Media Mythology: Is the Press Liberal?

By Robert Parry
When the Freedom Forum studied the relationship between the Washington news media and Congress, the press foundation tossed in what it considered a throwaway question to the reporters: How had they voted in 1992?

The query was contained in a confidential survey, which covered a wide range of issues and was sent to 323 journalists who in some way covered Congress, either as Capitol Hill correspondents or as Washington bureau chiefs for papers around the country. Slightly more than one-third -- 139 -- of the questionnaires were returned and all but nine of those respondents answered the presidential choice question.

That question had little bearing on the study, though, and was not even mentioned in the text of the scholarly report when it was released last year during the 1996 presidential race. The 1992 preference question ended up in tiny type in an appendix. But the answer would take on a life of its own and overshadow the rest of the study.

That happened, in part, because the startling collective answer reinforced a longstanding conservative accusation that the Washington press corps was "liberal." Of the 130 respondents, 89 percent said they had voted for Bill Clinton. Only seven percent had supported George Bush.

Immediately, the conservative Washington Times jumped on the response as proof of a liberal bias in the news media. Right-wing press critic Brent Bozell did the same and soon the 89-percent figure was echoing through conservative radio talk shows. The Washington Post's media critic Howard Kurtz took it as conclusive proof of a liberal media bias, too.

Even the left-of-center media watchdog group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, did not challenge the data, although it has often complained that the national media actually has a center-right bias that systematically excludes real leftists from TV pundit shows and editorial pages. In response to the Freedom Forum study, FAIR argued narrowly that the voting patterns of working-stiff reporters were largely irrelevant in judging media bias.

"There is a hierarchy at media outlets that determine whether a reporter can express a personal opinion or not," said Jim Naureckas, editor of FAIR's publication Extra! In other words, news executives, not news underlings, make the key decisions.

But the Freedom Forum survey itself escaped any critical analysis, despite the shocking size of the supposed Clinton preference. Though it's true that many centrists favored Clinton as one of their own and liberals might have accepted him as the lesser evil, a significant percentage of high-profile journalists-- from Bob Novak to George Will -- had expressed clear preferences for Bush.

Clinton's Secret Admirers?

What happened to their votes, and all the other votes from conservative journalists who appear on the talk shows or work for avowedly right-wing publications? The national media includes a sizable representation from explicitly conservative publications, including Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times, The American Spectator, National Review, Insight, Human Events, Forbes, Commentary, Reason, Policy Review and Rupert Murdoch's empire, including The New York Post and The Weekly Standard.

Were these right-wing bastions harboring secret Clinton lovers? Or was the rest of the news media virtually 100 percent for Clinton, after the obvious conservative preference for Bush was factored out?

To try to clear up this mystery, we contacted Kenneth Dautrich of the Roper Center, the polling firm that handled the Freedom Forum's data. Because of the confidentiality, Dautrich would not supply the names of those who were sent the questionnaires, nor did he know which of the 139 journalists returned the surveys. But he did agree to send us the company affiliations of the 323 journalists who were on Roper's original mailing list.

That list contained news organizations from all over the country. But it was not what many would expect when they think about the Washington news media. Major national media outlets were represented, but not in very high numbers. Only 60 questionnaires -- or less than 20 percent of the total -- had gone to the likes of The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, PBS, National Public Radio, Time, Newsweek, US News, The Associated Press and Reuters.

The bulk of the newspapers on the list were regional dailies, such as The Modesto Bee, Boston Globe, Denver Post, Dallas Morning News, Atlanta Journal/Constitution, Richmond Times Dispatch and San Jose Mercury News. News services for newspaper chains, such as Knight-Ridder and Newhouse News Service, were included, too.

But more than 80 of the list's newspapers -- roughly a quarter of the total -- were much smaller, often with only one reporter or "bureau chief" in Washington. One questionnaire went to the 58,000-circulation The Green Bay Press-Gazette, for instance. Another went to a Wisconsin neighbor, the 27,000-circulation Sheboygan Press. Also on the list were The Mississippi Press, Fort Collins Coloradoan, Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, Idaho Statesman, Thibodaux Daily Comet, Hemet News and many other newspapers that are not normally counted as part of "the national news media."

Other of the small-fry survey recipients were specialty journals or obscure publications. Intermission Magazine got a questionnaire, so too did Indian Country Today, Hill Rag, El Pregonero, Senior Advocate, Small Newspaper Group, Washington Citizen, Washington Blade and Government Standard.

Where Are the Conservatives?

But what was most dramatically missing from the list were many of the principal conservative journals. The Washington Times did get four questionnaires; Human Events one; The New York Post one; and another Murdoch newspaper, The Boston Herald, one -- the seven equalling about two percent of the total. But the other big-name right-wing publications got zero.

A likely reason for the absence of these prominent conservative journals was the fact that many are organized as non-profit corporations so they can accept tax-deductible donations from individuals and foundations. But non-profits have difficulty getting credentials from the Congressional Press Gallery. And it was from that credentialed list that the survey recipients were selected.

So the Freedom Forum survery appears to have dramatically undercounted the scores of conservative journalists in Washington, despite their significant influence in setting the national agenda. Many of these conservatives appear regularly on TV pundit shows and their opinionated columns resonate across the country through conservative radio hosts and on the op-ed pages of newspapers.

The Freedom Forum survey gave much greater weight to the voting choices of reporters from small publications who have next to no influence in the nation's capital. These work-a-day reporters rarely, if ever, appear on TV and their stories concentrate on the hum-drum actions of local members of Congress, not on national affairs.

It may be interesting that a large percentage of modestly paid reporters from small- to mid-sized dailies favored Clinton over Bush. But there is little evidence that those presidential preferences translated into soft media treatment of Clinton or into especially tough handling of Bush or the GOP congressional majority.

(c) Copyright 1997