Charting the Real Bias of Reporters

John Tierney of The New York Times notes today that conservatives are complaining that John Kerry got good press during the Democratic convention because “journalists’ liberal bias has colored the reviews of the Democratic convention and his speech.”

Tierney reveals to us the result of his own unscientific survey conducted at a press party at the convention. He buttonholed 153 journalists, about 50 of whom work in Washington, and sure enough, when asked who would be a better president, the scribes came down about 4 to 1 in favor of Kerry over Bush.

Next, however, Tierney drags into the spotlight an issue seldom discussed in such polls. Journalists, he notes, have a workaday bias that often overrides any political leanings: More than they need a president who thinks like they do, “[t]hey need good stories to make the front page and get on the air.” So he asks his respondents another question: “[W]hich administration they’d prefer to cover for the next four years strictly from a journalist standpoint?” And he gets an entirely different answer. After tossing out those with no opinion, he finds 77 reporters want four more years of Bush, while only 67 would rather cover a President Kerry.

Why? “You can’t ask for a richer cast of characters to cover,” one Washington correspondent told Tierney. “Kerry will be a bore after these guys.”

As anyone who has been a journalist for longer than about six minutes knows, it’s the prospect of four years of boredom, not the prospect of a president they would never vote for, that strikes terror into the hearts of news hounds. This is hard for non-journalists to understand. But the Tierney poll calls to mind a long history of politicians for whom reporters would never vote, but for whom they fervently prayed to win — from Huey Long in Louisiana, to Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia, to Arnold Schwarzenegger in California.

Professional bias trumps political bias every time. Understand that, and you begin to understand the political press.

Steve Lovelady

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.