Journalism, Liberalism, Elitism

I’m not going to jump directly into the fray of responses to my former professor Tom Edsall’s CJR piece about the liberal leanings of journalists, but I did want to focus on this passage:

Once, before 1965, reporters were a mix of the working stiffs leavened by ne’er-do-well college grads unfit for corporate headquarters or divinity school. Since the civil rights and women’s movements, the culture wars and Watergate, the press corps at such institutions as The Washington Post, ABC-NBC-CBS News, the NYT, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, etc. is composed in large part of “new” or “creative” class members of the liberal elite—well-educated men and women who tend to favor abortion rights, women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights.

The phenomenon described here made me think of a recent British Cabinet Office report, “Unleashing Aspiration,” that documented a generational shift in the make-up of various professions in the UK. This chart comes from the study:

The upshot is that a working journalist or broadcaster born in 1958 might have had a sibling who went on to become a nurse, but by 1970 a newborn future journalist’s family background was more likely to be similar to an accountant’s—and not all too far removed from a lawyer’s or a doctor’s.

Edsall’s piece and the UK study are approaching the question from different directions, but I think they’re both describing the increasing professionalization of journalism that occurred during this period—a narrowing, refining, and standardizing of career paths, which reinforced the emphasis on elite education. The political implications of that transition are various and complex; as Edsall says, “reporters and editors tend to be social liberals, not economic liberals.” Indeed, Dana Goldstein of the (liberal) magazine The American Prospect, who first flagged the UK report, notes that this development “makes the profession whiter, wealthier (in terms of family wealth; salaries remain modest), and less concerned with public policy issues that affect the poor and even the middle class.” Those observations are just as valid as noting that journalists lean left on culture war issues, and both trends have their roots in the same place.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.