The Blog


12:00 AM, Oct 7, 1996 • By MICHAEL BARONE
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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.