Conservative Books and "Studies" Alleging "Liberal
BOOK: “The Media Elite: America’s New Powerbrokers” by S. Robert
Lichter, Linda S. Lichter and Stanley Rothman (a 1986 book that was
used extensively by the Right to claim that a “liberal media”
exists, even though the authors DID NOT - at that time)
addressed this book (which was the first serious follow-up from
the Right after Efron's discredited book) in some detail (pages
84-89). In an interview years after the book was published, the book's
first author stated that the book did not prove "liberal
bias", even though many commentators on the Right claimed it did.
If anything, as Brock points out, the book proved that journalists
views were likely more conservative than the general public on
economic issues and on social issues their views were reasonably close
to mainstream American views.
Some of the important points made by Brock are noted below
(bold text is eRiposte emphasis):
The Media Elite
employed a method that was
"empirical and systematic rather than impressionistic and
anecdotal," according to the authors. The first section was an
"ideological profile" that compared the voting habits and
personal beliefs of 238 working journalists at the nation's top
three newspapers and newsmagazines, and the three TV networks, to
those of CEOs and other top executives at six Fortune 500 companies.
The findings that headlined the study were that the media voted more
Democratic than the country on the whole and that on a battery of
questions measuring economic and social views, the "media
elite" was to the left of the "business elite."
The revelation that
most reporters surveyed voted Democratic, even in years of
Republican landslides like 1972, was one from which the media's
reputation for objectivity probably never recovered. Most people are
not trained journalists. They either don't know, or don't believe,
that the profession aspires to impartiality. They have little idea
of how competitive and commercial concerns, pressure to conform,
deference to power, a desire to avoid being labeled
"liberal" by right-wing critics, and myriad other biases
can influence a story at the expense of any personal political
beliefs. They do know that
news stories are not churned out by a computer and that personal
judgments must enter into the equation somewhere along the line;
they presume that politics naturally does, too. For many, this
one statistic about how workaday reporters and editors tend to vote,
and the attendant presumption that voting habits determined any bias
in their work, closed the case before the subject of the voting
patterns of media owners, executives, and top editors could even be
broached. That was a question, among many others, that The Media
Elite hadn't bothered to ask.
The Lichters used a very
small sample to reach their sweeping conclusions. The study relied
on the voluntary responses of 238 print and broadcast journalists
out of 210,000 editors and reporters and 47,000 TV journalists then
working in the field.21 And the Lichters' ideological
profiling was slippery. By choosing the "business
elite," a traditionally conservative group, as a point of
comparison, rather than, say, teachers, or truck drivers, or even a
sampling of general American public opinion, the authors seemed
predetermined to make the media appear more liberal and out of touch
with mainstream values than it actually was.22
majority of the media was conservative on five of six
economic questions. For instance, 63 percent of the media
favored less regulation of the economy. The book made the media
look liberal on this question only in relation to the business
elite, which favored deregulation by 86 percent.
On seven social questions, the study established that the
majority of the media favored liberal positions down the line. The
media were "strong supporters of environmental protection,
affirmative action, women's rights, homosexual rights, and sexual
freedom," the authors wrote. Yet the Lichters coded the
responses in such a way as to make the media appear more liberal
than it was. For example, one question asked whether the government
should regulate people's sex lives - something most liberals and
most conservatives would likely oppose, although this view was
treated as solely liberal. Nine of ten Americans consider themselves
environmentalists, a "liberal" position, perhaps, but one
that is held by most Americans.
Indeed, though the researchers strongly implied it, they did not
assert that the media's liberal social views were out of sync with
those of most Americans, which, after all, was the whole point
of designating the media as an "elite" in the first place.
The plain fact is that, even accepting the Lichters' data as
representative of the media as a whole, the personal views of
media professionals - favoring racial and sexual equality, working
towards a clean environment, tolerating diversity - are shared by
most Americans. In the rnid-1980s and even more so today, these
social views are thoroughly mainstream. In addressing this point,
the authors could say only that the media's social views made them
"natural opponents of the Moral Majority."
"Liberal bias" was a handy rallying point that the
Lichters failed not only to prove, but to even charge.
Though the book's
reviewers suggested the opposite, the authors concluded that the
media was not liberally biased - a concept the authors defined as
calculatedly unfair. They stated flatly that the media's social
liberalism did not manifest itself in coverage of Democrats or
Republicans, of legislative debates, or even of liberals and
conservatives. They pointed to the great ideological diversity
within news organizations, claiming that the Washington Post
was more "pro-environment" but far more economically
conservative than the New York Times. Many
years later, in a 1997 interview with the Moonie magazine Insight,
Robert Lichter said: "Conservative columnists all over the
place were saying that we proved that there was a liberal bias in
the press, which at the time we had not."
