Tuesday, May 25, 2004

That Damned Liberal Media

Here we go again. Instapundit notes the following in his blog:

Those convinced that liberals make up a disproportionate share of newsroom workers have long relied on Pew Research Center surveys to confirm this view, and they will not be disappointed by the results of Pew's latest study released today. . . .
At national organizations (which includes print, TV and radio), the numbers break down like this: 34% liberal, 7% conservative. At local outlets: 23% liberal, 12% conservative. At Web sites: 27% call themselves liberals, 13% conservatives.
This contrasts with the self-assessment of the general public: 20% liberal, 33% conservative. . . .
While it's important to remember that most journalists in this survey continue to call themselves moderate, the ranks of self-described liberals have grown in recent years, according to Pew. For example, since 1995, Pew found at national outlets that the liberal segment has climbed from 22% to 34% while conservatives have only inched up from 5% to 7%.
The survey also notes a dramatic "values gap" on issues like gay marriage and belief in God. But : "Of course, no one would ever expect this to impact the way news is covered."
Though, the war and the Second Amendment aside, my views are probably closer to those of the press than the general public, I have to agree with those who find this troubling. If despite aspirations toward objectivity, reporters' gender and ethnicity is as influential on the news as newsroom diversity advocates tell us, then surely reporters' views are even more significant. So where's the move toward greater diversity there?

You tell me, instapundit. How come do we have a hundred Rush Limbaugh wannabees on every radio station? How come are nine out of ten political commentators so right wing that I often find myself muttering Molly Ivins' unforgettable words: It was better in the original German.

So instapundit finds the number of liberal journalists troubling. I wonder if he finds the number of conservative media owners troubling, or if he loses any sleep over the fact that Rupert Murdoch, a well-known arch-conservative, will soon own most of the news sources in this country. It is very odd that a capitalist would simply assume that the workers in a firm make the decisions and that the owners just meekly stand by. Yet this is what right-wing commentators always assume about the media.

They also conveniently forget that the number of pundits who are right-wingers completely swamps the very few and almost invisible left-wing pundits (can you mention any?) in mainstream media, and it hardly ever occurs to them to point out that the whole Fox News is explicitly and extremely conservative in its coverage. So is much of the rest of the so-called liberal media. In fact, the conservative assault on the presumed liberal dominance of the media has been so successful that many media outlets bend over backwards to not seem too lefty. The result is that the observable bias in the media is considerably more conservative than liberal. Read Eric Alterman's book What Liberal Media? to get the facts, or at least some countervailing bias. Even the New York Times, which was mentioned by twenty per cent of the surveyed journalists as liberal, has David Brooks as its columnist. Where do such great writers as Molly Ivins find employment? In the left fringes of the media, that's where.

In fact, my reading of the various pundits has convinced me that there is affirmative action of an unusual sort going on in the media world: if you're a rabid conservative, you'll be snapped up in no time by some major newspaper or tv station, and you'll be given your very own column or show, even if your writing is on the fourth grade level or if your screen presence is that of a vulture who never cleans its teeth.

There! Now that I have gotten all that off my chest I wish to return to my austere goddess-of-scientific-argument role and point out that the journalists interviewed in the Pew study differ from the general population much more in one yet unmentioned characteristic than in their political views. That is their education level. Only five per cent of those surveyed lacked a college degree. Now, if you made me guess I'd surmise that the political views of these journalists look a lot like those of other people who have college degrees. Sadly, I was unable to unearth any clear statistical data on political views of the college educated, but I'm willing to go out on a limb here and propose that the media professionals are not that different from most educated people. Instapundit might agree with me here, but would probably argue that this just shows the horrible results of our lefty university professors having brainwashed people over the last three decades. An alternative, and saner view, is that college education does make one think differently about some issues, even without any foaming-in-the-mouth liberal professors. Education is supposed to open the student's mind to new ways of thinking, after all.

The 'value gap' in beliefs in God that instapundit refers to might be a good example of this effect. According to the Pew study, sixty per cent of the general public surveyed stated that people who don't believe in God can't be truly moral. In contrast, the vast majority of the surveyed media workers believed that atheists can be moral. I would argue that the media views are the correct ones here, and I have considerable evidence on that. Sometimes not reflecting the views of the general public is like being the one lemming who doesn't think that a nice suicide would be just the thing on a lovely spring day. Sometimes the one lemming is right.

So what determines how liberal or conservative the news presentation of the media will be? This is the real question in the debate, and the conservatives argue that it is determined by the political affiliation of the workers in the system. Most liberals argue that the ownership of the media outlets should be of at least equal, if not greater concern, just as the owners of the firm have the final say in how they operate. Liberals also point out to studies which demonstrate a preponderance of dependence on right-wing think tanks in the expert opinions sought by the media, the visibility of right-wing talk show hosts and the large hordes of loud conservative pundits everywhere in the mainstream media. Where would you go to read or view or listen to a left-wing pundit? How often is Noam Chomsky on the Fox News? Who owns the system?

A related question is whether media professionals can do their work in a neutral manner, despite any political views of their own that might conflict with such an approach. My belief is that this is possible to some extent, but that no human being is a completely neutral observer of this planet. Some bias is unavoidable, and this means that it is indeed a good thing to have all the different biases represented in the media. The right-wingers ignore all but one possible cause of bias, and wish that this one and only bias against them be removed. This would not make the media objective; it would make it thoroughly conservative: a world full of Rupert Murdoch clones.