First, allow me to confess my sins. For the last eleven years, I have made my living practicing the dark art of journalism, and while perhaps not a full-fledged member of that nefarious institution known as the msm, my byline has on occasion been spotted on the pages of such well-known offenders as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Slate. I’ve even been known to pal around with members of those organizations. To make matters worse, somewhere in my closet is a sheepskin from an Ivy League university, and while I do not patronize Starbucks, I did for some years own a Volvo and reside within the boundaries of the District of Columbia. In short, I could loosely be labeled a member of the liberal media elite. In mitigation, I can offer that I currently live south of the Mason-Dixon line and own a handgun—though it was made by a Communist government.
Nevertheless, many of you have no doubt already guessed the ugly truth: on the morning of Tuesday, November 4, 2008, I stepped behind a closed curtain and cast my vote for Barack Hussein Obama. While that may not seem like much of a transgression to some, in conservative political circles, the perceived widespread support for Obama among journalists was one of the defining aspects of the Illinois senator’s historic run for the White House. In part, this is nothing new. The right has been complaining about liberal bias in the media since at least the early 1960s, when Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater made press-bashing a central part of his campaign. These days, railing against the liberal media is a mandatory applause line at any conservative rally.
To be sure, liberal partisans have their own concerns about an increasingly corporate media, but surveys of journalists consistently show that those involved in gathering and editing the news are somewhat more liberal, at least on social issues, than their fellow citizens. For example, a 2004 survey of 547 journalists commissioned by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for The People and The Press found that only about 7 percent of journalists identified themselves as conservative. By contrast, in a Gallup poll that same year, about 20 percent of the public identified themselves as liberal, as compared to about a third of the press corps. Obviously, such numbers shift with the political winds and generalized labels are of limited utility, but it seems ridiculous to deny that those who choose journalism as a career skew more liberal than the population as a whole, just as those who get an MBA or enlist in the military skew a bit more conservative.
The real issue is how and whether that political inclination translates into biased coverage. Traditionally, the dominant “ism” of the trade wasn’t liberalism or conservatism, but skepticism. In the 2008 presidential race, however, there was no doubt among conservatives that journalists abandoned any semblance of skeptical detachment. Mark Salter, an aide to Republican nominee John McCain, conceded that his candidate faced an uphill climb, but told Time magazine after the election, “I do believe, and will never be dissuaded otherwise, that the media had their thumb on the scale. Maybe if the media had been fair, we still would have lost. But there were two different standards of scrutiny for us and Obama.” Other conservatives were less restrained. Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly stated that the standards of the news media were “collapsing” in an effort to support Obama and called the press bias the worst “ever in the history of broadcasting in this country.”
But it wasn’t just conservative talking heads or GOP operatives bashing the coverage. Mark Halperin of Time magazine decried the “extreme pro-Obama coverage,” calling it “the most disgusting failure of people in our business since the Iraq war.” Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell said she agreed with readers that the paper had demonstrated a tilt toward Obama. Howard Kurtz, the Post’s veteran media critic, scolded “hyperventilating” in the press over Obama’s win and looked forward to seeing reporters “wade back into reality” after the inauguration day. Not everyone shared this view, of course. Jack Shafer, the media critic at Slate who rarely spares the rod when he catches scribes peddling hokum, isn’t buying the media-conspiracy talk. “I just don’t see it. Certainly the reporters that I’ve talked to who cover Obama don’t give me the sense that they are in love with him,” he told me.