The Magazine

The GOP's Secret Weapon . . .

Yes, it's the New York Times.

Nov 25, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 11 • By BRUCE BARTLETT
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CONSERVATIVES COMPLAIN constantly (and rightly) about the liberal bias of the major media. What they don't realize, however, is that this bias probably hurts liberals more than it helps them. The Republican victory this fall is a case in point.

One way media bias hurts liberals is by giving them a false sense of security. There is a tendency for those in public office to judge their performance on the basis of day-to-day press coverage. If a congressman or senator gets good press, he assumes he is doing a good job.

But if the media share the lawmaker's political philosophy, then there is a danger that he may be misled. He may think he is popular with voters, when in fact they are not happy with him at all. He is only getting positive press coverage because the media like what he stands for.

Good examples of this are abortion, gun control, and campaign finance reform. A survey of the pressroom in any major newspaper, newsweekly, or television network will show overwhelming support for abortion on demand, restrictive gun control, and severe limits on campaign contributions. Any candidate espousing such views will generally get positive press coverage for them.

The problem is that the nation is split on these issues, in contrast to the monolithic view of the press. In the case of gun control, in particular, Democrats have had to backtrack from their hardline anti-gun position in recent years, lest they lose the last few rural members of their party in Congress.

Consequently, press bias is a two-edged sword. It irritates the heck out of conservatives, but at the same time induces a sense of complacency among liberals that can be exploited. The latter are, in effect, urged farther to the left by the media than is politically prudent, setting the stage for conservative upsets.

Another way liberal bias hurts liberals is that it causes reporters to underplay, overlook, and often completely ignore important political trends.

A good example of this is religion. Most reporters, in my observation, are agnostics. Those who are religious at all usually belong to mainline churches and denominations. Very, very few would consider themselves fundamentalists, or orthodox, within whatever religion they belong to.

And yet fundamentalism and the return to orthodoxy have been the most important religious trends of the last three decades. All the mainline Protestant denominations are losing members, while conservative Christian churches continue to grow. Among Jews as well, conservative and orthodox congregations have grown steadily at the expense of the reformed majority. And, of course, we are all too well aware that fundamentalism among Muslims has become the Western world's dominant foreign policy problem.

The point is that if a newspaper has not one person on its staff who is a religious conservative, how is that paper going to have any clue about what is going on among those who share such beliefs? A good reporter, to be sure, can cover any issue well, given time and resources. But what is going to trigger his editor's interest in covering the deeply religious when neither has much knowledge of that community in the first place?

The irony is that those in the media understand this fact perfectly well when it comes to race, ethnicity, and gender. They are obsessed with increasing the number of blacks, Latinos, and women in the media, and the rationale is the need to better cover stories of interest to these groups. Yet the same logic holds for many other groups in society, including religious fundamentalists and political conservatives, for whom no similar outreach effort is ever pursued.

The result is a blind spot for the media. They miss a lot of what is going on in society because they just don't see it. Newsrooms today are echo chambers, where reporters and editors hear the same liberal conventional wisdom over and over again.

All of this hurts Democrats far more than they know. To the extent that they pay attention to their media coverage, they are cut off from the mainstream of society without even realizing it, implicitly believing that Peoria thinks like the New York Times. Indeed, since the Times has become a virtual newsletter for the Democratic party, it surely deserves some of the blame for the Democrats' 25-year trend from dominant political party to what looks like long-term minority status.

Therefore, conservatives should stop worrying so much about liberal media bias. It exists and probably always will. Conservatives are not wrong to remind themselves that if it were up to the major media, not one of them would hold office anywhere in America. But if I'm correct about the effects of liberal bias, conservatives probably owe at least a silent nod of thanks to the media for their current majority.

Bruce Bartlett is a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis. He writes a nationally syndicated column for Creators Syndicate.