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The "Liberal Media" Smoking Gun?

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If you're at all interested in the Great Media Bias Debate - and if you're here, there's a decent chance you are - you've probably seen MSNBC's report about journalists contributing to political campaigns. In a development that should shock precisely no one, 125 of the 144 journos identified gave to "Democrats and liberal causes," while only 17 gave to Republicans. (Two gave to both parties.)

There is a ton going on here, so let's get to it. First off: As is usually the case when trying to translate the messiness of life into easily digestible statistics, things aren't as cut-and-dry as they may seem. For starters, these aren't all political journalists - a quick review of the list reveals a travel writer, classical music critic, and sports statistician, among others. I'm not sure how the political beliefs of a sports statistician are particularly relevant to a discussion about ideological media bias - I'd be more concerned about him being a Yankee fan. Many of those listed also said that the contributions were made by family members, even though Federal Election Commission records listed their names as contributors.

Additionally, some of those mentioned work for media outlets that wear their political leanings on their sleeves - Salon.com, the Washington Times and the New Yorker, for example. I'm not sure I would necessarily lump them in with the "mainstream media." Another interesting inclusion is MTV's former correspondent Gideon Yago, who offered up the most amusing quote in the MSNBC piece: "I don't understand. Things that I do as a private citizen? I mean, what the f---, man?"

Still, there are plenty of journalists on this list who cover politics and/or military issues, and the report seems to confirm the worst fears of those who feel that the press corps is hopelessly liberal. CBS News had two folks identified in the piece, former "Sunday Morning" correspondent Serena Altschul and "Sunday Morning" producer Edward H. Forgotson Jr., both of whom gave to liberal politicians or causes.

Both contributions were made before Sept. 2006, when CBS News adopted a policy forbidding such contributions. (They had previously only been discouraged.) Here's the language of the present policy:

Avoid any active participation in politics and political campaigns. This prohibition includes wearing buttons or otherwise publicly identifying yourself on one side or the other in political campaigns. CBS News policy also forbids contributions to political campaigns.
The debate over whether there is a liberal bias in news coverage is an old and complicated one, and I can't come close to doing it justice in this post. My feelings on the issue tend to echo those of Jeff Greenfield, whom I spoke to last month.

"Most members of the so-called mainstream media undoubtedly, in the voting booth, vote Democratic," he said. "There's no way out of that, you can't ignore it. There are certain cultural, personal reasons - when I say personal I mean reasons of personality. Reasons of background. Why you go into journalism in the first place. You tend to have attitudes that tend to mark you more as a Democrat than a Republican. You tend to be more secular, you tend to be more skeptical, you tend to be disrespectful of authority. And those things tend - tend - to push to the left of the spectrum."

As for how that is reflected in coverage, that's a different question. Liberal media critics argue that members of the media are so concerned about being perceived as liberal that they overcompensate by shading their coverage to the right. For evidence, they point to the coverage of Al Gore and John Kerry's presidential runs.

On cultural issues, however, it may be a different story: Then-New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent concluded in 2004 that the "Times present[s] the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading." If there is a tendency for ostensibly objective reporters to try to compensate for their liberal leanings in political coverage, it may be weaker - or nonexistent - when it comes to cultural issues.

Of course, "bias" isn't static. One can spend part of life as a liberal or conservative and end up somewhere else. (See: David Brock, David Horowitz.) Even though the donations detailed by MSNBC suggest that reporters lean liberal by nature, you can't discount the fact that they are citizens just like everyone else - and that their political views evolve, at least to some degree, as a result of their reaction to current events and the actions of politicians.

In the piece, Times "ethicist" Randy Cohen makes another point that underscores how this issue isn't as simple as a headline might suggest.

"We admire those colleagues who participate in their communities - help out at the local school, work with Little League, donate to charity," Cohen wrote, in an e-mail to MSNBC. "But no such activity is or can be non-ideological. Few papers would object to a journalist donating to the Boy Scouts or joining the Catholic Church. But the former has an official policy of discriminating against gay children; the latter has views on reproductive rights far more restrictive than those of most Americans. Should reporters be forbidden to support those groups? I'd say not."

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