This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
There is very little difference politically between the newspaper correspondents and the correspondents for radio and television, wire services, and magazines. There are nearly four times as many Democrats as Republicans among the radio-te1evision correspondents, nearly four times as many Democrats as Republicans among the wire-service correspondents, and nearly twice as many Democrats as Republicans among the magazine correspondents. In the entire Washington press corps, liberals outnumber conservatives, 56.6 percent to 27.6 percent. (Interestingly, even though liberalism and conservatism have never been sharply defined—and the definitions that are used in Washington are subject to continuing debate—only 15.9 percent of the correspondents described themselves as “Middle Roaders” or refused to label themselves.)
It should be obvious from all this that most of the Washington correspondents believe that their superiors do not require slanted reporting. It is worth considering, however, whether this freedom is more apparent than real, as some social scientists believe. A study by Dr. Warren Breed that was published in 1955 is often cited as evidence that political correspondence is under control. Breed, a Tulane University sociologist who once worked as a newspaper reporter, analyzed six factors that may tend to produce general conformity to a newspaper’s policy among its staff. Most of the factors are subtle. For example, “in-groupness in the newsroom,” in Breed’s phrase, is that friendly, first-namish atmosphere in which staffers and executives often work together on a job they all like and respect: getting the news. Although Breed’s study was limited to newspaper newsrooms in the home office, the same atmosphere—and the same united effort of executives and staffers—can be observed in offices of mass media in Washington. Can part of the reduction in home office pressure be explained by the possibility that social controls have brought correspondents’ reports more in line with superiors’ policies?
This is certainly possible. It seems likely, however, that even the subtlest of these effects can be detected, especially by the correspondents today. For one of the most striking aspects of the Washington press corps is the level of formal education that most of the correspondents have reached. The Washington correspondent today was probably sitting in a sociology class not many years ago, and he may even have written a scholarly paper on social controls.
The rising level of education for all Americans leads one to expect that the Washington correspondents today would indeed have more formal education than those of the 1930’s. But the difference is greater than the changing times indicate. Even in this Age of Education, only one person in three of college age actually undertakes higher learning, and nearly half of those who enroll in College never earn a degree. Today, slightly more than 81 percent of the Washington correspondents have college degrees (51 percent in the 1930’s). More than 93 percent have attended college (79 percent in the 19303). More than 31 percent have done graduate work (12 percent in the 1930’s), and nearly 20 percent have earned graduate degrees (6 percent in the 1930’s).
The sociological composition of the Washington press corps has changed in other respects since the 1930’s, in ways that alter the folklore of American journalism. Folklore held that leading reporters usually come from the Midwest—especially from Indiana—and Rosten’s findings supported it. Indiana, with more than 10 percent of the correspondents of the 1930’s, and Illinois, with more than 9 percent, were the leading states of birth; the Midwest as a whole contributed more than 45 percent. Today, Indiana and Illinois are far down the list and the whole Midwest contributes only 30 percent of the correspondents. New York and Pennsylvania are now the leading states, and the Northeast is the leading region.