Eric Black, a 30-year reporting veteran at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, recently took a buyout — offers that seem endemic in print newsrooms across the nation. He now writes for the Center for Independent Media and will offer perspective columns to Colorado Confidential through a syndication arrangement.
A solid majority of so-called mainstream journalists are liberals, if by liberals we mean they usually vote for Democrats, support abortion rights, opposed the Iraq war before the majority of the country did, favor more progressive taxation than conservatives, etc.
This is in some respects an inconvenient truth, at least for mainstream journalists fighting a rear-guard action to prop up the credibility of “objective” news reporting.
But it isn’t really useful — especially not for our craft which is supposed to be about finding facts and stating them clearly and bravely — to cavil and pettifog about a fact that anyone who has eyes and ears and who has spent many years in newsrooms knows is true.
I estimate the split at about 80 percent liberal to 20 percent conservative (pushing the leaners one way or the other, acknowledging that there are degrees of liberalism and conservatism, and admitting that categorizing individuals with a single ideological label oversimplifies their many complex and changing views). The gap isn’t much less than 80-20 and is quite possibly greater.
And the proportions certainly don’t reflect the division of the country as a whole (not even at the current moment, with conservatism at a low ebb).
I have never become personally convinced of an explanation for this, although I have heard many and have written about them. If you think you know the reason, please advise. But it is nonetheless a fact.
Every once in awhile, some data comes out that evinces this fact rather clearly. The latest instance broke Thursday in a long piece by MSNBC investigative reporter Bill Dedman, who analyzed Federal Election Commission records and was able to identify 144 journalists who made political contributions over the past three years and found that:
125 journalists gave to Democrats and liberal causes. Only 17 gave to Republicans. Two gave to both parties.
The numbers are impressive but no more so than a 1996 survey indicating that 89 percent of reporters who either cover Congress or head a Washington bureau had voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 (compared with 43 percent of Americans) while 7 percent of the Washington journalists had voted for the first George Bush (compared with 37 percent).
In a long piece back then, I wrote:
The fact that journalists are disproportionately liberal doesn’t settle the question of whether liberal candidates or liberal ideas get favorable treatment. Journalists are told to keep their personal opinions out of their stories and are taught various techniques to do so. The question is how well they succeed at that task, and the answer is heavily influenced by the eye of the beholder.
I would say the same now. During my 900-plus years of being accused of smuggling into my work various biases (both left and right, but more often left) I found that bias critics were often among the most biased people I encountered. For example, such critics often focus on a fact in a story that is bad for their side, take it to be incontrovertible evidence of bias, and fail to notice, or at least to credit or remark upon, another fact that is good for their side in the same story.
Selective perception is a powerful and unhelpful force in human nature. Liberal reporters perceive the world differently than conservative reporters do. This is bound to come across in their work in some way. But they try to rise above their biases and they generally make considerable progress – generally a heckuva lot more than is selectively perceived by their critics, who often make no effort to rise above their biases.
Eric Black is a recovering journalist, formerly of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He currently deludes himself that civil, substantive discussion can occur across the ideological divide. More of Eric’s work can be found at Minnesota Monitor.