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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.

This is pretty much standard operating procedure in the mainline press: little or no truth-squadding of Clinton statements, little or no scrutiny of inconsistencies and policy switches. It just doesn't seem to occur to a monopartisan press that there could be stories here.

As for media scandal-mongering, start with the original Whitewater story. It was broken in March 1992 by Jeff Gerth in the New York Times but abandoned by just about everyone when the Clinton campaign presented an exonerating report written by a Clinton pal. Or recall the Washington Post's hesitancy to run the story of Clinton's abusing his office by using Arkansas state troopers to procure women -- a hesitancy that reached the point of fisticuffs between an editor who didn't want to run the story and a reporter who did. The Post finally ran it only after the American Spectator did. Similarly, new revelations are treated as "nothing new," scandal stories are dropped after one day, and the motives of Clinton's congressional supporters on scandals are not scrutinized. This is not exactly the way the press covered Watergate.

Or consider the mainline press's coverage of the Clinton White House's FBI files. These had been concealed for years and were only revealed when they were produced in response to a House-committee subpoena. The first story, that the White House had requested the FBI file of former White House travel office head Billy Dale almost a year after he had been fired, made page A-4 of the Washington Post and A-24 of the New York Times. The even more explosive story that the Clinton White House had obtained hundreds of FBI files of former Bush administration officials, made page A-8 of the June 8 New York Times, which even led with a White House official's statement that the request was "an innocent mistake"! Only as the count of FBI files reached past 300 to 900, and the administration's explanations of how they had been innocently obtained became totally implausible, did the FBI files make the front page of the Times.

So it has gone these past few weeks, in the heart of the campaign season. The FDIC inspector general issues a report saying Hillary Rodham Clinton prepared a document used to "deceive" federal regulators: It makes the front page of the Washington Post and Washington Times but is played up little elsewhere, and except for conservative outlets dropped after a day. This is not how a similar revelation about a Republican would have been played during the "decade of greed."

Bill Clinton in an interview with Jim Lehrer dangles a pardon in front of Whitewater defendants even as he makes the preposterous charge that Kenneth Starr is trying to force Susan McDougal to lie (preposterous because if she merely repeats her trial testimony she gets out of jail): The attack on Starr is given some uncritical play but the pardon ploy is mostly ignored, except by conservatives like William Satire. (It will be interesting to see whether reporters press Clinton to commit to making no pardons.)

The Senate Judiciary Committee reveals there is a six-month gap in the log of the White House's FBI files: A-10 in the Washington Post, no mention at all in a B-13 story on the subject in the New York Times. Not exactly the way the 18-and-a-half-minute gap in the White House tapes was treated. On scandal, as on policy issues, there is what Robert Samuelson in the Washington Post described as "an imbalance in election press coverage. Bob Dole's dubious claims have been examined closely and properly so," Samuelson continued. "But Clinton's deceptions have been largely ignored."

All of which is quite astonishing. It is inconceivable that a story that a Republican White House had improperly obtained hundreds of FBI files on its political enemies would not have immediately made the front pages of leading papers, quite possibly with screaming headlines. And it is a matter of record that mainline media now treat current congressional investigations as partisan Republican enterprises, even though they treated 1980s investigations run by Democrats as official and congressional.

People in the mainline media, remembering Watergate and Iran-contra, are exquisitely alert to the possibility of scandal in, and violations of civil liberties by, a Republican administration, but they evidently consider such developments so unlikely in a Democratic administration that they reflexively ignore or downplay any evidence of them. So, without necessarily any conscious partisan intention, they have a far less hearty appetite for stories of scandal in this administration, for which 89 percent of them voted, than they did in administrations that a similar percentage of them voted against.

As the Clinton administration, for all its complaints about scandal coverage, knows. Last spring, when Gary Aldrich's Unlimited Access came out, the New York Post's Deborah Orin asked White House press secretary Mike McCurry questions about the White House's hiring of staffers with recent drug problems. McCurry responded in high dudgeon -- the standard Clinton-team response to suggestions that this president or this administration is not completely pure -- and "challenged anyone else to ask the question, and no one would," says Orin. Or as USA Today's Richard Benedetto noted after watching the White House press corps follow Clinton through six states in four days: "What was eyebrow-raising was that at no time did this reputedly tough band of politically savvy writers clamor for the president to present himself." Even Sam Donaldson, who returned to covering the White House for a week in September, was amazed at how docile the reporters are around Clinton.

Has mainline media bias been getting worse? My sense is that it has. Newsroom cultures are becoming mono-partisan partly because of quota hiring and partly because people who don't toe the liberal line have the impression they wouldn't be happy there. And on at least some issues -- notably abortion -- journalists are increasingly unapologetic or even proud of their partisanship.

But the increase in bias is likely to make the media less effective over time. People are not always fooled. Half a century ago, when most media leaned Republican, Americans voted five times for Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman; over the last 30 years, as the mainline media have leaned farther and farther left, Americans have voted Republican for president five out of seven times. Already there are clear signs that millions of Americans are fleeing from the mainline media as Germans once fled East Berlin. Newspaper circulation has fallen from 62 million in 1970 to 60 million in 1994, even as households increased from 63 million to 97 million. Networknewscast viewership peaked at 41 percent of households in 1980-81 and has fallen to 28 percent in 199495. Changes in lifestyle (two-worker families) and technology (50-channel cable) account for some of this change, but not all, for much of the flight has been to media that are antique: Rush Limbaugh broadcasts on AM radio, which started in 1920, and Newt Gingrich reaches his admirers with books, a medium that dates from 1456. Media bias may be making it marginally harder for Republicans to beat Bill Clinton and hold Congress this year, but over time its real victims are likely not to be conservative politicians but the monopartisan media themselves.

Michael Barone is a senior editor of U.S. News & World Report.