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Commentary | COLUMN LEFT / ALEXANDER COCKBURN

We've Met the Establishment and It Is Us

The media tend to be more conservative, not more liberal than the general population.

July 02, 1998|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications

I saw some derisive reference the other day by a right-wing pundit to the "liberal media," supposedly athwart the mainstream of public opinion. This particular myth will never be laid to rest because right-wingers have got so much emotional and political stock invested in it. But it's nonsense nonetheless. When it comes to the Washington press corps, the "media" are most certainly athwart mainstream opinion, but on the rightward side.

Down the years, there have been efforts to settle the argument by means of surveys. Twenty years ago, the right used to brandish the "fact" that more than 80% of the Washington press corps voted for George McGovern over Richard Nixon in 1972. I'm not sure of the origins of this particular statistic, nor why a vote against Nixon should be regarded as anything other than conservative respect for the Constitution and the rule of law. But the mid-1970s were a time when publishers and such pressure groups as Reed Irvine's Accuracy in Media were trying extirpate all dangerous thoughts from the nation's newsrooms. So the "McGovernite press" charge came in very useful, particularly during the U.S.' wars of intervention in the late 1970s and 1980s.

There's one simple reason why the Washington press corps have drifted even further right. As Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of the Washington Post, put it a few years ago, "Reporters are more conservative than the previous generation. And I think there is a good reason for that. They get paid a hell of a lot better. It's hard to be a conservative on $75 a week; but $75,000 [a year] and you begin to think of the kids and the bank account and the IRA."

In the spring of this year, the indubitably liberal outfit known as FAIR, (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) commissioned David Croteau of the department of sociology and anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University to do a survey of the political outlook of the Washington press corps. Croteau sent questions to 444 Washington journalists and got back 141 responses from nine bureau chiefs, 27 editors and producers and 105 reporters. The respondents were mostly men, mostly white, mostly college-educated and mostly well off: In this era of the working spouse, 43% had household incomes between $50,000 and $99,000; 21% between $100,000 and $149,000; 17% between $150,000 and $199,000 and 14% had household incomes above $200,000.

On the evidence of Croteau's sample, Washington journalists are an immensely self-satisfied lot, which accounts for the fact that, in my observation, they drink less than their British counterparts, pickled in alcohol as a salve against low self-esteem. No less than 76% of the Americans reckon their own news organizations provide "excellent" or "good" coverage.

The journalists also proved sadly predictable in terms of what sources they use. On economic issues, just over half the sample nearly always reach for the phone to talk to someone in the government; 31% nearly always talk to someone in the corporate sector. Only 5% phone someone in the labor movement, presumably the same 5% who care to phone a "consumer advocate" like Ralph Nader.

The well-paid Washington journalists reckon by an exuberant majority that the economy is either "excellent" (34%) or "good" (58%.) A Gallup poll in March of this year showed a higher slice of the public reckoning the economy to be "only fair" (27%), as against 4% of the journalists making this cautious judgment.

The citizenry is similarly way to the left of the journalistic elite on health insurance and corporate power. No less than 77% of the huddled masses agree with the statement, "Too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies." Only 57% of the journalists are able to summon up this basic populist response, which has been the core belief of muckrakers since Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens.

The clearest example of how the Washington media are to the right of the public opinion comes on the issue of trade. In Croteau's sample, 65% of journalists think the North American Free Trade Agreement has had a positive impact on the U.S. Of the citizenry at large, only 32% take this view, with 42% (as against a mere 8% of the press corps) thinking NAFTA has been a bad thing.

Croteau attaches more importance to the semimystical category of "centrist" than he should. As with "agnostic," the word's only use is one of evasion. Many of the Washington press corps probably voted for Bill Clinton. That's no contradiction, since Clinton is a sedate, right-wing worshiper at the corporate altar, just like those covering him.

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