CJR’s Bogus ‘Liberal Media’ Evidence

Tom Edsall argues on the Columbia Journalism Review website (10/8/09) that the mainstream media should just own up to the fact that they’re liberal. This comes as a response to the notion that the elite press missed out on the ACORN and Van Jones stories–a dubious premise. But Edsall doesn’t make much of a case. He writes that before 1965, “reporters were a mix of the working stiffs leavened by ne’er-do-well college grads unfit for corporate headquarters or divinity school.” Since then, however, the elite press”is composed in large part of ‘new’ or ‘creative’ class members of the liberal elite.” Edsall’s version of liberalism, then, is an elite strand focused mostly on certain social issues–his list is “abortion rights, women’s rights, civil rights and gay rights.”

Those seem like majority positions, but never mind. Edsall offers one concrete example:

In a UCLA study of media bias, reporters were found to be substantially more liberal and more Democratic than the public at large.

The study in question is the famous (and famously complicated) one that found that Fox News Channel‘s Special Report was centrist, and the Drudge Report leaned left. That should be enough to dismiss it on its face, but it’s worth pointing out that that study did not tell us anything about “reporters” per se; they studied how often outlets cited particular think tanks, and ranked those think tanks on an ideological scale based on which politicians cited those groups (i.e., a liberal lawmaker drops the names of liberal think tanks; the frequency with which that think tank is cited in the media tells you how liberal the outlet is).

That the roundabout methodology of the study produced such bizarre conclusions is one reason not to cite it, but it also wasn’t a study of what Edsall claimed it was–that is, of reporters’ own political sentiments. But there are such studies. In fact, FAIR released one in 1998, where journalists’ views on important economic policy questions were compared with public opinion poll results on the same issues. Journalists were, it turns out, well to the right of the public on most issues; when asked to classify themselves, the majority were center-left on social issues, and center-right on economic issues. But the main finding was this:

  • On select issues from corporate power and trade to Social Security and Medicare to healthcare and taxes, journalists are actually more conservative than the general public.

In other words, the research that Edsall wants to cite exists; it just mostly contradicts his premise.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.