Now we have it from no less than the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania: Print journalists show a broad, liberal bias in the content of their writing.
The Annenberg researchers did it right. First they spent several months conducting random telephone surveys to build a representative base of 1,666 people who regularly listen to political talk radio. Then they listened to programs and analyzed the content: 105 hours of Rush Limbaugh and 150 hours of other talk show hosts, including the nine who command the largest audiences.
The journalistic errors that the study uncovered will shock only the liberal print journalists who make them:
- The media portray talk radio programs as homogeneous and right-wing. Researchers found, in fact, "a broad ideological range on political talk radio" and "a lot of diversity" in topics of discussion.
- Hosts of talk shows are portrayed in the media as extremists. But the research confirmed that "extremist comments by hosts are the exception, not the rule."
- The media portray typical listeners as poorly informed kooks. But the Annenberg researchers found that listeners, regardless of political orientation, tend to be more involved in politics and better informed than non-listeners. "The is true of civics knowledge, general factual knowledge about social and political issues, and factual knowledge about things in the news."
Not many liberal journalists agree with that. Bonnie Erbe, a liberal who hosts the PBS program "To the Contrary," is an exception. "I have been privy to so many newsroom debates on politics and have seen so many allegedly impartial journalists produce biased coverage," she recently wrote, "I could fill tomes recounting these tales alone."
Ms. Erbe's solution: Know journalists' biases and filter them out. "I would much rather get my news from reporters whose political predilections I know and can discount accordingly, than from a closet liberal or conservative."
That solution is available to an insider like Ms. Erbe, who knows journalists and their biases. But most readers don't have that advantage. Even if they did, it wouldn't solve the problem. Ms. Erbe herself notes that "reportorial bias is not only apparent in what reporters say and write, but in what they fail to write, or purposely exclude." Readers can't be expected to know what isn't in their daily newspapers.
The sort of biased reporting documented by the Annenberg survey will continue as long as media liberals fail to resolve their own contradictory views about diversity. Let home in on their central contradiction.
In recent years, media liberals have developed a mania for diversity — understood as proportional representation of blacks, women, Latinos, etc. — on newsroom staffs. This is motivated in part by the leftist belief that the world should sort itself out into the "proper" quotas of such groups in jobs, schools and other social institutions.
But in journalism, the quest for diversity is also energized by concerns about the content of the news. Media liberals correctly assume that when a newsroom is dominated by whites or males (or, worst of all, white males), certain biases will show up in the news.
In their zeal to break up the monopoly of whites and males in the newsroom, however, liberals have remained stone blind to the largest monopolistic faction: themselves. I've worked at six or seven newspapers during the last 20 years and, without exception, their news staff were predominantly liberal.
That is "anecdotal evidence, of course, but that fact has been established by more rigorous methods. A recent survey, for instance, found that more than 80 percent of reporters in the Washington press corps are Democrats. You would be hard put to find any daily newspaper today with a news staff composed of fewer than two-thirds liberals. That is an undeniable fact of life in the news business.
And an odd fact it is. Recent studies have found that among the general population, only 15 percent of people identify themselves as liberals. More than twice as many say they are conservatives, and the rest are moderates of some sort.
Here we reach the central contradiction in liberals' view of diversity: They know that a disproportionate number of whites or males in newsrooms results in biased news coverage. Yet most liberals deny that their own disproportionate presence on news staffs is a source of biased news; thus they implicitly deny any need for greater philosophical diversity — specifically, the need for more conservatives to leaven the leftist orthodoxy.
That denial has run out of tread. The Annenberg study shows beyond doubt that media liberals have painted a comprehensively biased and inaccurate picture of talk radio and its audiences. More to the point, those inaccuracies clearly flow from the one monopoly that liberals will tolerate in the newsroom: themselves. It is reasonable to assume that other aspects of American life, besides talk radio, are being similarly distorted by the media's leftist biases.
The buck for this problem stops at the desks of newsroom managers. They are the ones who frantically pursue diversity of race, sex and other superficial traits, but remain indifferent to the rigid ideological uniformity that cuts across such categories, stagnating the intellectual vitality of newsrooms.
Managers who condone this liberal lockstep tend to dismiss as foolishness the frequent complaints from readers that too much news is distorted by journalists' leftist biases. Yet those same managers cannot understand why journalists' credibility has sunk to a level equal to that of politicians.
The Annenberg study provides credible evidence that those readers are not foolish. They are exactly right. News is often reported with a leftward slant. That will begin to improve only when newsroom managers resolve the contradiction in their own policies.