WASHINGTON JOURNALISTS are generally thought to be more liberal than their colleagues in the hinterland, and the perception is understandable. If 89 percent of journalists in the nation's capital really did vote for Bill Clinton in 1992, as a survey by the Freedom Forum suggested, then they rival the Modern Language Association for uniformity of political views.
Yet it turns out that the hinterland is not so very far behind. Earlier this year, the American Society of Newspaper Editors released a survey of newspaper journalists that not only confirmed their liberal tilt, but suggested the ideological gap is growing. Indeed, compare this year's poll results with the last such, in 1988, and the conclusion is inescapable. In the earlier poll, 22 percent of newsroom employees still identified themselves as conservative/Republican or leaning in that direction. By 1996, that percentage had collapsed to 15. Liberal/Democrats and those leaning their way meanwhile hardly changed: They constituted 62 percent of newsrooms in 1988 and 61 percent eight years later.
Taken at face value, the most recent figures translate into terribly lopsided newsrooms -- four liberals for every conservative. It so happens, however, that the imbalance is even worse at papers with circulations of more than 50,000. There, 65 percent of employees declared themselves liberal/Democrat versus a mere 12 percent conservative/Republican, for a ratio of 5.4 to 1. To put it another way, roughly one out of 10 newsroom employees at medium and large papers is likely to share the political orientation of the majority party in the 105th Congress, while six or seven of those same 10 employees are likely to share the views of the congressional opposition.
And that probably understates the tilt. For professional reasons, many journalists resist making political declarations, presumably even to pollsters. Yet anyone who spends much time in America's newsrooms cannot help noticing how many journalists who label themselves "independent" in fact espouse opinions compatible with the left. In short, it is hard to believe that the liberal contingent in many large newsrooms is not 70 percent or more.
The ASNE survey report -- "The newspaper journalists of the '90s," by Prof. Paul S. Voakes of the Indiana University School of Journalism -- reflects answers from 1,037 journalists questioned last fall. And although the report is forthright about the predominance of liberals, nowhere in the 60-page document does that fact evoke concern. Instead, all desire to remake newsrooms is lavished on the goal of boosting the percentages of women and minorities -- whose numbers actually have been on the rise. (One example: 50 percent of the surveyed journalists under 30 were women.) "Lavished" may even understate the attention to ethnic diversity, since the survey findings are followed by the reactions of no fewer than five representatives of minority interest groups (the national associations of black, Asian-American, African- American, Hispanic, and gay and lesbian journalists). Then it's the turn of the Philadelphia Inquirer's Gene Foreman, chair of ASNE's Human Resources Committee. His "Messages for Managers" offers suggestions on everything from despondent copy editors to repetitive stress syndrome -- as well as more on the "commitment to diversity" -- but nary a word about monochromatic newsroom politics.
To a point, this silence is understandable. The pool of applicants at most papers these days is not exactly teeming with conservatives. What is a poor editor to do? If he publicly worries about the ideological imbalance, he undermines the credibility of his own product. He also feeds the hostility of unsophisticated readers -- and there are droves of them -- who perceive bias and conspiracy in the placement of every photo and in routine coverage of legitimate stories. Silence, then, is only prudent. It is the active denials of any cause for concern that are galling.
One of the more comprehensive denials -- "Liberal reporters, yes, liberal slant no!" -- was published this year by ASNE itself, in the American Editor. Its author, Everette Dennis, pulls out every chestnut on behalf of a position that is implausible on its face: The collective political orientation of journalists in no way affects their work.
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.