Whenever a conservative critic of the media gets worked up, he’s sure to mention the “Lichter-Rothman study.” That study shows that reporters are liberal and unreligious. Rothman and the Lichters are obviously conservative, and the research for The Media Elite was funded by conservatives like Richard Mellon Scaife, which makes their scientific-sounding scholarship a bit suspect. But the basic thrust of that argument is hard to argue with. Many other studies also reveal that reporters for major publications are to the left of the population as a whole.
This book is an effort to take that conclusion a step further and show how reporters’ liberal leanings affect their coverage. It fails badly.
The authors feel obliged to make reference to hundreds of clips and practically every hackneyed bit of press criticism ever uttered. This not only taxes the reader, it betrays their argument. That’s because any full-scale review of the collected wisdom on this subject suggests that there are factors far more important than political bias that affect a journalist’s work. They include deadline pressures, lazy-mindedness, an obsession with the horse-race, the peccadillos of editors, and other conventions of the journalism business. Faced with such complications, the authors are forced to admit that bias is not the issue—a major admission that deserves to be widely quoted in response to right-wing press critics. Unfortunately, the authors aren’t prepared to part with their own biases on this point so easily. Despite all the elaborate qualifications, this is the same old—wink wink—attack on the liberal press. Only this time they focus on vague notions like “cast of mind” and “partial views of social reality.” It’s all unconscious, you see.
There is, of course, some truth to this. The authors provide a convincing, though hardly original, analysis of a powerful national news media “elite” that has developed in the past 40 years. They explain how the increasing income and social status of elite journalists has taken this elite further away from the experiences of ordinary Americans. “I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t consider ourselves on an equal footing with those we cover,” says Jack Nelson, Washington Bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. That is a dramatic and under-appreciated change from the traditional relationship between reporter and subject.
But because, as the authors admit, “there are few idealogues in major media newsrooms,” the task of tracing the effects of the changed social status on actual coverage becomes nearly impossible. The authors conducted elaborate, “Thematic Apperception Tests” (TAT)—silly Rorschach-style tests where reporters were shown pictures (for instance, a man in uniform next to another man) and asked to imagine what was happening to them. After dozens of pages and pointless elaboration, they conclude that journalists are more anti-authoritarian than businessmen shown the same pictures. Might you have guessed that on your own?
The same goes for the rest of the book’s conclusions. The “TAT” proves nothing. It is psychobull. To judge by the creative mini-essays accompanying the pictures, most of the journalists were just having fun. Ah, but psychologists say that everything a test subject writes is in some way deeply revealing of his true feelings. (Jon, you are angry with the Lichters. Lie down on the couch and we’ll talk about why you really wrote this nasty review.)
But if psychology fails to unearth a media slant, how about detailed textual analyses of the way major news organizations have covered issues like nuclear power, busing, and the oil crisis? Might that not prove something? Only if you believe that pseudo-scientific tools like “spin indexes,” which measure a story’s political “spin,” can prove honest in the face of the authors’ determination to score points against the press. After making it sound vaguely suspicious for the media to be skeptical of authority—the book unfortunately does not explore the scary implications of a world where the media was not skeptical of authority—the authors go on to explain in detail how these major stories were covered in the wrong way. Coverage of nuclear power, they write, was affected by an unconscious liberal mindset that downplayed reports of good news about impressive safety records that the authors make clear should have been a prominent part of the story.
But when it comes to busing, they don’t like good news. They complain (albeit in socio-speak) that the coverage tilted toward the beneficial effects of busing and away from the community protests against it. The alleged media “tilt” in favor of busing is itself debatable. But the authors weaken their case further by trying to have it both ways. They use public skepticism about nuclear power as evidence that the media’s wrong-headed message got through. But we are supposed to believe that the public disapproved of busing in spite of the best efforts of the media to convince readers otherwise.
Whichever way, it doesn’t wash. In these cases and many others, the media’s bias is always for “bad” news. The plane that lands safely is never on the front page. If antibusing demonstrators had become more violent, they would have received the more extensive coverage the authors yearn for. If Three-Mile Island hadn’t happened, there would not have been as much of the antinuclear coverage the authors dislike. That doesn’t mean that coverage of nuclear power and busing can’t be legitimately picked apart on a dozen different levels, or that the media is not highly susceptible to a collective mind-set. But the inadequacy of the Lichter-Rothman arguments do suggest that press criticism does not work well on a left-right grid. The media’s weakness for the “conventional wisdom” is a curse, but not a predictably political one.