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The Media Elite: AMERICA'S NEW POWERBROKERS by S. Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman and Linda S. Lichter (Adler & Adler: $19.95; 336 pp.)

October 12, 1986|Michael Schudson | Schudson is author of "Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers." and

The authors of this new book are the media critic darlings of neo-conservatives. For nine years, social scientists Stanley Rothman, Robert Lichter and Linda Lichter have pursued the hypothesis that the "media elite" (journalists who work for the networks, the news weeklies, The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal) are "liberals." They conclude from their survey of 240 such journalists, reported more fully here than in previous publications, that they are indeed a "homogeneously" liberal, cosmopolitan group with growing wealth and power.

The authors show that these editors and reporters are more liberal than business leaders of the "average" American. But homogeneous ? This scarcely describes a group in which 54% identify themselves as liberal, 46% as moderate or conservative. (For journalists overall, not just elite journalists, a recent study indicates that 22% are liberal, 78% middle-of-the-road or conservative.)

Not homogeneous, then, and not exactly liberal. Liberal is a confusing label for a group much more socially liberal (53% think adultery is not wrong) than economically liberal (only 13% think government should own big corporations). These journalists fully accept the framework of capitalism, although they wish for it a human face.

They do not sound like a threatening group of people. But the authors worry that their personal views influence the way they report the news and so distort public perceptions. In chapters on media coverage of nuclear energy, school busing, and the oil crisis of the 1970s, Rothman and the Lichters find that, sure enough, journalists' views do enter into their stories.

This sounds like the most innocent of conclusions. But it is neither innocent nor, as it happens, quite true. The authors fail to build a convincing case because they do not adequately address three key problems. First, do journalists report their own views or do their stories reflect the division of opinion among powerful elites outside journalism? The former may be true, but the latter is the more powerful factor. If journalists' own views on busing, for instance, are as homogeneously liberal as the authors suggest, it is hard to explain why they find anti-busing themes dominant in the media in 1974-75, even in a paragon of liberalism like the Washington Post. Growing division about busing among politicians, however, is a likely explanation. Journalists report what legitimate authorities say.

Second, do different news institutions have different perspectives despite their allegedly homogeneous liberal employees? Of course. As the authors show, The New York Times is regularly more cautious and moderate than the Washington Post; U.S. News is predictably more conservative than its rival newsweeklies. This should surprise no one--except Rothman and the Lichters who think liberal journalists are running riot, unchecked by the powerful news bureaucracies they work in.

Third, if the different media are more diverse than the authors' thesis can explain, they are also more alike than the authors can account for. They are surprisingly alike not so much in a detectable liberal bias as in a broadly non-partisan tone. The authors cite another study that shows the national media to be even-handed in the 1980 presidential election and harsher toward Reagan than toward Mondale in 1984 only because of the generic professional (rather than personal) bias against a front-runner of any party. The reporters wanted to keep the election story interesting. Professional habits invariably override personal views.

These points would not be worth belaboring had the authors qualified their conclusions appropriately. But for all their self-proclaimed detachment, this book is the kind of project for which the word tendentious was invented.

Rothman and the Lichters have rediscovered that the media do not "mirror" the world. In doing so, they find some interesting things. Their discussion of how journalists use experts, for instance, is excellent.

But they bury this original work in their rush to condemn the media. Their sole message is that the media are liberal--and therefore (or else why the fuss?) bad. No wonder early reports of their work have been warmly embraced by neo-conservatives.

I suspect some people have also been attracted by two features of the work I find repellent: a pretentious scientism (no namby-pambies these folks, they have data, they do surveys, they commit social science) and sophomoric cocktail-party psychologizing. For the latter, turn to Chapter 4, "Inside the Media Mind," and learn, for instance, that journalists criticize people in power to protect against "an inner striving for power . . . this inner struggle against aggressive desires is displaced onto the external world. . . ."

A serious analysis of why we have the kind of journalism we do lies not inside the "media mind," whatever that is, but inside news institutions where, unfortunately, the authors of this study did not venture.

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