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Jewish World Review Dec. 18, 2002 / 13 Teves, 5763

Michael Kelly

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Left Everlasting (Cont'd) | The question posed in my previous column -- "Does a (still) largely liberal news media (still) exhibit a largely liberal bias?" -- can be answered both as a matter of logic and as a matter of fact, and in both cases, the answer is: Sure.

As to logic: "The essential argument by the media is that, yes, most mainstream journalists may be left of center, but they operate in the tradition of objectivity, so this doesn't affect their coverage of the news," notes S. Robert Lichter, president of the independent Center for Media and Public Affairs. "What this argument fails to grasp is the way bias works in people. Yes, journalists tell the truth -- but, like everyone else, they tell the truth as they see it."

As Lichter has written, "Even the most conscientious journalists cannot overcome the subjectivity inherent in their profession, which is expressed through such everyday decisions as whether a topic is newsworthy or a source trustworthy."

To this, we journalists argue that we -- unique among humans -- are able to see the world and its events free from the prejudices of our own vantage points. How can this be? Because, we say, of our professional training and discipline.

But we don't have any professional training or discipline. Journalism is not a profession in the sense of medicine or law or science. Journalists do not go through years of brutal academic apprenticeship designed to inculcate adherence to an agreed-upon code of ethics (such as the Hippocratic oath) or an agreed-upon method of truth-determining (such as the method of scientific inquiry). We are not required to meet any standards of knowledge. We are not certified. We operate under no mandated professional set of rules. We need not even be decently educated, as consumers of news frequently notice.

And even if we really were trained professionals, we still would not be able to attain the godlike ability to perceive and present the "objective" truth on all matters that come before us. Because we are, in fact, not unique among humans.

As to fact: In 17 years of news content analysis, especially of network evening news broadcasts, Lichter's Center for Media and Public Affairs has consistently found evidence of liberal bias, and this has not changed in the past few years.

Some recent findings from content analyses of the nightly network newscasts:

o In the 2000 presidential election, both candidates received mostly negative press, and largely to the same degree: George W. Bush received only 37 percent positive coverage; Al Gore, only 40 percent. By contrast, Bill Clinton received far more positive coverage than his Republican opponents in 1996 and 1992 (in '96, 50 percent positive to Bob Dole's 33 percent; in '92, 52 percent to George H.W. Bush's 29 percent). In the past six presidential elections, coverage favored the Democrat in three, and both the Democrat and the Republican received negative coverage in three ('80, '88 and '00). In none did the coverage favor the Republican.

o "Only 43 percent of all on-air evaluations of George W. Bush were favorable" in Bush's first 100 days in office (compared with a similarly negative 40 percent for Clinton in his first 100). In his first 50 days, Bush received 48 percent positive coverage, but only 36 percent was positive in his second 50. Only 29 percent of on-air evaluations from nonpartisan sources (anchors, reporters, experts, citizens) were positive to Bush.

o Bush did get a terrific bounce from the rallying effect of Sept. 11. From that day through Nov. 19, 2001, Bush "received the most positive coverage ever measured for a president over an extended period of time'' -- 64 percent positive to 36 percent negative. But Bush's high of 77 percent positive that September was down to 59 percent within two months.

o Coverage of the Bush administration's consideration of a military strike against Iraq, as seen in the network newscasts and in front-page New York Times stories from this July 1 through Aug. 25, was 72 percent negative.

Is there nothing at all to the liberal complaint? No, there is something. As the above data suggest, the media are generally more negative toward public figures (including Democratic ones) than they used to be. And while right-leaning media such as talk radio have not, as my colleague E.J. Dionne argues, produced "a media heavily biased toward conservative politics and conservative politicians," they have produced a media universe where anti-establishment right-wingers (and also anti-establishment left-wingers, such as Michael Moore) are able to bypass the establishment media and to create a far more diverse national conversation.

To those long used to a media controlled by, and "news" defined by, their own largely liberal and establishmentarian views, this can seem unfair and wrong -- but this is a case of "been up so long, it seems like down to me," as Lichter puts it. I think to most people it seems more like democracy.

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