Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Journalists and campaign contributions

It turns out that newsrooms may look an awful lot like college campuses, at least when you use to quite inaccurate measure of campaign contributions. Just as those professors who give in recordable amounts contribute overwhelming to Democratic and liberal causes and candidates, so do the men and women who report and analyze our news.

I’m shocked, I say, shocked.

Of course, we can’t conclude anything from this about the propensities of the non-contributors. For all we know, the non-contributors are overwhelmingly Republican and conservative. Right.

Of course, some news organizations either prohibit or discourage campaign contributions, because that behavior lends credence to an argument about bias. But such policies only cover up potential evidence in a discussion of bias and change absolutely nothing in the opinions of those who populate the newsrooms.

We’re told, of course, that journalists respond to professional norms of neutrality, and I’m will to concede that lots of them try. But we are, as Aristotle was one of the first and by no means the last to notice, bad judges in our own cases. All too often, our motives and biases are unself-conscious. In a setting where one family of opinions or general line of argument tends to predominate, what seems neutral, unbiased, and reasonable may not be.

I don’t think that there’s any cure for this unself-conscious bias (or for fully self-conscious agenda journalism). I’m not about to call for affirmative action for conservatives in America’s newsrooms. Still, I can’t help but think that well-documented, well-informed criticism offered on sites like this, and the existence of a multiplicity of news sources provide a kind of counterpoison.

I say: let ’em make campaign contributions, the more transparently the better. And uphold the professional norms. But realize that the professional norms can be best enforced, not by company policies (someone once called things like this "parchment barriers"), but by the critical oversight of a well-informed public that can, if it loses confidence in a journalist, find its information elsewhere.

Discussions - 8 Comments

What I found interesting from reading this is Fox News is one of the few organizations which doesn't forbid campaign contributions. If their reporters aren't making them, perhaps they're simply underpaid. That's why the fact-checking is so bad.

But many of the Fox employees who contribute give to Democrats. Are they intentionally making their employer look bad? Or are they just not competent (the market having established the value of their work)?

You bring up an interesting point, Knipperberg. How can you trust Fox News if the workforce there overwhelmingly supports Democrats!

My own theory about this is the reporters biased toward the right feel they've done enough for the party just by WORKING at Fox.

by the way, that was an UNintentional misspelling of Knippenberg. My apologies.

According to Brit Hume who covered this subject during tonight's news cast, one Fox reporter contributed to the Dems and one to the Republicans. How's that for "fair and balanced"?

I think the important thing is how do the EDITORS at Fox News give? The owners?

Good question, Daniel!

I probably shouldn't waste my time responding to this blog post, as it's already a whopping FOUR DAYS old! That's ancient history in the "blogosphere" isn't it? But I have a little time to kill, so...

The first thing that has struck me in Mr. Knippenberg's posts on this report is the apparent conclusion being drawn that Democrat = liberal (or even leftist). Surely, as we're often reminded here by both the bloggers and commenters alike (esp. as the Bush/Cheney Administration implodes), there are important distinctions to be made between a member of the GOP and those pols and thinkers who are truly, actually "conservative." Well, the same should go for the distinction between Dem and liberal. Just look at our legislators on Capitol Hill. We all know that America's liberals want the U.S. to get OUT of Iraq ASAP. Have the Dems really put on a serious effort to get this done? No. As we all know, there are Republicans who are slightly left-of-center and Dems who are slightly right-of-center (I would argue that there are more Dems to the right than Reps. to the left, and that the Dems go further to the right than their GOP counterparts, but that's an argument for another day that will probably never materialize, at least on this blog). So, giving to a Dem does not a liberal or a leftist make. I think this is an important distinction, actually a crucial distinction, because we so often hear the phrase, here and elsewhere, that the media is "liberally-biased." I can't say that I've EVER heard the phrase "partial to the Democrats," which actually might contain a kernel of truth, in certain areas.

