Jul 5 1998

Maybe the Public–Not the Press–Has a Leftist Bias

For years, conservatives have painted a picture of the Washington press corps as a group of liberal crusaders bent on bashing corporations, bloating government and socializing health care.

This caricature is utterly deflated by a new survey of journalists. It turns out that on a wide range of economic issues, Washington journalists are more conservative–not more “liberal”–than the general public.

Take the charge that journalists are anti-business. The recent survey asked them a simple question: Do “a few large companies” have “too much power”? Washington journalists were somewhat divided on the issue, with 57 percent answering yes and 43 percent saying no. That’s more conservative than the American public, which responds overwhelmingly in the affirmative to this question– by 77 percent to 18 percent in a Times Mirror poll.

Either the press corps does not have a leftist bias against big business–or the public has an anti-corporate bias even more extreme than that of journalists.

This is one of many insights that can be gleaned from the study conducted for FAIR by Professor David Croteau of Virginia Commonwealth University. In consultation with VCU’s Survey and Evaluation Research Lab, Croteau sent questionnaires to 444 Washington journalists, targeted primarily at the country’s most powerful news outlets. Almost a third of the journalists responded.

Is the press corps hell-bent on “big government” solutions to health care problems? On the contrary, the general public is far more emphatic that it is Washington’s responsibility to “guarantee medical care for all people who don’t have health insurance.” When Croteau posed this question to journalists, they were somewhat evenly split: 43 percent pro, 35 percent con. By contrast, the public supported federally guaranteed medical care for the uninsured by a 2-to-1 majority (64-29 percent) in a 1996 New York Times/CBS poll.

In a related question, Croteau asked journalists to prioritize economic issues for the President and Congress, including a proposal to “require that employers provide health insurance to employees.” Only 32 percent of journalists chose that as one of the top few federal priorities–compared to 47 percent of the public.

To the extent that such findings are surprising, maybe it’s because we’ve been dazed by the daily howls of “liberal” media that come– it’s worth noting– from right-wing pundits, talk hosts and columnists whose voices dominate the self same media.

After all, many national journalists have prospered while hitched to giant corporations. And unlike much of the public, they rarely worry about health coverage.

Nor do these journalists worry much about today’s economy. A nationwide Gallup Poll in March found that 34 percent of the public rated economic conditions as “only fair” or “poor,” while just 5 percent of Croteau’s journalists shared that assessment. But then most of the journalists who filled out questionnaires declared annual household incomes of over $100,000 and almost a third declared incomes over $150,000. The median U.S. household income is roughly $36,000.

While earlier surveys have asked journalists about their views on social/cultural issues like abortion or gay rights (views often more liberal than the public), Croteau’s may be the first to focus on economics. Far from a pack of leftists, the survey illuminates a conservative journalistic elite out of touch with average Americans.

  • “Raise taxes on the wealthy”? That’s quite popular with the public. Not so with the well-to-do media professionals who filled out questionnaires.
  • “Reform entitlements”? Journalists want to slow Social Security and Medicare. In contrast, the public is more concerned with protecting entitlements against cuts.
  • “Free trade”? While the American public is more negative than positive in assessing the impact of the NAFTA trade deal on the U.S., only 8 percent of the surveyed journalists judged NAFTA’s impact as negative; 65 percent judged it positive.

It’s too bad for Bill Clinton, the GOP leadership and corporate lobbyists that these journalists aren’t the ones in Congress voting on whether the White House will get “fast track” authority to negotiate new trade deals. The survey shows that journalists would pass it in a landslide–71 percent to 10 percent. Recent polls indicate the public is more in accord with Congressional Democrats, opposing fast track by upwards of 2-to-1.

Croteau sees little contradiction between his survey revealing a press corps with right-tilting economic views– and earlier research showing that some D.C.-based reporters voted heavily for Clinton over George Bush in 1992.

Croteau’s survey asked journalists about their own political orientation. While most placed themselves in the “center” on both social and economic issues, significant minorities identified themselves as “left” on social issues and “right” on economic issues. According to Croteau, Clinton’s mix of moderately liberal social policies and moderately conservative economic policies fits well with “the views expressed by journalists.”

For news consumers, the big question is not so much journalists’ private views (or voting patterns) but their public performance. Is their coverage balanced? Which sources and experts get to speak, and which don’t?

Given the way news is produced in today’s increasingly corporate-dominated news outlets, it may matter little that working journalists harbor “liberal” social views. On hotly contested social issues, conventions of objectivity dictate that coverage will be roughly 50-50–which was acknowledged by a conservative watchdog group that studied abortion coverage in 1989.

But on economic issues, journalists’ personal views can play a greater role if they are in accord with powerful monied interests. Take an issue like NAFTA, which was backed by an elite consensus that included the political and corporate leadership, media owners and powerful journalists–and opposed by unions, environmentalists and much of the public. Research shows that news coverage of NAFTA had a glaring pro-pact bias, from supposedly objective reporting to editorial commentary.

Let’s hope the new survey of journalists prods conservatives to rethink matters. On economics at least, their complaint isn’t with a leftish press corps, but with an American public that supports universal health care, Social Security and other “big government” programs that infuriate the right wing.

A version of this appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.