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12:00 AM, Oct 7, 1996 • By MICHAEL BARONE
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The heart seems to have gone out of the defenders of the mainline media against charges of leftward bias. Where it was formerly asserted with vigor that the great organs of print and broadcast press were pictures of objectivity, now it is conceded that journalism just seems to attract people who lean one way politically, and anyway that the press's natural emphasis of bad over good news means it will be critical of a society in which the Right supposedly occupies most of the seats of power. But none of this is said with much assurance or pride.

The spirit of the defenders of mainline media objectivity was broken, I think, by the publication last year of a survey of 136 Washington reporters and bureau chiefs. Eighty-nine percent of them said they had voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. Not much effort was made to debunk this sample as unrepresentative, since to anyone with any close acquaintance with the Washington press corps, it rings true. Now, 89 percent is a very high number; outside of allblack neighborhoods and a few high-income enclaves, it is very hard to find an election precinct in the United States that votes 89 percent for any one candidate. Nor can it be doubted that the mono-partisanship of the press makes a difference. Just ask the question: Would the coverage by an 89 percent pro-Bush media be different from the coverage of an 89 percent pro- Clinton media? Or the coverage of a media divided, as the voters usually are, pretty evenly between the two parties? The answer is: of course.

The interesting question is not whether there is media bias, but how it operates, and whether it harms the public -- or the media themselves. For media bias seldom manifests itself as crude propagandizing. Far more often, it is a matter of reporters and producers looking for a story where they expect to find it and not looking where they don't. One result is that the media consistently tear down some figures on the right (Newt Gingrich got 100 percent negative coverage on the three old-line TV networks in the run-up to the 1994 election) but not on the left.

Consider our two most recent vice presidents. Dan Quayle was pilloried in network newscasts and on front pages when he mangled the United Negro College Fund's slogan and misspelled "potato," but Al Gore received almost no notice when he translated the national motto e pluribus unum as "from one, many," or when he said that one of the presidents he most admired was James Knox. And if Quayle had spoken anguishedly about a sister's death from lung cancer even though he had campaigned years later as a proud tobacco farmer, would the mainline press not have called for a Nexis search and presented the quotes immediately, as THE WEEKLY STANDARD'S daily convention issue and the Washington Times did?

Media bias is especially strong on cultural issues. While most Americans are believing Christians, most people in the mainline media are not, and overwhelmingly they are pro-feminist and pro-choice on abortion. Hence the breathtakingly onesided coverage of Anita Hill's charges against Clarence Thomas (the media reported over and over that "women" were outraged by Hill's charges even as their own polls showed that most women believed Thomas) and the near-total refusal of mainline media to provide descriptions of partial- birth abortions (because an accurate description leaves most people repelled). Hence the top editors' eyes at the Washington Post simply glazed over when a reporter's copy asserted, without attribution, that most followers of the religious Right are relatively poor, uneducated, and easy to command (it turns out, they're not). Hence the national media found it worthy of comment (which it arguably was) that Bob Dole declined to appear before the NAACP -- but not that Bill Clinton declined to appear before the Christian Coalition.

But what of the press's treatment of Bill Clinton? Clinton staffers and backers argue loudly that the press has been harshly and unfairly critical of Clinton. But a review of the record shows the press tends to cut Clinton slack it never cut George Bush or Ronald Reagan.

Take Clinton's October 1995 statement in Houston that he had raised taxes too much in 1993. Here was the president criticizing the most important policy of his first year, one for which many Democrats went down to defeat in 1994, but it took three days for it to find its way into the Washington Post or New York Times. It ran immediately on the Reuters wire and was highlighted in the Washington Times, whose editor "instantly thought it was a great story." Even then the Post and the Times ignored it for another day -- as they certainly (and correctly) did not ignore George Bush's 1990 reversal of his "read my lips, no new taxes" promise.