Do liberal-leaning messengers (journalists) mess up the message with their bias? This question keeps coming up, particularly in a presidential year. Both Sen. Bob Dole and Speaker Newt Gingrich are currently critiquing journalists' coverage of Congress and the political campaign. And they are complaining bitterly about what they see as left-wing bias.
This raises two questions. The first is: Are these journalists really liberal? I have brushed shoulders with Washington reporters for years and can say that most of them will reveal very quickly a liberal or moderate leaning. Very few own up to being conservative.
This jibes with several recent surveys, one of which showed that 89% of White House bureau chiefs and congressional correspondents voted for President Clinton in 1992. Of these, 61% admitted to a "moderate to liberal" persuasion, and only 9% said they were "moderate to conservative."
But the second and big question is this: Do reporters let their political biases or persuasions creep into their stories? That's the charge the critics make. They say it's "inevitable" that whatever these reporters write about will be tainted by this prejudice. They say this distortion will take place no matter how hard some reporters may seek to resist this self-recognized bias. But mostly the critics contend that reporters purposely - and even delightedly - give their accounts a liberal slant.
I simply can't accept that allegation. Most of the print journalists I know today - and have known through the years - are dedicated to one objective: getting the story and getting the story right. Despite their private biases, they carefully collect the facts and let that research shape the story line. And they let the chips fall where they may.
Let's not forget (no matter how they may have voted) how reporters tore into Mr. Clinton during the 1992 campaign. Sure, it was Clinton who had done it to himself: But the press showed no disinclination at all to disclose his womanizing and fudging over the draft. "Primary Colors," a thinly disguised book about Clinton's bid for the presidency, portrays the governor and those around him as hating the press and referring to reporters as "scorps," as in scorpions. Another new book about the Clinton White House, "Madhouse," tells of a president and staff that have nothing but contempt for the press.
I vividly recall, too, how Jimmy Carter detested the press. He and those around him felt that they were victims of a "Northern" bias. Maybe there was some. From my viewpoint, however, most of the negative stories about Mr. Carter's administration didn't come until after he faltered while trying to do too many things at once. And then there were the hostages in Iran and the failed rescue attempt. The stories about those events hurt Carter - but he really was doing it to himself. And, let's remember, Jimmy Carter was - much like Clinton - a tried-and-true liberal, or, at least, a leaner in that direction.
Are Washington reporters angels? There are bad apples among them, of course, much as you find them among other professions. One rather famous newsman, no longer around, was known for making up stories. And some others today are known for letting their biases shape their stories.
But, again, by training but mostly by instinct and inclination, reporters are after the story. Sure, they may get a little more kick out of a story that damages or even destroys a politician. And maybe that's wrong. But reporters are trying to make Page 1. And they are driven by the possibility of editor approval and even, just maybe, a Pulitzer Prize.
Let's say (but certainly not predict) that before the election some compelling evidence were to surface that implicated the president and/or first lady in some kind of criminal activity. Does anyone believe the so-called liberal press wouldn't run hard with that story, one that could very well defeat the president?