The end of a story in Politico (12/18/13), about a Politico media roundtable featuring CNN's Jake Tapper, NBC's Kelly O'Donnell, and Peter Baker and Mark Leibovich of the New York Times, caught my eye:
All four journalists were in agreement that the media in general leans left. Tapper said it’s simplistic to call out conservative or liberal, but it is a question of experiences and lifestyle. Most reporters and editors in New York or Washington have never worked a minimum wage job, experienced poverty or are Evangelical Christians, Tapper said.
Later on in the discussion, Tapper acknowledged that the "yes" answers would be "taken by Brent Bozell"– a reference to the conservative activist who runs the Media Research Center, which did in fact post a story about this, saying that "it's progress to see prominent journalists admitting a slant in the newsroom."
What intrigued me about this was that the one journalist who was quoted–CNN host Jake Tapper–didn't seem to be giving evidence of a left-wing tilt in the press corps. If journalists are mostly people who come from relatively privileged backgrounds–which sounds plausible, when it comes to elite New York or D.C. reporters–then it's hard to imagine why that would be considered leaning to the left.
Those affirmative responses about the media's tilt came in response to a question from Politico's Mike Allen, who wanted each panelist to answer in one word whether they thought the media "leans left."
One panelist, Mark Leibovich of the New York Times, said that he "rarely talk about politics with my colleagues," but then explained: "None of my neighbors are evangelical Christians. I don't know a lot of people in my kid's pre-school who are pro-life."
It's not clear why the views of his neighbors much matter–or why he talks about politics with parents at a pre-school, but not with his journalistic colleagues, who are supposed to be experts on the stuff–but Leibovich goes on to say that in the rare occasion when politics does come up among journalists, there are "clues" that lead him to believe that "absolutely a leftward lean."
Tapper said that a "a certain type of person becomes a reporter" in Washington and New York–a person who has "never worked a minimum wage job outside of high school," has "never experienced poverty" and "is not an evangelical Christian."
But, Tapper says, good journalism can happen when reporters are "aware of the country that they're writing for, the country they're on TV for." Then he also admits that "you don't see a lot of coverage of poverty"–which is certainly true, and just as certainly not a sign that the media lean left. Tapper also says there is inadequate coverage of faith and "the troops." I'm not sure how one could make the case that either really suffers from a lack of coverage.
Tapper adds that it's "simplistic to say it's liberal or conservative"–which is a fair point. So why agree the media lean left, then?
New York Times reporter Peter Baker weighed in to say that "they did do surveys, more reporters think of themselves as being liberal or Democratic than not"–which might be a reference to the surveys that found more reporters voted for Bill Clinton than Bob Dole, which tells you little about how they operate. Baker explains that he doesn't vote–that'll fix the problem!–but then said he thought the real problem is the "bias toward conflict" and "sensation," and he expresses a wish that the media were generally be more substantive. Useful observations, to be sure, but none of which would point to a media tilting left.
And NBC's Norah O'Donnell, explained that she felt she "had to say yes" to the question about the liberal-leaning media because of MSNBC, the liberal-leaning cable channel. By that logic, the existence of Fox News Channel and the domination of talk radio by conservatives would suggest a far-right media bias.
O'Donnell went on to say that she tries to be fair, and that while she loves politics, she doesn't "feel particularly swayed one way or another." She admits that when she's covering Republican politicians or conservative events she encounters people who are every critical of the media: "I've heard quite a lot of their criticism and I take it seriously."
So what emerges is a sense that elite journalists are well-off, don't live near many religious people but seem particularly attuned to criticism coming from the right–which is precisely the purpose of right-wing media criticism.
The striking thing about the responses is that they so little addressed what would seem to be the fundamental question: Does what is actually in the media suggest a liberal bias? Tapper's comment about the dearth of poverty coverage is correct, and runs counter to the notion of rampant media liberalism.
So ask yourself: Did left critics of the Iraq War dominate the debate over the invasion? No. Do liberal or left guests outnumber the right on the Sunday chat shows? No. Well, what about on PBS? No. NPR? No. Have left critics of US foreign policy ever suffered from media overexposure? No.
So what kind of liberalism are these reporters talking about? It seems that they're admitting that they live in an elite, culturally secular milieu that is unrepresentative of American life. Fair enough. Right-wing media critics have been saying that for years, and obviously this has had some effect.
But these reporters are part of a media system that generally discounts serious critics of bipartisan, status-quo Washington, relies on maintaining access to government officials, and more often than not fails to adequately challenge those officials. The fact that those reporters might not live near many evangelical Christians might be true, but it's hard to see how that has any connection to the work they do–or the kind of news we get.