June 27, 1996 | Commentary on Political Thought
When asked their political philosophy in a recent survey, 61 percent of 139 Washington bureau chiefs and congressional correspondents said "liberal" or "moderate to liberal." Just 9 percent said "conservative" or "moderate to conservative."
Almost nine out of 10--89 percent--said they voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. This compares to just 7 percent for George Bush and 2 percent for Ross Perot. As for party affiliation, 50 percent said they were Democrats, just 4 percent Republicans.
As for journalists nationwide, 56 percent of the 2,703 surveyed in a huge Los Angeles Times poll conducted in 1985 called themselves "very liberal" or "somewhat liberal." Just 18 percent said they were "very conservative" or "somewhat conservative." Several other studies by media analysts Robert and Linda Lichter, among others, have shown substantially the same.
Does this necessarily mean journalists allow their political beliefs to bias their news coverage? Of course not. But it sure raises certain suspicions when these cool, detached "professionals" get things wrong in a way that makes the conservative Congress look bad and the liberal White House look good.
Take just one example: the debate last year over reforming Medicare, the health-care system for America's 37 million senior citizens. Everyone by now knows that Medicare is rapidly going bankrupt and has to be reformed: There is no choice in the matter. But when conservatives tried to slow down the built-in rate of increase in Medicare spending--not cut spending, mind you, just slow down the rate at which costs are going up--congressional liberals accused them of making mean-spirited "cuts" that would hurt the elderly.
How did the media respond? Although reporters were shown repeatedly that over seven years Medicare spending would increase by $100 billion over and above current levels--from $4,900 to $7,100 per person--the vast majority of media reports told readers and viewers that the conservative plan would "cut" Medicare.
Backtrack three years, to the debate over President Clinton's liberal health-care reform scheme. That plan would have increased Medicare spending at the same rate as the 1995 congressional plan. Yet, the media didn't assail the president for "cutting" Medicare. Like congressional conservatives, President Clinton took pains to make it clear his administration wasn't "cutting" the program, saying: "Medicare [is] going up at three times the rate of inflation. We propose to let it go up at two times the rate of inflation. That is not a Medicare cut." The media took the president's explanation at face value. Two years later, they pounced on Congress.
The double standard has become so obvious few bother to deny it. In fact, many observers are beginning to recognize that the "talk radio" phenomenon has come about precisely because there is such a wide gulf between what people know to be true and what the media frequently tell us is true. Would Rush Limbaugh have 20 million listeners if Americans had been hearing both sides of the issues for the past several decades? I doubt it.
Talk radio is the steam valve for political discourse in contemporary America. Liberals--not consciously, but effectively nonetheless--have been holding down the lid for decades. But the pressure became too great. Liberals stopped paying attention to one little outlet--AM radio--and all the steam came blasting out in a "rush" (sorry, I couldn't resist).
So next time a news report gives you the sneaking suspicion that the reporter is spending too much time chatting with Kennedy clones at liberal cocktail parties, you're probably right.
Then, for some balance, tune in to talk radio.