Going into Tuesday’s election, polls show Democrat Barack Obama with a modest lead over Republican John McCain, but one group whose support of Obama should not be in doubt is the national media. Surveys of journalists conducted over the past three decades show the media elite are extremely consistent in choosing Democratic candidates on Election Day.
If only journalists were permitted to vote, we would never have had a President Reagan or a President Bush, but would have instead faced Presidents McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis and Kerry. It wouldn’t have been close.
In their 1986 book, The Media Elite, political scientists S. Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman and Linda S. Lichter reported the results of their survey of 240 journalists at the nation’s top media outlets: ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report. When asked about their voting patterns, journalists admitted their preference for Democrats:
Of those who say they voted for major party candidates, the proportion of leading journalists who supported the Democratic candidate never drops below 80 percent. In 1972, when more than 60 percent of all voters chose Nixon, over 80 percent among the media elite voted for McGovern. This does not appear to reflect any unique aversion to Nixon. Despite the well-publicized tensions between the press and his administration, leading journalists in 1976 preferred Carter over Ford by the same margin. In fact, in the Democratic landslide of 1964, journalists picked Johnson over Goldwater by a sixteen-to-one margin, or 94 to 6 percent.
Lichter’s team focused on journalists at the very top national news organizations. Other surveys of journalists have discovered that the whole profession shares the same liberal bent, although the media elite’s liberalism is the most extreme:
■ Journalists Picked Carter over Reagan: In 1982, scholars at California State University at Los Angeles asked reporters from the fifty largest newspapers for whom they voted in 1980. The breakdown: 51 percent cast a ballot for President Jimmy Carter and another 24 percent chose independent candidate (and liberal Republican Congressman) John Anderson. Only 25 percent picked conservative Ronald Reagan, who won 51 percent of the public’s vote that year.
■ Journalists Picked Mondale over Reagan: In 1985, the Los Angeles Times polled news and editorial staffers at newspapers around the country, weighting the sample so that newspapers with large circulations were more heavily represented. Once again, pollsters discovered a heavy Democratic skew. When asked how they voted in the 1984 election, more than twice as many chose liberal Walter Mondale (58 percent) over the conservative incumbent Ronald Reagan (26 percent), even as the country picked Reagan in a 59 to 41 percent landslide.
■ The White House Press Corps Voted for Democrats: In early 1995, Ken Walsh of U.S. News & World Report asked his fellow White House reporters to fill out a survey for a book he was writing; 28 returned his questionnaire. He concluded that “the White House press corps is overwhelmingly Democratic, confirming a stereotype often promoted by Republicans.” Interestingly, he also learned how much reporters dislike being on the receiving end of personal inquiries: “Even though the survey was anonymous, many journalists declined to reveal their party affiliations, whom they voted for in recent presidential elections, and other data they regarded as too personal — even though they regularly pressure Presidents and other officials to make such disclosures,” Walsh related in his 1996 book, Feeding the Beast: The White House Versus the Press.
So what did the few forthright scribes reveal? As with larger, more scientific surveys, Walsh discovered “evidence of an overwhelming preference for Democrats in presidential elections. In 1992, nine respondents voted for Clinton, two for George Bush, and one for independent Ross Perot....In 1988, twelve voted for Democrat Michael Dukakis, only one for Bush....In 1984, ten voted for Democrat Walter Mondale, [and] no one admitted voting for Ronald Reagan....In 1980, eight voted for Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter, two voted for Ronald Reagan, four voted for independent candidate John Anderson....In 1976, eleven voted for Carter and two for Republican incumbent Gerald Ford.” That adds up to 50 votes for Democrats and just seven for Republicans, a seven-to-one ratio in favor of the Democrats.
■ Huge Majorities for Dukakis and Clinton: In 2001, Stanley Rothman and Amy E. Black updated the Media Elite’s survey of journalists, and learned that reporters continued to select Democrats. “Three-quarters of elite journalists (76.1 percent)...voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988, and even larger percentages (91.3 percent)...cast ballots for Bill Clinton in 1992,” they reported in the Spring 2001 edition of The Public Interest. Voters were far less exuberant about those liberal candidates, as just 46 percent chose Dukakis and only 43 percent picked Clinton, who nevertheless won a three-way race.
■ Nine Out of Ten Reporters Voted for Clinton: Rothman and Black’s survey closely matched a Freedom Forum poll of Washington bureau chiefs and congressional correspondents, which found 89 percent had voted for Clinton in the 1992 election, compared with seven percent for President Bush and two percent for Ross Perot. “In no state or region, among no race or class, did support for Clinton predominate more lopsidedly than among this sample of 139 journalists who either cover Congress or head a Washington bureau,” summarized Minneapolis Star-Tribune media writer Eric Black in an August 18, 1996 article.
The Freedom Forum was not aiming to embarrass journalists by quantifying their liberalism. The report, on relations between Capitol Hill staffers and Washington, D.C. reporters, was released in April 1996, and the data on journalists’ voting pattern was buried in an appendix. The study’s director, former Chicago Tribune reporter Elaine Povich, gamely asserted that reporters’ heavy preference for Bill Clinton did not mean that journalists’ were incapable of being objective. “One of the things about being a professional is that you attempt to leave your personal feelings aside as you do your work,” Povich told the Washington Times on April 18, 1996.
■ Journalists for John Kerry: New York Times columnist John Tierney surveyed 153 campaign journalists at a press party at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, and found a huge preference for Democratic Senator John Kerry over incumbent Republican President George W. Bush, particular among journalists based in Washington, D.C. He found that journalists from outside Washington preferred Kerry by a three-to-one margin, while those who work inside the Beltway favored Kerry’s election by a 12-to-1 ratio.
After the election, in March and April 2005, the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy surveyed 300 journalists nationwide — 120 who worked in the television industry and 180 who worked at newspapers. They found journalists favored Kerry over Bush by a wide margin, 52 percent to 19 percent (with 1 percent choosing far-left independent candidate Ralph Nader). One out of five journalists (21 percent) refused to disclose their vote, while another six percent either didn’t vote or said they did not know for whom they voted.
Taken as a whole, these polls firmly establish the press’s pattern of preferring Democrats at the voting booth. During the nine presidential elections for which data on the media’s preferences are available, each Democrat won landslide support from journalists, sometimes by four-to-one or five-to-one margins. The percentage of reporters selecting the GOP candidate never exceeded 26 percent, even as the public chose Republicans in five of the eight elections, with margins of support ranging from a low of 38 percent (Bush in 1992) to a high of 61 percent (Nixon in 1972).
At a minimum, these statistics portray a media elite whose political thinking is to the left of most Americans. Hosting CNN’s Reliable Sources on April 21, 1996, Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz reacted to the Freedom Forum’s poll: “Clearly anybody looking at those numbers, if they’re even close to accurate, would conclude that there is a diversity problem in the news business, and it’s not just the kind of diversity we usually talk about, which is not getting enough minorities in the news business, but political diversity, as well. Anybody who doesn’t see that is just in denial.”