When I was starting out in the news business, I remember watching the television as an intern with a group of reporters from Washington. We watched a short television interview with Dan Quayle, the Indiana senator who was on the short list to be nominated for vice president — and he was nominated within the week.
I don't remember what Quayle said nor who interviewed him, but I remember that he seemed a little nervous. But it wasn't Quayle's demeanor that was memorable to me, it was the response of these competent, credentialed reporters after the interview ended.
I remember one distinctly saying "Oooo" as Quayle finished. The disdain seemed palpable.
It was my introduction to an on-going debate about the nation's press corps. Are they biased against Republicans and conservatives? Do these supposedly objective, fair-minded reporters really not have balance?
I began thinking about Quayle this week following the unceremonious firing of NPR commentator Juan Williams for his discussion about the fear he feels around religious Muslims on airplanes. To be sure, the firing seems a mistake and an overreaction, though I have no knowledge of what happened behind the scenes. (And, in fairness to NPR, I don't know if I would feel the same way if Williams had replaced Mormons with Muslims in his statement.)
Many conservatives around the country therefore cited Williams' firing as one more piece of evidence that the nation's news media are hopelessly biased against those with the wrong kind of political beliefs, and along with most of the Latter-day Saints in the West that I know, it is a view I share. Indeed, the public evidence suggests media blindspots and bias may have played a role here. But as someone who has tried to study the issue of media bias and to learn what the scholars have said, I find the issue of media bias to be far more complicated than I once acknowledged, more complex than my initial impressions. That is because it is also fair to say that media can be too conservative - if you look at the issue the way liberal scholars often do. You mainly just have to define what you mean by liberal or what you mean by conservative, and even what you mean by media.
Let me show you some examples.
There is little question that studies show that news professionals hold personal beliefs that are more liberal than Americans generally. They are more likely to vote Democratic, and they are less religiously involved.
So, if media were liberal, for example, you would expect to find more liberal organizations quoted than conservative ones in the news and more Democrats or liberals quoted than Republicans or conservatives.
I did a quick, unscientific study of this using the Associated Press' entries into the Lexis-Nexis database over the last month to show this.
First, the unabashedly liberal American Civil Liberties Union — the ACLU — was mentioned 35 times in the last month in my study. The conservative Heritage Foundation was mentioned five times and the Family Research Council six times. (This is consistent with a much more detailed study I once did that showed that the ACLU is a major source for the news media, much more so than any similar conservative outfit).
And it is no surprise that the word Pelosi, as in Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, appeared nearly twice as often as the word Boehner, as in Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner.
But Democrats are in charge in Washington, and studies also consistently show that reporters seem to cover those in charge more than those out of power. I once participated in a study that looked at coverage of the contested 2000 presidential election in the Florida press.
Republicans, who were in charge in Florida, were quoted more often than Democrats.
Given the importance of how that election turned out, it is no surprise that some Democrats determined that the media were biased against them.
Democrats today, for example, might rail over the fact that Tea Party activists seem to get far more attention than, say, the concerns of the more liberal, but poor, constituencies in the inner city.
Indeed, that is the argument many liberals make more generally when they say media are too conservative. It isn't so much that more Republicans or Democrats are covered in the news, it is whose concerns aren't covered. These scholars show example after example of how the concerns of the poor or of the developing world don't make it into the press and instead, the "conservative" establishment and well-funded business concerns is what receives attention.
In my little study, comedian Jon Stewart was mentioned 24 times in the last month while the entire nation of Congo, with its millions and its mineral resources vital to the world economy and its terrible civil war, merited only a few more — 33 mentions.
Indeed, there used to be a term in journalism that showed this bias against international news - Afghanistanisms. Long before the terrorist attacks and the Taliban and the American invasion, news people called seemingly unimportant stories about far-away places "Afghanistanisms" because they were of no importance to the local issues of import to an audience — or so it seemed.
Actual events in Afghanistan showed how dangerous that media bias could be.
Yet, reporters must omit some stories and make choices all the time. In that sense, bias is unavoidable. Sometimes it is liberally biased, as the NPR case suggests. Other times, with story omissions, there is evidence for other biases.
So, my initial impressions of an exclusively liberal media bias have changed. I have met many reporters over the years who do far more than treat young Republican senators with disdain. I find many who take their professional obligation to find balance between various points of view very seriously. Bias creeps almost unavoidably into the choices they must make each day when deciding what to write about.
I find media bias takes many forms.