The Pew Research survey of journalists has attracted a lot of attention since it appeared yesterday, with most pundits focusing on the fact that 34% of national journalists describe themselves as “liberals,” compared to only 7% who say they are “conservatives.”
The truth, however, is worse than these numbers suggest. Fifty-four percent of journalists describe themselves as “moderates.” But “moderate” often means liberal, much as “progressive” often means socialist. Given journalists’ awareness of the public’s focus on liberal bias, and given the fact that most journalists associate primarily if not exclusively with other liberals, it is no surprise that many of them, no matter how liberal they may actually be, choose to describe themselves as moderates.
To see how journalists really think, take a look at the Pew survey’s raw data, available here. Several responses are, I think, especially revealing.
Pew asked, “How much trust and confidence do you have in the wisdom of the American people when it comes to making choices on election day?” Thirty-one percent of national journalists replied “a great deal,” compared to 68% who said “a fair amount,” “not very much,” or “none.” Here is what is interesting: as recently as 1999, 52% of journalists said they had a great deal of confidence in the wisdom of American voters. What has caused the press’ sudden and precipitous dropoff in confidence in the American public? There is no possible explanation other than the fact that President Bush was elected in 2000, and the Republicans gained in the 2002 Congressional elections. Conservatives who have always suspected that national journalists are mostly elitists who don’t trust the voters, and try to shape the news to move readers in a more liberal direction, are right.
Here’s another one: When asked whether they can name a news organization that “you think is especially conservative in its coverage of the news,” 82% responded “yes,” with Fox News the overwhelming choice. On the other hand, when asked to name “any daily national news organization that you think is especially liberal in its coverage of the news,” only 38% answered “yes,” while 58% said they couldn’t think of a single liberal-leaning news organization! Not the New York Times, not PBS, not the L.A. Times. Keep that in mind when you read that most journalists describe themselves as “moderates.”
One more: when asked whether press coverage of President Bush is “too critical” or “not critical enough,” only 8% of national journalists said “too critical,” and 55% said “not critical enough.” Think about that: approximately half of the self-described “moderates” in the national press corps think that the current all-negative, all the time coverage of President Bush isn’t harsh enough! And it’s not just that reporters see themselves as “adversarial,” since during the Clinton administration, most Pew respondents said they thought the press was too critical of Clinton.
The national press corps isn’t worried, though. The percentage of respondents saying that “Lack of objectivity / Balanced stories” is the biggest problem facing journalism declined from 12% in 1999 to 5% this year.
Press bias is, in my view, the single biggest problem in America today. A fair and objective press corps would do more than anything else to improve the United States. But it isn’t going to happen, and there is no point in waiting for it. President Bush will talk about Iraq tonight; I think he should quit worrying about offending reporters and confront them. He needs to tell Americans, clearly and directly, that what they are reading and hearing about Iraq and the war on terror is often untrue, and certainly isn’t the whole story. The people in the audience who can’t think of a liberal news organization won’t believe him, but they are a tiny minority of the general population, if not of the American press corps.
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