The Magazine


Jun 30, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 41 • By VINCENT CARROLL
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Press critics, Dennis writes, "ignore the political predilections of publishers and media owners, which have always been overwhelmingly conservative. They ignore the tilt of newspaper editorial endorsements, which frequently favor Republican candidates. . . . They ignore the influence of market forces, which serve as a natural check on journalistic partisanship. They ignore the professional principles to which credible journalists subscribe. They ignore the astonishing diversity of the American press. And, perhaps most importantly, they ignore the conspicuous paucity of research demonstrating a pervasive bias in news content."

In fact, thoughtful press critics ignore none of these things. They know that bias is hard to quantify and that good journalists of whatever background try to be fair. Good historians also try to be fair; they too strive to maintain certain professional standards. Yet would anyone seriously argue that historians' political and social views have nothing to do with the sorts of questions they choose to research?

For that matter, far from ignoring the "astonishing diversity of the American press," the critics celebrate it -- so much so that they often exaggerate the agendasetting reach of alternative media such as talk radio. And as for Dennis's curious implication that publishers and owners micromanage newsrooms, perhaps this Freedom Forum scholar should spend more time in them and see for himself.

He might also wish to read a few more of the nation's editorial pages. Although a majority of newspapers do usually endorse the Republican presidential candidate, that fact says very little about the editorial philosophies of most large dailies. Four of this nation's five largest newspapers have liberal editorial pages, and left-leaning editorial staffs predominate through at least the top 100 papers (by which point markets are the size of Lexington, Ky., and Worcester, Mass.). The ASNE survey itself attests to liberal dominance among editorial writers: Nearly twice as many declare themselves liberal/Democratic or leaning that way as declare the alternative (45 percent to 23 percent).

Finally, Dennis's suggestion that the popularity of conservatives on op-ed pages and in talk radio disproves the charge of a liberal media slant itself hardly merits refuting. Most Americans, of course, get their news from print and broadcast reporters and anchors, not from George Will or Rush Limbaugh.

Perhaps this realization accounts for the remarkable reaction of Stan Tiner to the ASNE poll results. Tiner is the editor of the Mobile Register, and in the same issue of the American Editor in which Dennis's argument appears, Tiner recommends that journalists swear off answering such surveys, " the results of which are to subject my colleagues and me to the pain of public pillory." Let's stonewall, in other words, rather than submit to full disclosure and public debate.

Over time, the tactic might even work. Meanwhile, the poll results speak for themselves.

Vincent Carroll's piece on the obituaries of Allen Ginsberg ran in our April 21 issue.