To prove that reporters' personal views played some role in their
stories, the researchers analyzed media coverage of nuclear power,
school busing, and the oil industry, using a putative empirical
device known as "content analysis." While significant
differences among the news organizations suggested that the media
was hardly an ideological monolith...the authors claimed to find a
pattern: Media sympathies were with nuclear safety and busing to
achieve integration and against price gouging by the oil industry.
The Lichters did not say
why these so-called biases were objectionable. But in any case,
the authors were unable to prove the truth of their claim, as the
methodology they employed was dubious. For example, the survey
was conducted during the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. With
the authors counting every story on reactor safety during the period
as biased against the nuclear power industry, the results were
At several points in the book, the authors knocked down entirely
the idea that the media's "ideological profile" biased its
coverage. For example, they wrote: "When leading
journalists confront new information, they usually manage to process
it without interjecting their own viewpoints." When book
was published, and its scientific claims were challenged, the
authors backed off further. "The findings that should be
understood tell us only about the backgrounds and attitudes of
journalists as individuals. They do not tell us about the content
of the news they present, nor indeed whether the content is affected
by their personal views at all," Robert Lichter and Stanley
Rothman wrote in the Washington Post.
Additionally, Brock refers
study/report from Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR):
The conservative critique of the news media rests on two general
propositions: (1) journalists' views are to the left of the public,
and (2) journalists frame news content in a way that accentuates
these left perspectives. Previous research has revealed persuasive
evidence against the latter claim, but the validity of the former
claim has often been taken for granted. This research project
examined the supposed left orientation of media personnel by
surveying Washington-based journalists who cover national politics
and/or economic policy at US outlets.
The findings include:
On select issues
from corporate power and trade to Social Security and Medicare
to health care and taxes, journalists are actually more
conservative than the general public.
mostly centrist in their political orientation.
The minority of
journalists who do not identify with the "center" are
more likely to identify with the "right" when it comes
to economic issues and to identify with the "left"
when it comes to social issues.
that "business-oriented news outlets" and "major
daily newspapers" provide the highest quality coverage of
economic policy issues, while "broadcast network TV
news" and "cable news services" provide the
I am not reproducing the
detailed stats from FAIR's report. Click
here to review them.
Additionally, studies like
Lichter's usually sidestep the issue of how the bosses of journalists
vote or what their ideology is - which has been shown in studies to be
a more accurate predictor of bias (see Sec.
4.1). Brock quotes former Associated Press CEO Louis Boccardi, who
said in 2003: "Most media are owned by Republican
conservatives." More on the topic of how media
editors/publishers/owners vote (among other things) in Sec.
also runs the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA). As I've
shown elsewhere, the
approach they use to assess media bias is not credible and their
reports are often highly misleading.
For example, Lichter seems to
like misrepresenting the conclusions of his studies. This is evident
from this post by Heather at Here's
What's Left, on a separate "study" on "liberal
bias" in academia:
Our new hobby is writing letters to people that are
sure to disregard us. Today's letter is to the Washington
Times with regard to their coverage of a study on the political
orientation of university faculty. We talk about it here
and Ezra talks about it here.
The study itself is problematic (more on this later), but what
caught our attention is that the Wash Times article quotes one of
the study's authors as drawing conclusions that are the exact
opposite of what he himself said in the study. Here's the
letter, with emphasis added:
On March 30, the Washington Times published a piece by Joyce
Howard Price, entitled “Study Finds Liberals Dominate
article quotes one of the study’s authors S. Robert Lichter as
saying the following: "…this is the first study that
statistically proves bias [against conservatives]
in the hiring and promotion of faculty members."
study itself says: “The results do not
definitively prove that ideology accounts for
differences in professional standing.
It is entirely possible that other unmeasured factors may
account for those variations.” (p. 13)
The claim Lichter makes in your article stands in direct
contradiction to the statements he makes in his own study.
Isn’t it the job of your publication to point out this
sort of inconsistency?
Just after I sent this letter, I looked at the Wash Times article
again and realized that not only had they not (apparently) read the
study, or checked into potential issues with it, but they also
hadn't even presented a opposing viewpoint.
on this particular study in Sec.