“If you hooked network news reporters and producers to polygraph machines and asked them, ‘Do you think you are guilty of liberal bias?’ most would almost certainly answer, ‘No.’ And they would pass the polygraph test because they’re not lying. They honestly believe what they’re saying. And that’s the biggest problem of all.”
I wrote those words 10 years ago in my first book Bias, a behind-the-scenes expose on how and why mainstream journalists often slant the news to fit their own liberal biases. It’s still the biggest problem of all today.
But despite what some conservatives might think, there’s no grand conspiracy to slant the news in a liberal direction. During my nearly three decades as a correspondent at CBS News I never once saw Dan Rather (or anyone else) summon his top lieutenants and tell them to cover a story in a way that would make liberals happy. It doesn’t work that way.
The problem is that newsrooms are packed with liberal journalists who see the world through a liberal prism. There’s a lot of racial and ethnic and gender diversity in newsrooms these days, but very little ideological diversity – very little diversity of opinion. So, inside the bubble, everything to the right of center is (correctly) seen as conservative, but everything to the left of center is (incorrectly) seen as middle of the road. Liberal views, in this world, aren’t really liberal. They’re moderate. They’re reasonable. They’re mainstream.
That’s why there’s so much liberal bias in the news. That’s why it’s so entrenched, so much part of the fabric of American journalism.
And now we have a brand new piece of evidence showing once again that liberal bias is alive and well in America’s newsrooms, even if mainstream journalists are oblivious to it.
This time the evidence is about labels – the ideological labels journalists slap on presidential candidates the way tobacco companies slap warning labels on packs of cigarettes. One says “Cigarettes cause cancer.” The other practically shouts: Look out, be careful, you’re about to hear from a CONSERVATIVE!
A study out this week by the conservative Media Research Center concluded that if you’re a Republican running for president there’s a good chance you’ll be labeled a conservative. But if you were a Democrat running for president four years ago, there was virtually no chance journalists would call you a liberal. Here’s what the MRC found:
“This year’s crop of GOP presidential candidates includes strong conservatives, just like the top Democratic candidates four years ago — Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards — were all staunch liberals. But a major, glaring difference between today’s campaign coverage and the early coverage of the 2007 Democratic nomination race is the impulse of journalists to repeatedly brand the 2012 GOP candidates as ‘conservative’ despite offering extremely few ‘liberal’ labels four years ago.
“Media Research Center analysts reviewed the ABC, CBS and NBC morning and evening news programs from January 1 through July 31 and found 62 ‘conservative’ labels for Republican candidates or those talked about as potential candidates. A check of the same broadcasts for the same time period in 2007 found a paltry three ‘liberal’ labels for the Democrats running that year, a greater than 20-to-1 disparity.”
Journalists identify conservatives because inside the bubble conservatives are out of the mainstream. They’re different. Their views are often seen as alien, even dangerous. None of that applies to liberals, of course. Their views are the very essence of mainstream.
What makes this especially dopey, is that while about 40 percent of Americans identify themselves as conservative, only 20 percent identify themselves as liberal. So which side is really mainstream and which is different?
This kind of thing has happened before in American journalism, a long time ago. Then, it was about crime and race.
In the old days, pretty much the only time a criminal’s race was mentioned in a story is if the criminal was black. So a story might begin, “Johnny Jones, a 25-year-old Negro from Smithtown, was arrested last night ….” But if Johnny Jones were white, the story would simply read, “Johnny Jones, a 25-year-old from Smithtown, was arrested last night ….” No mention of race.
Journalists, in those days, identified black people because, at some level, they saw them as out of the mainstream, as different, as alien, and yes, as dangerous. White people were the mainstream. They weren’t different. They weren’t alien.
Let’s stipulate that nothing in America is exactly like race, so analogies go only so far. But, as I say, something like what went on in the bad old days is happening again, now.
Journalists slap labels on conservatives today for the much the same reason they slapped labels on blacks decades ago. Both are, or were, seen as outsiders — alien, dangerous outsiders.
This kind of thing should embarrass journalists. But, of course it doesn’t. Several years ago I said that I’ve met guys who work the overnight shift at 7-11 selling cigarettes and Twinkies to insomniacs who have more introspection than a lot of journalists I know. That’s something else that’s still true today.