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Jewish World Review Dec. 11, 2002 / 6 Teves, 5763

Michael Kelly

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Left everlasting | In its search for What Went Wrong, liberalism has decided to admit that it has a problem. Surprisingly, the problem is us -- the news media. We went wrong, or rather, right. We went and became conservative.

"The media is kind of weird these days on politics, and there are some major institutional voices that are, truthfully speaking, part and parcel of the Republican Party," explains Al Gore. "Most of the media [has] been slow to recognize the pervasive impact of this fifth column in their ranks -- that is, day after day, injecting the daily Republican talking points into the definition of what's objective as stated by the news media as a whole."

What Gore believes, it has become clear, is a new liberal group wisdom: The liberal media are no more; the national press, wittingly or not, now presents the news with a conservative slant.

"The legend of the liberal media is finally dead," announces liberal New York Observer columnist Joe Conason.

"Sooner or later, I think we're all going to have to acknowledge that the myth of the liberal bias in the press is just that, it's a myth," affirms liberal Time magazine columnist Jack White.

The true "new bias" of the media, reports liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., "adds up to [a] media heavily biased toward conservative politics and conservative politicians."

Indeed, agrees Democratic National Committee official Ann Lewis, "the idea of a 'liberal media' is a myth, and any of us could explode that myth in many ways."

"Al Gore said the obvious," writes the liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who now commonly refers to "the liberal media" with sarcastic quotation marks.

Let's begin by considering the "major institutional voices" that Gore named as driving the entire national media rightward, ho.

There are precisely three, all openly conservative: Fox News Channel, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and the Washington Times.

Fox News has surpassed CNN as the news leader on cable, with, as of last week, 800,000 viewers to CNN's 600,000. The evening broadcasts of NBC, ABC, CBS and PBS were viewed last week by, respectively, 11.4 million, 10.5 million, 8.8 million and 2.7 million people. In addition, there are the tens of millions who weekly watch the networks' morning shows and news magazine shows.

The Washington Times has a daily circulation of 109,000. The top 10 newspapers in America -- USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, the (New York) Daily News, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Post and Newsday -- reach roughly 9.8 million people daily. The second 10 largest newspapers reach another 4.3 million readers a day.

Rush Limbaugh's radio show reaches upward of 14.5 million listeners a week. (Fellow right-wing talker Sean Hannity reaches upward of 10 million.) The news magazine programs of National Public Radio draw a combined total of almost 17.2 million people a week. With 714 member stations, NPR can reach 99 percent of the population with its two most carried programs, "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered."

The news organizations listed above make up the heart of the national news media, to which could be added the Associated Press, with 6,700 subscribing news organizations in America, the weekly newsmagazines, with their combined circulation of 9.3 million, and the "serious" and "thought-leader" magazines, with a few more million subscribers. Gore's "major institutional voices" are in fact minor (although frequently loud) voices in a very large symphony.

And this symphony has long been considered to be liberal -- that is, first of all, largely populated by liberals and, second, often presenting the news from a liberal point of view. Has this been true? Is this still true?

As to the first, there is no question that journalists as a group are much more liberal than conservative and much more so than the general public. The independent media analyst S. Robert Lichter looked at 10 major surveys on the political beliefs and voting patterns of mainstream print and broadcast journalists from 1962 to 1996. As Lichter writes, "the pattern of results is compelling." The percentage of journalists who were classified as "liberals" were, survey to survey: 57, 53, 59, 42, 54, 50, 32, 55, 22 and 61. The percentage classified as "conservative," survey by survey: 28, 17, 18, 19, 17, 21, 12, 17, 5 and 9. Voting patterns and findings on specific issues (for instance, regarding abortion, gun control or taxes) have consistently mirrored these general attitudes.

Surveys since have shown no overall change in this dynamic. A 1996 survey of 1,037 reporters at 61 newspapers found 61 percent self-identified as "Democrat or liberal" or "lean to Democrat or liberal," vs. only 15 percent Republican or leaning Republican. A 2001 survey of 301 "media professionals" by Princeton Survey Research Associates found 25 percent self-identified as "liberal," 59 percent as "moderate" and only 6 percent as "conservative."

Next week: Does a (still) largely liberal news media (still) exhibit a largely liberal bias? Or not?

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Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

© 2002, Washington Post Co.