Are modern-day journalists watchdogs or guard dogs?
What's the difference? Watchdogs have their eye on public interests, sniffing out corruption or controversy and holding people accountable. But guard dogs protect, keeping people out, shielding preferred ideologies from closer inspection.
When I was at Arizona State University, Bill Moyers visited campus to receive the Walter Cronkite School’s Excellence in Journalism Award. During a Q&A session, Moyers called on me. I asked him: “Is it possible for a conservative to have a successful career in Journalism?”
Moyers shifted in his chair. I got the impression he was either uncomfortable or irritated with my question, but he quickly said “Yes. Yes, of course.” Then he started ticking names off his fingers. But here’s thing: I didn’t recognize any of the journalists he named and he never got to his fifth finger.
I asked the question because I was concerned that I would find it difficult to work in the field I was studying. Don’t get me wrong: I got an excellent education at ASU and would highly recommend the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism for anyone interested in pursuing a similar degree. My professors were liberal, yes, and maybe even a bit confused by my conservative thinking, but they never treated or graded me unfairly. In fact, I did quite well, earning a scholarship and graduating magna cum laude. But the facts facing me after graduation remained: most journalists – including news editors and producers – were liberal. I wanted to know if there was any place for me in that world.*
|Source: Media Research Center|
Two weeks ago, I shared a graphic demonstrating the political leanings of journalists from 1962 to 1985. In the early sixties, it is clear that most journalists identified as liberal. But by the early seventies, less than half of all journalists identified as liberal. You would expect the conservative number to have risen then, but it doesn’t. Percentages of both liberals and conservatives declined over the decades, suggesting there is a third number to consider: those who identify as neither conservative nor liberal.
Studies conducted within the last few years back up that data, as demonstrated in this second chart. But here are a couple of things I find interesting:
|Source: The American Journalist in the Digital Age|
1. The number of journalists identifying as Democrats and Independents are almost tied from 1971 to 2002, except for 1992, when the percentage of Democrat journalists jumped above Independents by about ten percentage points (just in time to vote for Bill Clinton, right?)
2. Republicans have always been the minority in the newsroom, (except for the “others,” which presumably includes Communist, Green, Libertarian and Tea party members)
3. The percentage of Republicans in the newsroom reached an all-time LOW in 2013, suggesting that my question to Moyers twenty years ago wouldn’t be without warrant today
Yeah, but look at growth of Independent journalists! In 2013, they made up more than fifty percent.
That’s true. But does that mean they are truly independent, meaning just as likely to lean right as to lean left?
I don’t think so. I think that more and more journalists are seeking to label themselves as independent to combat charges of media bias.
How do you know?
Because of how they vote.
The Indiana University study that provided the information in the above graphic also found that more than 90 percent of D.C. journalists voted for the Democratic ticket. Washington Times reporter Kelly Riddell also reported that an even higher percentage of D.C. reporters contributed to Democratic candidates or left-leaning causes, quoting Tim Groseclose, author of Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind (which I haven't read).
Other studies support those findings as well. According to a 2007 msnbc.com study of Federal Election Commission records, an overwhelming percentage of donations made by journalists to political parties were, you guessed it, Democratic. Scroll through the list on this NBC News link and you'll see what I mean. Lots of Ds in there; not that many Rs. It’s kind of amazing, especially when you just stop and look at the Republican donations, which tended to be by sports writers, movie and fashion critics or copy editors, but rarely anyone who would cover political subjects.
Well. Just because journalists are liberal doesn’t mean they are biased.
That’s the most common argument made when charges of liberal media bias are met with the above statistics. I ran into this in college all the time. I particularly remember presenting my findings on media bias during a 400 level media criticism class. One student dismissed all the data I brought to the table with the simple assertion that professionals can set aside their personal liberal beliefs and report on the news without bias.
“That’s true,” I said, “but they don’t.” Then I shared more data suggesting that personal liberal beliefs DO affect the way news is shared.
My classmate suspiciously asked me to share my research, which I was happy to do. “Ha! You can’t trust all that data,” he said. “Some of it comes from conservative sources!” (Okay, he might not have said “Ha!”)
“So, liberals can be unbiased when reporting the news, but conservatives cannot?” I asked him.
If memory serves, he pretty much agreed with my assessment.
Let’s see if you agree with my classmate or me.
The New York Times to the rescue!
On August 7, New York Times writer Jim Rutenberg suggested that Donald Trump is such a horrible danger to Americans, that journalists might need to “throw out the textbook American [they] have been using for the better part of the last half century” in covering him.
Rutenberg goes on to pompously claim that such oppositional coverage will be unprecedented:
That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, nonopinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable.But the question that everyone is grappling with is: Do normal standards apply? And if they don’t, what should take their place?
In the first place, I could write every day, if I had time (or better yet, if I was paid!), about mainstream, non-opinion journalists who write oppositional coverage. In fact, my favorite political analyst, James Taranto, who writes the Wall Street Journal’s “Best of the Web” column, does just that. Every day. (Here’s his take on Rutenberg. Read it. In fact, read him daily, if you get the chance. He’s way better at this stuff than I am.)
