“Liberal bias” myth lives on

In his Sunday column, Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander addresses conservative complaints that the Post doesn't do enough to cover topics they are interested in. In doing so, Alexander quotes Pew's Tom Rosenstiel and Post editor Marcus Brauchli agreeing that the Post -- and other news organizations -- aren't responsive enough to conservative viewpoints:

One explanation may be that traditional news outlets like The Post simply don't pay sufficient attention to conservative media or viewpoints.

It “can't be discounted,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. “Complaints by conservatives are slower to be picked up by non-ideological media because there are not enough conservatives and too many liberals in most newsrooms.”

“They just don't see the resonance of these issues. They don't hear about them as fast [and] they're not naturally watching as much,” he added.

Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said he worries “that we are not well-enough informed about conservative issues. It's particularly a problem in a town so dominated by Democrats and the Democratic point of view.”

I don't find the Rosenstiel/Brauchli position quotes the least bit convincing.

When, exactly, have news organizations like the Washington Post paid insufficient attention to conservative voices? When they were inflicting a decade of nonstop Whitewater/Vince Foster/Troopergate/etc coverage on a nation that just wanted it to go away? When the Washington Post editorialized in favor of a Whitewater special counsel -- even while saying there “no credible charge in this case that either the president or Mrs. Clinton did anything wrong” ?

Or During the 2000 campaign, when they relentlessly and unfairly portrayed Al Gore as a liar? During the run-up to the Iraq war? Was that when they were paying insufficient attention to conservative concerns?

Take a look at this comparison of the resources the Washington Post devoted to the Monica Lewinsky story, and those the paper devoted to the Bush administration's warrentless wiretapping of Americans. Do you see evidence that the Washington Post is excessively liberal, or insufficiently responsive to conservative concerns?

Or during the presidential primary debates, when Democrats were routinely asked how they would pay for their health care plans -- often, that was the only question they were asked about health care -- but Republicans were rarely asked how they would pay for their tax cuts? Was that an example of the media being dominated by the Democratic point of view?

How about the past few months, when the media has taken its cues from the most rabid of conservatives, allowing lies about “death panels” to drive their coverage?

Or when the media rushed to insist, after both the 2006 and 2008 elections -- won convincingly by Democrats -- that America remains a “center-right” nation? Or when they refer to far-right politicians as “centrists” and and moderates -- and those who are actually moderates or slightly liberal as among the “most liberal” ?

Or how about the behavior of Tom Rosenstiel and Marcus Brauchli right now. Given everything that has happened over the past two decades -- the relentless media attacks on the Clintons and Al Gore, their complicity in the Iraq war, endlessly running after every Republican-invented sideshow, from lipstick on a pig to death taxes -- isn't it possible that the eagerness with which Rosenstiel and Brauchli agree that the media is insufficiently responsive to conservatives just another example of how they are excessively responsive?

Unfortunately, Alexander omitted any mention of the mere possibility that Rosenstiel and Brauchli are wrong in their assessment. Instead, he went on to cite a study that purports to establish that reporters “are considerably more liberal than the general public.”

But reporters' personal views, even if they are more liberal than those of the general public, don't even begin to tell us whether their work product leans to the left. In fact, that's something that was driven home by a recent column of Alexander's, about Post reporter Monica Hesse's coverage of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage. Alexander agreed with me and other critics who argued that Hesse's article was inappropriately one-sided (omitting any quotes from NOM critics, among other flaws) but noted that Hesse's "personal life seem[s] to belie claims she has a conservative agenda. (Alexander recently explained that Hesse had a two-year-long relationship with a woman and personally favors gay marriage.)

So, reporters with liberal leanings can produce news reports that skew in favor of conservatives. In fact, if you believe former Washington Post reporter Tom Edsall, that happens all the time -- in part because those reporters are too responsive to conservative complaints:

The conservative movement has been very effective attacking the media (broadcast and print) for its liberal biases. The refusal of the media to disclose and discuss the ideological leanings of reporters and editors, and the broader claim of objectivity, has made the press overly anxious, and inclined to lean over backwards not to offend critics from the right. In many respects, the campaign against the media has been more than a victory: it has turned the press into an unwilling, and often unknowing, ally of the right.

Whenever I see comments like those made by Rosenstiel and Brauchli, it occurs to me that there are three basic possible explanations for them:

1) Maybe they're right.

2) Maybe they are, as Edsall suggests, leaning over backwards to avoid offending the Right -- and, thus, inadvertently helping them.

3) Maybe they are more conservative (or, at least, have adopted the assumptions of conservatives more) than they realize, so that which is neutral or even tilted a bit towards the right appears to them to tilt to the left.

Unfortunately, most journalists (including, in this case, Rosenstiel and Brauchli) only seem to consider the first possibility.

Is that how a media that really does lean to the left would behave?