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Published on Thursday, December 14, 2000 in the St Paul Pioneer Press
Persistent Drumbeat About Left-Leaning Media, However Faulty, Now Seems Frozen Into Fact
by Geneva Overholser
How I'd love to drive a stake in the notion that newspapers lean relentlessly leftward.

Not that it's possible. Oh, sure, you liberals agree with my thesis; but you already considered the left-leaning-media notion a mirage. If you're a conservative, there'll be no changing your mind. You've begun searching for the right name for me -- ``pea brain'' perhaps -- and this is only the second paragraph.

Besides, there's way too much invested in this fiction. Media empires (think Fox) are built on it. Countless careers, a remarkable proportion of them blonde, are built on it. And much of the great political posturing of our times, look at the U.S. Senate leadership, would collapse without it.

The liberal-media charge has so seeped into the public mind that, for some, it's frozen into fact. In a recent Gallup Poll, 29 percent of respondents said news media favor Democrats, 15 percent said Republicans. Four percent see both parties as victims of bias, and 41 percent said political reporting favors neither side.

But whistling in the wind never hurt anyone; let's insert a few facts into the picture. A week before the election, the trade weekly Editor & Publisher asked 193 newspaper editors and publishers whom they'd be voting for, and who they thought would win. More than 46 percent said they'd vote for George W. Bush. Just under 24 percent said Al Gore.

Asked who would carry their home states, the executives produced an electoral vote victory of 301 for Bush against 237 for Gore. To complete the Bush sweep, newspapers endorsed him by about 2 to 1 nationally.

OK. I hear you: That's the executives. The rank and file produce the coverage, and we all know they're lefties.

So what does the coverage look like? Turn to another survey, from the Project for Excellence in Journalism, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. It looked at the culminating weeks of the presidential race and found that ``Gore's coverage was decidedly more negative, more focused on the internal politics of campaigning and had less to do with citizens.''

And the Project found similar patterns earlier. ``In a study of primary coverage leading up to the conventions, we found the press far more likely to cover the subjects Bush wanted to run on -- such as the idea that he was a different kind of Republican -- than it was to cover the subjects that Gore wanted to run on -- such as his knowledge and experience.''

We in the media like to believe we spread our favors and our flaw-seeking gazes equally. But most of us would acknowledge we operate by zigs and zags, rushing from one side of the ship to the other to balance it. One moment everybody's focusing on Bush's lack of verbal agility; the next, Gore's penchant for exaggeration. The hope is that, taken together, it points in the direction of accuracy.

But here's another element to throw in. Just as a zag there comes in reaction to a zig here, there is an overall tendency to swerve in reaction to the most common criticism: that the press leans to the left.

You cannot be in the media, and especially the national media, without hearing this drumbeat: The press is unfair to Republicans, to conservatives, to the right in general. It has enough elements of truth to cow journalists into being almost convinced. Surveys show that journalists are indeed likelier to be Democrats. And we do find it difficult to draw nuanced pictures of those very different from us. The press is persistently unfair, for example, to fundamentalist Christians.

This tends, however, to be an equal-opportunity weakness. The same problem occurs with black radicals. Or vegan peacenik feminists. When portraying someone who seems truly bizarre, the press does not reach far for subtlety.

But because the right has become so adept at leveling the charge -- and because the media are worried about the degree of truth in it -- theirs is the charge that is heard. And responded to. See an appealing Republican candidate and what do we in the media do? Embrace him with eagerness well beyond the norm, so eager are we to demonstrate our fairness.

Confronted with someone who reminds us very much of ourselves -- a Bill Clinton, say -- we'll do our damnedest to prove our balance by lurching sporadically into hyper-attack.

Bending over backward is a poor way to balance. Listening to our journalistic consciences, oxymoronic as that might sound, would produce better results. If only the right-wing hollering weren't drowning them out.

© 2000 PioneerPlanet / St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press


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