Secondly, who does Rutenberg think he is? Are his opinions so much better than everyone else’s that he thinks he has the right to circumvent free speech, to censor, to tarnish the political process and decide for the rest of us that Trump is so dangerous that he must save us from our stupid, ignorant selves, lest we vote for the Devil?
(This, by the way, is the thing about liberal media bias that irritates me the most. The smug superiority. The elitism. The ironic idea that someone smarter than me must alter [ie: suppress] what information I am exposed to in order to “rescue” me from making a horrible, ignorant decision.)
To suggest that journalists have followed Rutenberg’s advice would be akin to defending the idea of time travel, because journalists HAVE been writing in opposition to Donald Trump for quite some time. This doesn’t always look as blatant as Rutenberg suggests it can. (Or should! or must!) Michael Tracey of the Daily Beast (not a Trump supporter) writes that part of the bias exists in the crickets that follow wild accusations of the Republican candidate.
During any given week this summer, commentators might have charged Trump with committing treason (a crime punishable by death), seeking to carry out mass genocide, being clinically insane, or chomping at the bit to instigate civilization-destroying nuclear war—not to mention secretly working to undermine the entire American system of government at the behest of Russia’s dastardly leader. Such extreme besmirchments have become so common now that they seldom even raise an eyebrow.
It’s not Easy being Green
Yeah, but Trump IS a special kind of crazy, right? We can’t use coverage of him as an example of all political coverage by left-leaning journalists.
But this stuff isn’t new, nor is it limited to Trump, or even to political campaigns.
In her 2015 book Stonewalled (which I HAVE read and highly recommend), former CBS news correspondent Sharyl Attkisson describes her efforts to report on Obama Administration failures in the electric vehicle front, despite its $2.4 billion investment. Read the book for all the details, but in a nutshell, Obama earmarked those billions of tax dollars with a stated objective of getting a million electric vehicles on the road by the end of 2015. Instead, the manufacturers who received grant money failed to bring models to market, stopped production or went out of business – all while Obama is pushing to spend $4.7 billion MORE on electric vehicle incentives.
But when Attkisson brought this story to her producers, the response was liberal push back. “What’s the matter, don’t you support green energy?” one producer asked.
Attkisson, a self-proclaimed political agnostic, wrote that she didn’t anticipate how some journalists would be unable to disconnect their personal viewpoints from their duty as journalists.
Fearful that the stories would discourage rather than promote green energy, they want to prevent the public from seeing them at all. It’s a paternalistic attitude that results in de facto censorship. Simply put: they decide that it’s best for you to not hear a story at all rather than run the risk that you might see it and form the “wrong” opinion.
But why are so many journalists liberal? Why?
I don’t know for sure, but here’s what I think.
Before the left-leaning anti-establishment movement came the – you guessed it – right-leaning “establishment.” Those who wanted to challenge the establishment often joined the “watchdog” media and wrote about their concerns. That long-standing tradition of opposition (despite Rutenberg’s claims) would make it natural for those journalists to be liberal.
And once you have liberals in charge in the newsroom, how likely is it for that to change? You might imagine conservative management making a top-down decision to replace editors and producers to match their right-leaning business model, but it doesn’t make good business sense to put someone without news experience at the helm of a newsroom. Reporters won't respect an editor who knows less about news than they do, and since the pool of right-leaning journalists is quite small, that’s just not a very feasible option. (It’s more likely that a news corporation will use the bottom-up promotion style and then put pressure on those new editors and producers to be more corporation friendly. Again, I’ll take on this topic down the road.)
Groseclose has this take on the subject:
There’s something in the DNA of liberals that makes them want to go into jobs like the arts, journalism and academia more so than conservatives. Even if you’re just trying to maximize profits by offering an alternative point of view, it’s hard to find conservative reporters. So it’s natural the media is more liberal.The trouble is, with so many like-minded people in the newsroom, that guard-dog mentality is really hard to combat. When other reporters, like Attkisson (and I believe there are many, many fair-minded reporters out there) try and bring legitimate stories to their editors that buck the liberal-leaning modus operandi, they get push back. They are criticized and their stories don't air. All that hard work for nothing. The easiest thing to do (and probably the best way to keep your job) is to avoid writing those stories in the future. Stick with the ones that you know your producers will air.
Despite all my criticism (actually, in keeping with it), I have hope for journalism in the future. It seems to me that if the anti-establishment crowd (liberals) become the establishment, journalists will -- at some point -- want to rise up and take them to task for the inevitable abuses of power that come with political leadership. My only fear is that, by the time that mindset takes hold in a significant group of journalism students, our freedoms of press and speech will have been muzzled by a government that, like certain elements of the press today, just have our best interests at heart and want nothing more than to save us from ourselves.
*Just a note: I never got a job in journalism and have never worked in a newsroom. My analysis on these pages are as a consumer of news, not a creator.