The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dear Mainstream Media: Why so liberal?

(Washington Post illustration/iStock)

This piece is part of a series where Post media writer Erik Wemple answers reader questions about the logistical and ethical aspects of newsgathering. You can submit questions here.

The New York Times wants greater diversity in its newsroom ranks. It even has a diverse set of areas in which it’s striving for greater diversity. “As The New York Times becomes an ever more global operation, diversity in our ranks is paramount. Diversity — of gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation, socioeconomic backgrounds and outlook — is a moral imperative as well as a necessity for improving our coverage, which, in turn, will expand our audience,” notes a recently released New York Times planning document.

Bolding added to isolate a pressing question that has been weighing on journalism for decades. Does “outlook” mean “ideology”? Is the New York Times explicitly seeking to ensure a balance of, say, liberal and conservative leanings among editors and reporters? That general topic is a concern transmitted to the “Dear MSM” Nerve Center after the debut column in this series, which addressed the ethics of seeking an interview with the president of the United States.

The characterization of mainstream media newsrooms as left-leaning hives indeed has documentary backing. Some of the research is narrow and entertaining: In 1990, for example, Washington City Paper — then under the leadership of current Politico media critic Jack Shafer — found that Tony Kornheiser, then a sports columnist for The Washington Post, was the only registered Republican among a sampling of 49 top editors, reporters and columnists at the newspaper. And Kornheiser was a RINO. “I don’t think the Republican Party would claim me,” Kornheiser told reporter Christy Wise, adding that he and his wife had registered with different parties so that they could receive mailings from both sides. Upon further reflection, he deemed his party affiliation a “mistake.”

The Pew Research Center in 2004 undertook a nationwide survey of 547 local and national reporters, editors and executives. The result? Thirty-four percent of national press identified as liberal, as opposed to 7 percent conservative (“moderate” was the largest category). Liberal identification among national press types had shot up from 22 percent in 1995.

The American Society of News Editors does an annual diversity survey, but it doesn’t probe this particular incarnation, according to executive director Teri Hayt. “Diversity is more than gender or race,” writes Hayt in an email. “It’s more important than ever before that news organizations reflect their communities if they want to provide a consistent fair and balanced news report. News organizations must do better with women and minorities in leadership and reporting positions and just as important, they must have diverse opinions within the news operation to have a meaningful conversation around coverage.”

The granddaddy of research on this topic is “The American Journalist,” a series of studies that dates to the 1970s. In 2006, the series found that journalists had edged a bit to the right over the preceding decade but that newsrooms still skewed more lefty than the U.S. population at large. Here’s a Pew screenshot from 2006:

A 2014 study under the “American Journalist” banner found that 28 percent of 1,080 surveyed U.S. journalists claimed to be Democrats, as opposed to 7 percent for Republicans. The numbers reflected a desertion of both parties toward a self-identification as independent, which clocked in at 50 percent of the surveyed population. Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, concludes, “Actually the numbers say newsrooms tilt independent.” That shift is consistent with a movement among the general public toward independent (non) affiliation, notes Rosenstiel, who argues that it reflects a “sense that both parties have become more polarized.”

Tim Graham, executive editor of NewsBusters, has a different take: “Journalists have gotten incredibly reluctant to identify with a party. I suspect liberals check the ‘independent’ box to avoid being properly identified.”

That collective lean is the obsession of Graham’s group, which dedicates itself to highlighting instances of bias in the mainstream media — if you’re Dan Rather or Andrea Mitchell, you’re likely familiar with its work. Its parent organization, the Media Research Center, has published a massive roundup of research on the political leanings of U.S. newsrooms. As Graham sees it, the data in some cases understates the tilt in mainstream media newsrooms, with significant ramifications for governance. “Conservatives and Republicans know this: It’s a lot easier for a Democrat to go out and face a room of 96 percent Democrats than it is for a Republican president to go out and face a room of 96 percent Democrats,” he says.

Though the Grahams and the Rosenstiels may dispute emphases, data over the years confirms the contentions of American conservatives that the workplaces of the mainstream media err on the liberal/Democratic side of the ideological/partisan divide. “I think over the years that we’ve done these studies, it’s clear that more journalists tend to lean to the left politically than to the right,” says retired Indiana University journalism professor David H. Weaver. How’d that happen?

1) The geographical explanation. The hulking organs of the mainstream media reside in New York, Washington and other metropolises, where liberals live on top of other liberals. The residency pattern of these big-time reporters and editors quite consistently overlaps with the blue-coded areas of the country that voted for Hillary Clinton, who won the District of Columbia with 91 percent of the vote.

A July 2004 column by then-New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent conveys the best articulation of this concept: “Today, only 50 percent of The Times’s readership resides in metropolitan New York, but the paper’s heart, mind and habits remain embedded here. You can take the paper out of the city, but without an effort to take the city and all its attendant provocations, experiments and attitudes out of the paper, readers with a different worldview will find The Times an alien beast,” wrote Okrent in a story titled, “Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” The answer from Okrent: “Of course it is.”

