Media and Business Elites: Still in Conflict?

By Rothman, Stanley; Black, Amy E. | The Public Interest, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Media and Business Elites: Still in Conflict?


Rothman, Stanley, Black, Amy E., The Public Interest


FROM 1979 through 1980, S. Robert Lichter and the senior author of this article surveyed 13 American leadership groups. Two of these groups were businessmen chosen from various Fortune listings and journalists drawn from the country's most important media outlets at that time, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, the three commercial television networks (CBS, NBC, ABC), and public television (PBS). The goal was to compare the attitudes and outlooks of traditional business leaders with those of the elite media.

The results of the study demonstrated that leading journalists were skeptical of business and of traditional American institutions. [1] On economic and political issues, journalists were well to the left of business elites. Although most journalists were not socialists, they strongly sympathized with the left wing of the Democratic party. Thus 45 percent agreed that the American legal system favors the wealthy, more than twice the number of businessmen who held that point of view. And 68 percent of the journalists, compared with only 29 percent of the business leaders, believed that government should substantially reduce the income gap between rich and poor. On social issues, the pattern was much the same. Journalists were more permissive on such issues as abortion, homosexuality, and adultery than were businessmen. Finally, both groups eyed each other with suspicion, believing that the other exercised far more influence over American life than it should.

An analysis of news coverage and other evidence also demonstrated that, despite journalists' best efforts at objectivity, like academic scholars they tend to present the world in ways that reflect their own ideology. No pervasive and pronounced "bias" was found in reporting; rather, the analysis revealed patterns of significant ideological slippage in the treatment of complex and ambiguous issues, patterns which persisted over extensive periods of time. [2]

The 1979-80 study also surveyed the leading producers, directors, and writers of major television programs and motion pictures. By and large, the results were similar. The leading creative figures in the entertainment industry were far more liberal than businessmen on political and economic issues and even more so on social issues. Indeed, while they were somewhat more conservative than journalists on political and economic issues, they were significantly more liberal on social issues than were news media leaders. Content analyses of leading television programs and motion pictures over time demonstrated, as with journalism, a fairly clear (and unsurprising) relationship between the personal social and political outlook of their creators and the content of the work they produced. [3] The likelihood that films and television will reflect personal views, though restrained somewhat by estimates of potential markets and censorship, is greater among creative artists than among journalists for obvious reasons. Holl ywood elites rarely encounter a professional expectation of "objectivity" or balance. Their vocation is to present the world subjectively, offering viewers a chance to see the world through the lens of their creative efforts.

Here come the Bobos?

Between 1979 and the middle 1990s, much changed in American life. Most extant studies show a general shift toward a more liberal personal and social morality, an attitudinal change Robert Bellah has called "expressive individualism." Bellah contrasted this with the more conservative forms of individualism, which support personal initiative but operate within a framework of traditional bourgeois values. Many commentators believe the shift has been revolutionary. Thus David Brooks argues, in Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, that what was labeled the "culture war" is now essentially over and that expressive individualism has won the day, even among those who consider themselves to be conservatives.

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