Journalism's Premier Watchdog Says Media Write (and Bite) Back

Article excerpt

Robert and Linda Lichter direct the Center for Media and Public Affairs and research the elite groups that make up the establishment. After reporting on journalists, they were compared to Joe McCarthy.

Robert Lichter, along with his wife, Linda, is codirector of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, a group that for the last decade has won accolades from left and right alike for its analysis of America's media and its role in the nation's political life. Conservative columnist Robert Novak, for instance, has called Lichter "the national media's most vigilant watchdog." To former editor and ombudsman Richard Harwood of the liberal Washington Post, Lichter and his staff are "excellent, accurate and reliable researchers."

Lichter is hard on media bias, but he's hardest on the arrogance of the media, which he sees as paying the piper for its excesses. "Journalists spent their tenure in power over the past 25 years trashing all the other institutions in American life and now the monster they created is beginning to turn on them," Lichter tells Insight. "People taught not to trust anyone else don't trust journalists either."

Insight: How did you happen to turn your attention to the mass media and their role in American political life?

S. Robert Lichter: In the early 1970s, there were all these newly important groups in American politics: activist judges, federal bureaucrats, public-interest groups -- and, of course, the media. All these were challenging the old power elite who were running America: the corporate lawyers, the military, big businessmen.

Journalists had been around forever, but they were taking a new role in American life, becoming newly important. We surveyed what we called "the media elite" -- the New York Times, the Washington Post, the newsmagazines and the networks -- and put out a little article in Public Opinion magazine. Suddenly the world pronounced itself shocked that journalists were liberal and voted for Democrats and tended to come from secular backgrounds.

We had wandered into this minefield! Conservative columnists all over the place were saying that we proved there was a liberal bias in the press, which at that time we had not -- we had only done surveys [on backgrounds].

Journalists all over the place were now seeing us as Joe McCarthys with Ph.Ds. It came as a shock. When you write about journalists, the subjects of your inquiry write back at you. When you study bankers, they don't write editorials denouncing your work that thousands of people read.

Insight: Your study of the first two nights of ABC's Nightly News during the Democratic convention in New York City in 1992 found that the ABC crew's evaluations of Bush were 31 percent positive and 69 percent negative, while its assessments of Clinton were almost the opposite: 65 percent positive and 35 percent negative. ABC took note and worked to balance its coverage. How have conservatives responded to your studies?

SRL: A lot of people didn't want to hear what we have to say or have their enemies hear what we have to say. Our hypothesis was always that journalists do not consciously push a political or partisan agenda in their work, but like any other human being they are susceptible to unconscious influences from their backgrounds: the people they associate with, the values they grew up with, and that that will unintentionally color their work after a while.

Conservatives now aren't likely to say about the press that they're out to get us or to regard the press as eager to get up every morning just to destroy a Republican, as they once were.

Insight: Is the press more self-critical than it was 10 years ago?

SRL: Major journalists are now much more critical of themselves than we ever were. They will say, yes, we're arrogant! We're cynical! The public hates us! We're out of touch! [Journalists] are starting to see there is a cultural bias, that they do come from different backgrounds that make them different in many ways from ordinary people. …