News Media's Credibility Problem Goes beyond Charges of Political Bias WANING PUBLIC TRUST Series: Part One of Three of the Series Called Media Trends
Alexandra Marks, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
Scott Simmons is so irritated by what he sees as the liberal bias in the press, he thinks all political reporters should disclose whom they voted for in the last election.
"The power the press has to influence events and public thinking is such that there ought to be some sort of measure of who these people are," says Mr. Simmons, a New York investment banker.
Simmons is part of a growing segment of Americans who believe journalists' personal opinions are increasingly intruding on their political coverage. While many media analysts and reporters dispute that, others admit bias sometimes creeps into their reporting.
But they contend such slants stem from journalists' cultural backgrounds and the media's institutional needs. Those analysts also believe the media could help restore their waning credibility if they turned a critical eye inward to expose those influences more often.
The issue of bias flared up again recently, when a poll of correspondents who covered Congress revealed that 60 percent identified themselves as liberal or moderate-to-liberal, 30 percent called themselves moderate, and only 9 percent considered themselves conservative or moderate-to-conservative. A whopping 89 percent said they voted for Clinton.
"The numbers were so overwhelming, and I never saw it followed up on," Simmons says.
For decades, conservative ideologues have jumped on such numbers and decried the liberal bias in the press while radical activists have railed against its conservative, corporate mentality. The press, meanwhile, could point to both and feel comfortable they were doing their jobs in a professional, balanced manner.
"In my experience, reporters are professionals in much the same way as root-canal specialists," says Marvin Kalb, director of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy. "Their personal opinions don't intrude into the work they do."
Indeed, the poll done for the Freedom Forum, which found Washington's congressional correspondents to be largely liberal -to-moderate in their outlook, also found that 56 percent of the public said press coverage of Congress is balanced, with 23 percent finding a liberal bias and 10 percent finding a conservative slant.
"I think that reporters have shown us by the way they've covered the Clinton administration that they can separate their own voting behavior from the way they cover politics," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, a Washington-based media think tank.
Public confidence declines
But over the last decade, some polls have shown a marked increase in people like Scott Simmons who believe they see more bias in the press than in the past. In 1987, 62 percent of those polled by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press felt there was no bias in the coverage of presidential elections. In 1996, only 53 percent felt there was no bias, a drop of almost 10 percent.
Professor Kalb attributes that in part to the proliferation of news talk shows, where journalists toss off the mantle of objectivity and openly, sometimes passionately, express their own opinions.
"People get confused as to just what a journalist is," Kalb says. "So far as they can tell from these talk shows, every journalist begins every sentence with 'I think.'"
Kalb says those journalists are the exception. Most reporters still simply cover the news without either the high profile or the high salaries, he notes.
But pollster Kohut believes the introduction of the "celebrity journalist" has brought a bias into the media. He believes it's a bias "toward working in its own favor."
"The press goes after stories that it thinks will serve it well, not taking into account how well they will serve the country," Kohut says. "That's where the question comes in of its being more adversarial than it should be. …