News Media's Credibility Problem Goes Beyond Charges of Political Bias
WANING PUBLIC TRUST
NEW YORK — Scott Simmons is so irritated by what he sees as the liberal bias in the press, he thinks all political reporters should disclose whom they voted for in the last election.
"The power the press has to influence events and public thinking is such that there ought to be some sort of measure of who these people are," says Mr. Simmons, a New York investment banker.
Simmons is part of a growing segment of Americans who believe journalists' personal opinions are increasingly intruding on their political coverage. While many media analysts and reporters dispute that, others admit bias sometimes creeps into their reporting.
But they contend such slants stem from journalists' cultural backgrounds and the media's institutional needs. Those analysts also believe the media could help restore their waning credibility if they turned a critical eye inward to expose those influences more often.
The issue of bias flared up again recently, when a poll of correspondents who covered Congress revealed that 60 percent identified themselves as liberal or moderate-to-liberal, 30 percent called themselves moderate, and only 9 percent considered themselves conservative or moderate-to-conservative. A whopping 89 percent said they voted for Clinton.
"The numbers were so overwhelming, and I never saw it followed up on," Simmons says.
For decades, conservative ideologues have jumped on such numbers and decried the liberal bias in the press while radical activists have railed against its conservative, corporate mentality. The press, meanwhile, could point to both and feel comfortable they were doing their jobs in a professional, balanced manner.
"In my experience, reporters are professionals in much the same way as root-canal specialists," says Marvin Kalb, director of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy. "Their personal opinions don't intrude into the work they do."
Indeed, the poll done for the Freedom Forum, which found Washington's congressional correspondents to be largely liberal -to-moderate in their outlook, also found that 56 percent of the public said press coverage of Congress is balanced, with 23 percent finding a liberal bias and 10 percent finding a conservative slant.
"I think that reporters have shown us by the way they've covered the Clinton administration that they can separate their own voting behavior from the way they cover politics," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, a Washington-based media think tank.
Public confidence declines
But over the last decade, some polls have shown a marked increase in people like Scott Simmons who believe they see more bias in the press than in the past. In 1987, 62 percent of those polled by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press felt there was no bias in the coverage of presidential elections. In 1996, only 53 percent felt there was no bias, a drop of almost 10 percent.
Professor Kalb attributes that in part to the proliferation of news talk shows, where journalists toss off the mantle of objectivity and openly, sometimes passionately, express their own opinions.
"People get confused as to just what a journalist is," Kalb says. "So far as they can tell from these talk shows, every journalist begins every sentence with 'I think.'"
Kalb says those journalists are the exception. Most reporters still simply cover the news without either the high profile or the high salaries, he notes.
But pollster Kohut believes the introduction of the "celebrity journalist" has brought a bias into the media. He believes it's a bias "toward working in its own favor."
"The press goes after stories that it thinks will serve it well, not taking into account how well they will serve the country," Kohut says. "That's where the question comes in of its being more adversarial than it should be."
Arkansas columnist Gene Lyons, the chief critic of the mainstream press's coverage of the Clintons' Whitewater investment, agrees, but takes the concern a step further. He says money and self-interest are the main factors governing how reporters now cover politicians and politics.
"It's always been possible for journalists to become celebrities of some sort," says Lyons, a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "But with the advent of cable TV, it's possible for a lot more of them to become celebrities with all of the temptations and perils that brings."
Lyons refers to much of the mainstream media's coverage of the Whitewater affair as "journalistic malpractice" that is designed more to advance individual reporters' careers than shed a balanced light on a politically charged and complicated financial transaction.
"I think people are scrambling for rank and position in a way that is far more egregious than just a few years ago," says Mr. Lyons, who has been ostracized by many of the media for his critical analyses of The New York Times and other news organizations' coverage of Whitewater.
While many journalists disagree with Lyons, some do see a "circle the wagons mentality," which eschews critical self-reflection. Last winter, Bernard Goldberg of CBS News wrote an OpEd piece in The Wall Street Journal criticizing as overly biased and cynical a colleague's coverage of Steve Forbes's flat tax proposal. Mr. Goldberg, in turn, was shunned by many of his colleagues.
"Some people have a political agenda, and the press is right, to some extent, to circle the wagons against those who just want their own kind of bias in the press," Goldberg says. "But there are also honest critics who want no bias, and I fit into that category."
Goldberg believes many in the media dismiss charges of bias, because they think it means a liberal Democratic versus conservative Republican slant. But the bias issue is not about politics, he insists, it's about culture. And he sees a definite cultural bias in the reporting of certain social issues he calls "politically correct," such as homelessness.
"Network news has said there are 3 million homeless, I've heard 5 million homeless reported," Goldberg says. "Well, the official count is about 230,000 homeless."
Even if you assume the government can't get anything right and is wrong by a factor of four, Goldberg says, that would mean there are 1 million homeless. He contends that because the media feel sorry for the homeless and want to help, they exaggerate the numbers and get the story wrong.
"Liberals ought to be worried about that, and conservatives ought to be worried about that, and moderates ought to be worried about that," Goldberg says, "because this is about good journalism, not about liberalism and conservatism."
A slant on social issues?
Robert Lichter, the co-director of the Washington based Center for Media and Public Affairs, agrees with much of Golberg's analysis.
"My impression is that journalists are most professional when they see two clear sides to a story, as in election campaigns" says Dr. Lichter, who has studied media behavior for years.
"Liberal biases are more likely to come out when journalists are captives of their own vision of the good, when they see heroes and villains, perceived social evils that need to be combated such as poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia."
Ironically, Lichter says, that's not true on economic issues. Conservative issues like free trade and the NAFTA agreement have gotten "terrifically good" coverage, he says. "It's an expression of journalists' life circumstances: They do represent mainly the upper-middle class, so they're going to be more liberal on social issues than on economic ones."
That unconscious tendency to reflect one's own circumstance, the "bias from the upper middle class point of view," is what most worries Freedom Forum Media Studies director Nancy Woodhull. Reporters used to be drawn primarily from the working class. Today, most journalists are better paid and better educated than ever, fitting more, Woodhull says, into "the model of the yuppie."
"We've been trained to police ourselves on the liberal/conservative bias," Ms. Woodhull says. "But we don't put as much emphasis on policing ourselves in these [cultural and class] issues.
Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, sees the media's bias more in terms of the structural needs and limitations of the press. Television, in particular, tends to favor stories about conflict, good and evil.
"It's easier to focus on a human being caught in some sort of a jam," Mr. Heyward says. "I'm not sure we always take the time to do the analysis or get the other point of view because we're in search of the 'grabber' or 'good story.'"
Heyward says that's particularly true of coverage of big business, one of the groups that sees the press as particularly biased. For instance, it's much easier to focus on someone who believes he was cheated by his insurance company than to do a rigorous analysis of the amount of fraud perpetrated on insurance companies and the actuarial pressures they face in order to make a profit.
"Instead, you see a person huddling out in the cold," Heyward says. "That presents as a kind of liberal bias, when in fact it's not a political bias, it's a kind of show biz bias."
Heyward and others admit that a straightforward political bias does sometimes slip through the cracks, but that is the exception, they contend, rather than the rule. Most also agree that the press could stem its eroding credibility and improve its standing with the growing number of alienated Americans like Scott Simmons, if it would turn its critical, skeptical eye inward more often, and with less defensiveness.
"We in journalism look at every other important institution in our society; we look at business, the military, the law, medicine, sports," Goldberg says, "but God forbid we look at ourselves. Do we really think journalism isn't as important an institution in America?"
* Coming: Viewers turn off nightly network news, on July 1; growing media monopolies, on July 2.