Ex-Newsweek Writer: Conservatives ‘Exaggerat[e]’ Media Bias, But Ideology ‘Sometimes Bleed[s] Into’ Coverage

October 30th, 2014 12:09 AM

Steven Waldman’s career in journalism has included a long stint as a Washington correspondent for Newsweek and another as the editor-in-chief of the religion-centered website Beliefnet. For two years in Obama's first term, Waldman was a senior adviser to the Federal Communications Commission, tasked with "leading an agency-wide effort to assess the state of media and make recommendations designed to ensure a vibrant media landscape."

In a Monday piece for the Washington Monthly’s site, Waldman, regarding the recent Pew Research Center survey on where Americans get their news, stated that the report’s “most interesting finding” was “the deep alienation of conservatives from mainstream media.”

He then delved into whether that alienation is well-founded, remarking that “there’s a grain of truth” to certain complaints about liberal bias. He noted, for example, that “the largely pro-choice nature of the press corps makes it hard for reporters to understand the non-cynical, philosophical nature of” pro-life views. Waldman maintained, however, that journalists’ careerism and contrarianism -- “the general tendency of reporters to be skeptical of ‘the powerful’” -- influence coverage much more than ideology does.

From Waldman’s piece (emphasis added):

[A]mong the 36 outlets [Pew] studied, there was only one - The Wall Street Journal - that had positive levels of trust among both consistently liberal and consistently conservative Americans.

This was not because of ideological polarization (liberals trust plenty of outlets). It is because conservatives trust so few...

Indeed, among the eight news sources they trusted, only [the WSJ] can really even be described as a neutral journalistic organization. The others are proudly ideological: The Sean Hannity Show, Breitbart, Drudge, The Glenn Beck Program, The Rush Limbaugh Show and Fox News...

Is there any truth to the claims of media bias? At the heart of the argument is the observation that most reporters are liberal. When I worked at newsmagazines, I would look around at my peers and think, yes, more of them are probably liberal than conservative. When I was national editor of US News I even engaged in what I called “conservative affirmative action,” hiring a couple of talented conservative writers (Michael Gerson and Major Garrett) to provide greater diversity of sourcing and perspectives.

Conservatives then go on to say that this numerical superiority of liberals creates bias against their worldview. Again there’s a grain of truth, especially as it relates to the topics pursued. Reporters are genuinely more interested in, say, the plight of the poor than the plight of the small businessman burdened by regulations...

But where the conservative critique, in my experience, goes off the rails is in exaggerating the significance of those tendencies and misunderstanding the far more powerful institutional and commercial biases that actually shape mainstream media.

Indeed, to a professional journalist, the idea that our ideological proclivities drive our coverage is actually a non-sequitur. It’s somewhat like saying a conservative surgeon would only operate on Republican patients or a liberal mailman would only deliver to homes with Obama signs. On some level, the conservative critique assumes that there’s no such thing as journalism as a profession, bound by a certain code of ethics, reinforced by a professional culture.

What are the more important professional pressures, mores or biases?

…In my experience, there tends to be a bias toward contrarianism among reporters and toward establishmentarianism and centrism among media executives. The general tendency of reporters to be skeptical of “the powerful” may sometimes tip them against the wealthy but more often it makes them antagonistic to whoever holds office. (When I was at Newsweek, the contempt for the Clintons was intense)…

Most important, there is a “bias” toward career advancement, which invariably creates the drive to get scoops or drive traffic…rarely with an ideological motivation.

In fact, while reporters are a notably secular lot, they are the most moralistic people I know - as they tend to reject relativism and think there is actually such a thing as “truth”…

…[Y]es, ideological biases can sometimes bleed into journalistic choices. (The largely pro-choice nature of the press corps makes it hard for reporters to understand the non-cynical, philosophical nature of the anti-abortion position).

But on balance these are minor factors compared to powerful forces pushing in other directions, some noble (professional commitment to truth), some less so (need to boost circulation).

The alienation of conservatives from high quality journalism…lead[s] to the polarization described in the Pew report [and] to the erosion of a public demand for “objective” journalism.

This, combined with a growing sense on the left that the mainstream media cannot be trusted (because it’s too corporate), means there is a shrinking public constituency for labor intensive reporting.