The Conservative Alienation from Journalism

Coverage of the Pew Research Center’s latest study has emphasized the finding that news consumption has become more polarized, each of us preferring All the News that Fits Our Worldview.

But to me the most interesting finding was different: the deep alienation of conservatives from mainstream media and “journalism.”

Get this: among the 36 outlets they studied, there was only one – The Wall Street Journal – that had positive levels of trust among both consistently liberal and consistently conservative Americans.

This was not because of ideological polarization (liberals trust plenty of outlets). It is because conservatives trust so few. Not surprisingly, they mistrust MSNBC and Mother Jones. But they also mistrust ABC News, CBS, NBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN. Hell, they even discount Bloomberg, USA Today, PBS and Yahoo News.

Indeed, among the eight news sources they trusted, only one (The Wall Street Journal) can really even be described as a neutral journalistic organization. The others are proudly ideological: The Sean Hannity Show, Breitbart, Drudge, The Glenn Beck Program, The Rush Limbaugh Show and Fox News. And one suspects that the toleration of the Wall Street Journal results from the famously conservative editorial page not because of the journalism, which is high quality but ideologically indistinguishable from the New York Times.

Conservative activists have, of course, railed against the “liberal media” for years, but it’s jarring to see the extent to which American conservatives have abandoned traditional journalistic sources.

How did this happen?

Part of the answer is Fox News itself. When it launched, Fox did not market itself as a conservative news organization. Rather it was “fair and balanced”, while everyone else was biased. Viewers want to think of themselves as fair minded and Fox obliges by explaining (over and over) that they are the neutral ones while the rest of the media has been corrupted by ideology.

Is there any truth to the claims of media bias? At the heart of the argument is the observation that most reporters are liberal. When I worked at newsmagazines, I would look around at my peers and think, yes, more of them are probably liberal than conservative. When I was national editor of US News I even engaged in what I called “conservative affirmative action,” hiring a couple of talented conservative writers (Michael Gerson and Major Garrett) to provide greater diversity of sourcing and perspectives.

Conservatives then go on to say that this numerical superiority of liberals creates bias against their worldview. Again there’s a grain of truth, especially as it relates to the topics pursued. Reporters are genuinely more interested in, say, the plight of the poor than the plight of the small businessman burdened by regulations. One reason I started a website devoted to religion in 1999 (Beliefnet) was my sense that often-secular, urban editors gave short-shrift to matters of faith.

But where the conservative critique, in my experience, goes off the rails is in exaggerating the significance of those tendencies and misunderstanding the far more powerful institutional and commercial biases that actually shape mainstream media.

Indeed, to a professional journalist, the idea that our ideological proclivities drive our coverage is actually a non-sequitur. It’s somewhat like saying a conservative surgeon would only operate on Republican patients or a liberal mailman would only deliver to homes with Obama signs. On some level, the conservative critique assumes that there’s no such thing as journalism as a profession, bound by a certain code of ethics, reinforced by a professional culture.

What are the more important professional pressures, mores or biases?

We all have our list. In my experience, there tends to be a bias toward contrarianism among reporters and toward establishmentarianism and centrism among media executives. The general tendency of reporters to be skeptical of “the powerful” may sometimes tip them against the wealthy but more often it makes them antagonistic to whoever holds office. (When I was at Newsweek, the contempt for the Clintons was intense). At the same time, reporters are human and fall victim to the same adoration of winners as anyone else. I hate to admit it but, at Beliefnet, we named George W. Bush Most Inspiring Man of the Year when he was popular and piled on the criticism once he became unpopular.

Most important, there is a “bias” toward career advancement, which invariably creates the drive to get scoops or drive traffic. That pushes the relentless quest for drama and pizzazz, rarely with an ideological motivation.

Less cynically, what I mostly have heard during my career is a quaint, old-fashioned commitment to accuracy and fairness. I can remember one or two discussions about holding a story because it would hurt a favored person or cause. But I’ve heard countless conversations about whether something was true or fair.

In fact, while reporters are a notably secular lot, they are the most moralistic people I know – as they tend to reject relativism and think there is actually such a thing as “truth.”

It probably surprises conservatives that the bastion of liberalism, The New York Times, has in recent years exposed Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s meddling with a state ethics commission; showed how gun regulations are making too many people inappropriately ineligible for permits; and unveiled the corruption of liberal lion Charles Rangel.

This does not compute! How could the “liberal” New York Times be spending considerable resources reporting stories that undercut the Democratic Party’s agenda? Apparently, even if the Times is stocked with liberal reporters, other factors drive the newsroom.

To be clear: that’s not to say that reporters don’t sometimes secretly prefer one side (with a few exceptions, most reporters vote, so they have to be puling the lever for someone). And yes, ideological biases can sometimes bleed into journalistic choices. (The largely pro-choice nature of the press corps makes it hard for reporters to understand the non-cynical, philosophical nature of the anti-abortion position).

But on balance these are minor factors compared to powerful forces pushing in other directions, some noble (professional commitment to truth), some less so (need to boost circulation).

The alienation of conservatives from high quality journalism, revealed in the Pew study, is a deeply unfortunate development. Not only does it lead to the polarization described in the Pew report but also to the erosion of a public demand for “objective” journalism.

This, combined with a growing sense on the left that the mainstream media cannot be trusted (because it’s too corporate), means there is a shrinking public constituency for labor intensive reporting.

And that means we’ll get less of it.

Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman is founder of LifePosts.com, a platform for online memorials and life milestones. He's a Washington Monthly contributing editor, journalist and author.