Michael Waldron: Media biasPublished 11:58pm Wednesday, June 8, 2011
When I lived in Quetta, Pakistan, in 1983, I used my grandfather’s shortwave radio to learn what was going on in the world. That shortwave radio was invaluable because in 1983 Quetta was extremely remote. I would tune in “Voice of America” while I ate breakfast. On some mornings, the announcer had some very peculiar things to report. Usually after five minutes, I would retune the radio and discover I was listening to Radio Moscow and not VOA. The frequencies were very close together. The VOA transmitter was in Sri Lanka; I have no idea where the more powerful Radio Moscow transmitter was. In 1983, I was sympathetic to the Soviet people, who were subjected to news management by their media.
Now flash forward to March 24, 2011 when Ted Koppel spoke to the Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan in Benton Harbor. He is a very polished speaker and he tells some very funny stories. Alas, his message was sour. He reminisced about the condition of the TV news media in the 60s. With considerable nostalgia, he extolled the state of news when Americans watched essentially three networks. Because the news divisions routinely lost money, Koppel remembers it as a time when the three networks, “the gatekeepers,” decided what to report purely on each item’s news value. It was an innocent time for the media during that “Leave it to Beaver” period. I fought back the temptation during the question-and-answer period to ask him why no one in the media thought it was newsworthy to report on President Kennedy’s promiscuous behavior with many women including the girlfriend of Sam Giancana, the Chicago mobster. There is a lot of evidence that many reporters knew of Kennedy’s activities at the time but protected the president.
Just before the 2004 election, Dan Rather used documents he couldn’t personally validate to attack President Bush’s service in the Texas national guard. It was a ludicrous moment in journalism, and it eventually cost him his job. This spring we learned that CBS has a tape of President Obama speaking to supporters recently; however, CBS selectively released only part of its recording. I wonder why a news organization would keep back parts of a story. Could it be that there is something embarrassing on the tape? Would we even know of the existence of the CBS tape without the exponential increase in the number of media outlets? Probably, the 1960s “gatekeepers” would have judged the CBS tape as not newsworthy. I like the increase in media outlets. Sure there are dubious outlets like the National Inquirer. At least the National Inquirer broke the story of John Edwards’ infidelities. The gatekeepers were missing in action on that story.
There seems to me to be a consistent thread in this narrative. When the news is bad for liberal politicians, the gatekeepers don’t report it. When the news is bad for conservative politicians, the gatekeepers are quick to report it even when the story is suspect. Certainly, one could argue that I’ve selected the worst behavior of the media to make my point. However, academic studies have shown that the media is mostly comprised of liberal-thinking members. The UCLA Department of Political Science published “A Measure of Media Bias” in 2004. That study reports, “Our results show a strong liberal bias. All of the news outlets except Fox News’ Special Report and the Washington Times received a score to the left of the average member of Congress. And a few outlets, including the New York Times and CBS Evening News, were closer to the average Democrat in Congress than the center. These findings refer strictly to the news stories of the outlets. That is, we omitted editorials, book reviews and letters to the editor from our sample.”
The UCLA study also reports, “Survey research has shown that an almost overwhelming fraction of journalists are liberal. For instance, Elaine Povich (1996) reports that only 7 percent of all Washington correspondents voted for George H.W. Bush in 1992, compared to 37 percent of the American public. Lichter, Rothman and Lichter, (1986) and Weaver and Wilhoit (1996) report similar findings for earlier elections. More recently, the New York Times reported that only 8t percent of Washington correspondents thought George W. Bush would be a better president than John Kerry. This compares to 51 percent of all American voters. David Brooks notes that for every journalist who contributed to George W. Bush’s campaign, 93 contributed to Kerry’s.”
The UCLA report doesn’t prove that every journalist is biased. However, journalists are human. Humans, unlike computers, internalize input. Sometimes their output is colored by subjective human failings. A preponderance of liberal journalists probably will produce a preponderance of liberal news. I like the marketplace of ideas concept. I have confidence that Americans will select good journalism over biased journalism.
That leads me back to my grandfather’s shortwave radio. I only knew then of two frequencies to hear the news. It would have been much better if there had been 10 or 20 or a hundred English radio stations available. I don’t need a gatekeeper to decide for me what I need to know.
Thank God for cable TV and the Internet.
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