Cosmopolitan influences even seep into a fortress like right-leaning Fox News, according to Joe Muto, the onetime “Fox News mole” who wrote a book — “An Atheist in the Foxhole” — about his attempts to leak insider-y scoops from the network. Though the upper ranks of Fox News management were filled with committed conservatives, there was no uniformity down low. “People outside of Fox tended to assume that the whole building was filled with lockstep conservatives, but at a certain point, it was simply impossible to staff a business based in New York City, and consisting of people who were attracted to the field of journalism, without letting at least a few pinkos in,” wrote Muto in his book.

2) The crusader explanation. Tracy Grant, deputy managing editor of The Washington Post, is familiar with criticisms about the composition of newsrooms —  she handles recruitment and diversity at the newspaper. Asked about studies showing a lefty tilt, she tells this blog: “I think people are called to this profession sometimes have a sense of mission about shining light in dark places,” she says. “I think there is a sensibility among people who feel that calling and if there is a commonality of people who go into journalism, it is people inspired by things like Watergate or ‘Spotlight’ — that idea of telling stories that need to be told and so that does represent a little bit of rooting for the underdog mentality, but I also think that anybody who thinks that the mainstream media — the Washington Post — didn’t make Hillary Clinton’s life miserable or Barack Obama’s life miserable by holding them the accountable is just not looking at the record.”

Bernard Goldberg, author of the 2001 book “Bias” and a Fox News contributor, put the crusader dynamic this way in a 2011 chat with host Bill O’Reilly: “Now, I know you’re not allowed to say this publicly and especially on television, but every now and then, Bill, the weak are wrong and the strong are right,” said Goldberg. “This is a takeoff on the old journalistic mantra that our job is to — to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Well, it isn’t. That’s the job of a social worker or a priest or somebody like that but not a journalist.”

3) The school-tie explanation. The pipeline for hiring decisions at big media outlets files through elite colleges that crank out lefty students, maintains NewsBusters’ Graham. “I’m a good example of the how to not get hired at a national news organization, considering my background,” says Graham, a 1986 graduate of Bemidji State University in Bemidji, Minn. There he founded and edited the conservative Bemidji Student Review. He started at the Media Research Center in 1989 and has remained there for all but two years.

Matt Lewis, a former columnist at the conservative Daily Caller, sums up: “I do think it’s a problem, but I don’t think that there is a conspiracy to bias the news,” says Lewis, who recently jumped to the more mainstream Daily Beast. “But I do think that the kinds of people who go into journalism and where journalism outlets tend to be based has the inevitable outcome of slanting it not even just leftward but in a cosmopolitan, secular way.”

As part of its plan for the coming years, the New York Times cites a need for more newsroom employees “from outside major metropolitan areas.” Such a move might ramp up the presence of conservatives at the paper. Dean Baquet, the newspaper’s executive editor, told the Erik Wemple Blog that when he worked for the New Orleans Times-Picayune decades ago, he had “no question in my mind that there were more conservatives” than in a big-city newsroom.

Its leadership, however, will not be asking specifically about the political orientation of recruits. “I think we absolutely do not look for a political litmus test for people in either direction,” Joe Kahn, managing editor of the New York Times, told the Erik Wemple Blog in September. “The diversity challenge for us is to find a range of skills and including people who can understand and write persuasively about all aspects of American politics and society.”

Likewise, The Post’s Grant says, “Asking someone’s political affiliations and beliefs — no, that’s not part of the ordinary course of things.”

But it is the ordinary course of things, counters Graham. Managers across the country’s big newsrooms have a way of signaling their agreement on politics, he says. “I mean, look. In this day and age, Erik [Wemple Blog], you can just look at their Twitter feed. You don’t even have to ask.”

CNN in 2015 launched perhaps the most ideologically targeted hiring spree in the history of journalism. As Donald Trump began rising in the polls, the 24/7 cable network realized that its existing stable of conservative commentators didn’t necessarily share the views of the real estate mogul from Manhattan. So they hired a crew of Trumpites, including, eventually, fired Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. The Trump contingent had a knack for turning CNN’s airwaves into logic-defying discussions, yet CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker defended the staffing moves. “Now, I know that there’s are a lot of people who don’t like Corey Lewandowski or the other Trump surrogates that we have on staff,” Zucker said in October. “I think a lot of that is because they don’t like the idea of the Trump candidacy and that’s just a projection of ‘How could you have those people on the set?’ Well, we have them on the set because somebody’s got to represent 14 million people who voted for the guy” in the primaries.

Like those Trump voices, young conservative journalists want to work at mainstream outlets, says Graham, if only the doors will open. “They’re there for the interviewing and not just the 20-somethings,” says Graham.

He cites the trajectory of journalists such as Bob Costa and Jonathan Martin, both of whom once worked for the conservative National Review and are now at The Washington Post and New York Times, respectively. But does that mean they’re both conservatives?

Not necessarily, responds Graham. “Let me be blunt, though,” he continues. “Any reporter who is willing to blog for the National Review without vomiting is at least somebody in whom conservatives vest hope. We are so hungry for a foothold.”