During the 2012 presidential election campaign I taught an upper-level journalism seminar at the University of North Georgia titled “Media Bias in the Political Process: Real or Imagined?”
My intention was to have students conduct a critical analysis of what the media were saying about presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney and their families.
What students discovered was not really a revelation to me, since I had spent more than 40 years in the news business, but it was a bit startling to some of them.
Their general findings were that traditional media — I prefer that terminology over “mainstream” because few of our media are mainstream anymore — are terribly biased either left or right and it takes a discriminating consumer to find a truly objective news source and winnow the substance from the fluff.
Although the next presidential election is more than 14 months away, campaigning for the top spots in both the Republican and Democrat parties seems to be overwhelming the news cycle these days so I thought it might be instructive to provide a bit of perspective on what to expect from the traditional media over the next few months.
In an effort to prime the pump for my students in that 2012 campaign, I gave them two stories to read, both from The New York Times written during the 2008 presidential race. One was a profile of Michelle Obama, the other a profile of Cindy McCain, the wife of Republican nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
My only instruction was to look for what I refer to as “loaded language” — that is, the use of adjectives and adverbs that not only provide color in stories and make them easier to read, but also can impart bias. Whether that loaded language was put there by the writers or their editors mattered little; they were what the public read.
Michelle Obama was portrayed as “forthright, comfortable in the trenches, and often more blunt than Mr. Obama — plays well in a broad swath of the electorate and has given the campaign a steelier edge ...” She also was described as having a “confident, commanding presence” and is a woman who “cuts an athletic and authoritative figure in her tailored pantsuits and skirts.”
Cindy McCain, meanwhile, was described as a “Washington outsider wanting back in,” a political spouse of whom “those close to Mrs. McCain say she aspires to be like another blonde, glamorous figure married to an older man: Diana, the Princess of Wales.”
Mrs. McCain was criticized in highly pejorative language for everything from doing “relatively few solo events, grants interviews reluctantly — she declined to speak for this article” to admitting she was once addicted to pain killers and spent more time away from Washington than in it.
Similar loaded language appeared in a June 9, 2015 New York Times article about Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s finances. Rubio was described as a poor money manager who “splurged on an extravagant purchase: $80,000 for a luxury speedboat.” It turns out that that “luxury speedboat” was actually open-air offshore fishing boat that the manufacturer describes as a vessel designed for “safety-minded family boaters and avid anglers.”
Was any of this biased writing, sloppy reporting, or politically oriented editing?
Maybe a bit of each, but a bit of each is enough to show that when it comes to reporting on conservative and/or Republican candidates, The New York Times seems to have something of an issue with objectivity or fairness or whatever you want to call it.
Of course, The New York Times is not the only major media outlet that has a demonstrable bias in its reporting. Numerous studies by independent researchers have shown that most major city newspapers and the major television networks lean the left, along with cable outlets CNN and MSNBC. Fox News and most talk radio, meanwhile, lean the right.
A 1995 survey of the White House press corps by U.S. News & World Report showed that between 1976 and 1992 Democrat presidential candidates received 50 votes to only seven for Republican candidates.
A Chicago Tribune survey of 139 Washington bureau chiefs for major media showed that in the 1992 presidential election Bill Clinton was preferred over the incumbent George H.W. Bush by 12-1.
And a University of Connecticut Department of Public Policy survey of journalists in the 2004 presidential election revealed that John Kerry had a 52 percent to 19 percent edge over George W. Bush, with 21 percent of those polled refusing to answer.
CBS pundit Andy Rooney said after that election: “I know a lot of you believe that most people in the news business are liberal. Let me tell you, I know a lot of them and they were almost evenly divided this time. Half of them liked Sen. Kerry; the other half hated President Bush.”
While some of these figures are a bit dated, there is no reason to believe that the composition of news rooms has changed much since then and become more conservative, or even less liberal. There has been a significant decline in jobs available in traditional media so it is far more likely that those doing the hiring will employ those who fit in well with the established patterns of thought.
At the newspaper at which I spent 26 years as a reporter and editor before I retired in 2007, George W. Bush was routinely mocked and vilified in the newsroom not only for his foreign and domestic policies, but for his manner of speaking, his upbringing and the widespread belief that he was dumber than a box of rocks who had become president only as a result of a corrupt Supreme Court.
My wife and I actually stopped going to social functions with co-workers (or perhaps we were just not invited) because of the vitriol frequently directed at Bush whenever the conversation turned to politics. Bush was all bad, liberals all good. There was no compromise, no middle ground, no rational conversation.
Vehement denials to the contrary, that sort of thinking inevitably bleeds over into the reporting, writing and editing of stories. One only has to look the politically oriented Facebook posts of many of my former colleagues to see the true nature of their political leanings.
So what is it that creates this atmosphere in the news media where the prevailing political lean is to the left?
Many journalists see themselves as social reformers, intent on “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,” as the cynical journalist H.L. Hornbeck (played by Gene Kelly) says in the 1960 film “Inherit the Wind.”
Arthur Brisbane, former public editor of The New York Times, said in his final column in 2012 that many reporters and editors “share a kind of political and cultural progressivism” so that issues such as the Occupy movement or gay marriage “seem almost to erupt in the (N.Y.) Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.”
And former Washington Post political reporter Thomas Edsall wrote in 2009 that the press corps “is composed in large part of ‘new’ or ‘creative’ class members of the liberal elite … If reporters were the only ones allowed to vote, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry would have won the White House by landslide margins.”
So when reading about, or listening to, coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign, be aware of loaded language and the bias inherent in that language, some of which will come from the right, but much more from the left.
Ron Martz is a former journalist and educator and a Northeast Georgia resident.