Jun
18
1998

Elite Preoccupations Leave Other Concerns In Shadows

Two recent events — the launch of a magazine about news media and the release of a survey about journalists' opinions — illustrate the wide gap between the preoccupations of elite media professionals and the economic outlooks of most Americans.

After lots of advance publicity, the premiere issue of Brill's Content is hot off the press. The magazine calls itself "the Independent Voice of the Information Age" and pledges to scrutinize news coverage without fear or favor. But so far, the match-up seems to be along the lines of "Establishment vs. Establishment."

Exactly who owns this "independent voice"? In fact, along with Steven Brill, the other investors behind the magazine are media magnate Barry Diller, real estate tycoon Howard Milstein and financier Lester Pollack.

What is the size of their investments? Other than declaring that Brill is the "majority owner," spokespeople for Brill's Content remain tight-lipped. The magazine's editorial director, Michael Kramer, told me: "We don't disclose the percentages."

Will the magazine probe the media empire of co-owner Diller? Now the head of USA Networks Inc., he is known as the pioneer of home shopping channels. Today, Diller's network airs a lot of TV programs, including "The Jerry Springer Show."

Inadvertently, Brill's Content has already dramatized a key point: Ownership affects media content.

For the magazine's first issue, editors commissioned Tom Tomorrow to provide a full-page cartoon. But two months ago, Tomorrow received an unexpected call from Executive Editor Amy Bernstein. "Steve (Brill) doesn't agree with it, and we're just not going to run it," the cartoonist recalls her saying. When I phoned Bernstein, she confirmed: "Steve just didn't like it."

Ironically, the rejected cartoon had addressed just such dynamics. It said: "Most journalists WILL acknowledge — at least, after a drink or two — that the news outlets they work for DO tend to be biased — in favor of THEIR OWNER'S INTERESTS, that is."

Now, we can thank the main owner of Brill's Content for demonstrating the truth he found unfit to print: Owners can tilt the content of the media outlets they own.

There is some solid journalism in Brill's Content, such as the "Pressgate" cover story that spells out how "the press seems to have become an enabler" of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's "abuse of power." But according to articles in this issue of the magazine, the most aggrieved victims of unfair media coverage are elites: President Clinton, Sen. Robert Byrd, the company that makes the Audi 5000 luxury sedan.

Unfortunately, Brill's Content mirrors the overall preoccupations of mainstream media: Are particular politicians getting a fair shake? Are corporations being mistreated? Such fixations leave little room for other concerns — such as economic inequities.

When the interests of owners find resonance with the views of most journalists, the confluence of biases can be especially powerful. And that's where a new survey of the Washington press corps comes in. The media watch group FAIR has just released the results of the survey, which sheds new light on the myth of the "liberal media."

Previous FAIR studies have debunked much of the myth by documenting the heavy reliance on centrist, conservative and corporate news sources by mainstream media programs such as ABC's "Nightline," the PBS "NewsHour" and NPR's weekday "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition."

But during the past couple of years, another part of the "liberal media" fable has been widely propagated — the notion that most reporters are secret leftists.

The new data from FAIR (a group that I'm associated with) provide some clarity. In a survey conducted by sociologist David Croteau of Virginia Commonwealth University, Washington journalists expressed views on economic issues that were more conservative — not more "liberal" — than those of the general public.

The responses from 141 journalists indicate that the Washington press corps is to the right of most Americans on various economic issues, including taxation of the wealthy, Social Security and health care. (Details of the survey results are available at www.fair.org.)

Here's an example from the FAIR survey: Do a few large companies have "too much power"? Journalists — answering yes 57 percent of the time — were much more evenly divided than the public. National opinion samples have consistently found Americans to be strongly affirmative on the question, with 77 percent responding yes in one poll.

Evidence keeps piling up: The priorities and preoccupations of elite journalists are far afield from the economic concerns of most Americans.