personal and professional commitment to the objective presentation of information, a commitment that is not shared by the conservative media."
He even accused his old paper the Post of pro-Reagan bias, or at least "weak and sometimes fawning coverage" of the early Reagan administration, while advancing the dubious claim that the press sometimes works so hard to avoid the liberal bias charge "it ends up either neutered or leaning to the right."
Edsall took issue with "What's the Matter with Kansas?" author Thomas Frank's argument "that white working class voters are suckers" who've been scared into voting against their economic interests "because corporations and evangelical Christians have scared the bejesus out of them with phony issues" like gay marriage and abortion. As proof of this journalistic mindset, Edsall dredged up this notorious passage from his old newspaper:
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.
Edsall concluded not with a call for more conservative reporters -- he thinks conservatives generally make lousy journalists -- but for journalistic institutions to wear their liberal biases openly: To acknowledge them and work through them rather than claim a phony objectivity:
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.