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The Myth of the Liberal Press

by Alexander Cockburn

Washington media are to the right of the public opinion
I saw some derisive reference the other day by a right-wing pundit to the "liberal media," supposedly athwart the mainstream of public opinion. This particular myth will never be laid to rest because right-wingers have got so much emotional and political stock invested in it. But it's nonsense nonetheless. When it comes to the Washington press corps -- the nation's opinion-forming elite -- the "media" are most certainly athwart mainstream opinion, but on the rightward side.

Through the years, there have been efforts to settle the argument by means of surveys. Twenty years ago, the right used to brandish the "fact" that over 80 percent of the Washington press corps voted for George McGovern against Richard Nixon in 1972. I'm not sure of the origins of this particular stat or why a vote against a criminal as egregious as Nixon should be regarded as anything other than conservative respect for the Constitution and the rule of law.

But the mid-1970s were a time when publishers and such pressure groups as Reed Irvine's Accuracy in Media were trying extirpate all dangerous thoughts from the nation's newsrooms. So the "McGovernite press" charge came in very useful, particularly in policing the press during the U.S. wars of intervention in the late 1970s and 1980s.

There's one simple reason why the Washington press corps have drifted even further right. As Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post at the time of Watergate, put it in an informal press seminar a few years ago, "Reporters are more conservative than the previous generation. And I think there is a good reason for that. They get paid a hell of a lot better. It's hard to be a conservative on $75 a week, but $75,000 (a year), and you begin to think of the kids and the bank account and the IRA."

In the spring of this year, the indubitably liberal outfit known as FAIR, (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) commissioned David Croteau of the department of sociology and anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University to do a survey of the political outlook of the Washington press corps. Croteau sent a bunch of questions to 444 Washington journalists from mainstream news organizations in the Washington area and got back 141 responses, from nine bureau chiefs, 27 editors and producers, and 105 reporters.

The respondents were mostly men, mostly white, mostly college-educated and mostly well off: In this era of the working spouse, 43 percent had household incomes between $50,000 and $99,000, 21 percent between $100,000 and $149,000, 17 percent between $150,000 and $199,000, and 14 percent had household incomes above $200,000.

On the evidence of Croteau's sample, Washington journalists are an immensely self-satisfied lot (which accounts for the fact that, in my observation, they drink less than their British counterparts, pickled in alcohol as a salve against low self-esteem). No fewer than 76 percent of them reckon their own news organizations provide "excellent" or "good" coverage, in terms of giving the public reliable information on which to base important decisions.

The journalists also proved sadly predictable in terms of what sort of sources they use. On economic issues, just over half the sample nearly always reaches for the phone to talk to someone in the government; 31 percent nearly always talks to someone in the corporate sector. Only 5 percent phones someone in the labor movement, presumably the same 5 percent that cares to phone a "consumer advocate" like Ralph Nader.

The well-paid Washington journalists reckon by an exuberant majority that the economy is either "excellent" (34 percent) or "good" (58 percent). A Gallup poll in March of this year showed a higher slice of the public reckoning the economy to be "only fair" (27 percent), as against 4 percent of the journalists making this cautious judgment.

The public are way to the left of the press on the need to protect Medicare and Social Security against major cuts. For 59 percent of the ordinary folk, this is among the top priorities; among the Washington press corps, impatient with entitlements, only 39 percent see such protection of Social Security and Medicare as a very big deal.

The citizenry is similarly way to the left of the journalistic elite on health insurance and the issue of corporate power. No less than 77 percent of the huddled masses agree with the statement "Too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies." Only 57 percent of the journalists are able to summon up this basic populist response, which has been the core belief of muckrakers since the days of Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens.

The clearest example of how the Washington media are to the right of the public opinion comes, as once more one might have guessed, on the issue of trade. The journalistic elites have always been rabid free traders, and in Croteau's sample, 65 percent of them think the North American Free Trade Agreement has had a positive impact on the United States. Of the citizenry at large, only 32 percent take this view, with 42 percent (as against a mere 8 percent of the press corps) thinking NAFTA has most definitely been a bad thing.

Croteau attaches more importance to the semi-mystical category of "centrist" than he should. As with "agnostic," the word's only use is one of evasion. Many of the Washington press corps probably voted for Bill Clinton. That's no contradiction, since Bill is a sedate, right-wing worshipper at the corporate altar, just like the people covering him.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor July 7, 1998 (

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