Further, how did we jump from showing that more reporters give to Dems to determining therefore their actual reporting is skewed and tilted to the left? If that is so, are we to automatically assume that the number of journalists who gave to the GOP skew THEIR reporting to the right? Even I wouldn't necessarily make that assumption. When it comes to pinpointing and highlighting bias, we need to get into the details, get into the nitty-gritty of subjects covered (and not) and the manner in which they are covered. It strikes me as lazy to just say "more reporters vote Dem, so there you have it, the news is leftist agitprop." I suppose we can expect similar analyses of the validity of scientists' work now on any number of research subjects. [If they vote Dem, they are liberal and their science is just pushing an agenda, right? But when a non-scientist at AEI promotes the notion that global warming is a hoax, or not as severe as the scientists say (depending on when we ask him), and this policy guy is a right-wing Republican, what then? Are we to assume that he's just doing his research, with an objective goal of finding the truth on the issue? Just an example...]

I also question this "investigative report"'s overly broad definition of "journalist" for the purposes of the analysis. While I'm sure we could all agree that news writers, editors, correspondents and producers fall into the journalist category, some of the others who were outed here seem to be in the journalism profession in much more of a tangential way, esp. in the sense that their politics might be considered relevant or influential on their reporting. I have three friends who are or have been copy editors, and they described their job as much more technical than substantive. They are/were not editing the real content of the news (what is and is not covered), so much as the formatting, the grammar, and the length of the articles, and the more they might have tried to do such substantive editing, the more they would be at odds with whoever wrote the article. But, aside from that arguably borderline category, there are numerous others in this report that strike me as a real stretch for "journalist" - no disrespect intended for what they do. Sports editors, statisticians and reporters; real estate reporters, travel columnists, technology correspondents, graphic design editors, fashion editors, classical music critics, entertainment reporters, food writers, automobile critics, personal finance columnists, theatre and film critics, at least 10 people from The New Yorker (did they check the contribs. made by the staff of National Review?) 3 guys from Rolling Stone magazine (since when is that considered a news source? Yes, they have political opinions, but does anyone really think they're trying to give equal time and space to both sides?) and a guy from MTV news (who had the final -edited- quote in Mr. Voegeli's post), for God's sake!! Frankly, I don't give a damn if the same guy who describes last night's Cubs game or writes about the Pierre Cardin collection at a Milan fashion show is a Dem or a Repub. Does anyone, truly? And if we're including The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and MTV News (!!), then we should also include The Nation, The Progressive, National Review, The Weekly Standard, City Journal, and Claremont Review of Books, among many, many others, should we not? Actually, the more I look at this MSNBC report list, the more it's laughable. Note that Corey Flintoff got busted for his wife's contribution, and since then NPR has tightened their "no contribs" policy (whereas Fox is fine with it). Are the spouses of journalists not allowed to contribute to campaigns? For what reason? What about the parents or children of journalists? This is getting rather silly, already.

But if people do think these contributions are a cause for alarm, I think greater attention should be paid higher up the ladder. Let's look at news editors and publishers. People who actually control and own the news media. Not only is it now controlled by a small and shrinking handful of corporations - that themselves have a variety of biases and preferences for many policies and political outcomes - but those at the top of this corporate news food chain have been identified as having a preference for Republicans. Here is the crucial part (from Editor & Publisher, Nov. 2000):

"The Editor & Publisher/TIPP poll also asked who the editors and publishers plan to vote for themselves next week. In another surprise, those willing to reveal their vote named Bush by a 2-1 margin. Publishers will vote for Bush at a 3-1 ratio, with editors favoring the Texas Governor by a narrow margin. Even those who plan to vote for Gore name Bush as the likely winner of the election.

Asked whether they felt that newspapers have provided biased coverage of the presidential race this year, 25% said yes. Nearly 4 out of 5 who said that newspapers favored one candidate named Al Gore as the beneficiary. The vast majority of this group, however, are Bush backers."

And I think this little Oct. 2004 fact-check from Eric Boehlert in Salon is also helpfully clarifying:

"'Look, the Republican candidate will never win the contest for editorial board endorsements. The major dailies across the country tend to skew liberal,' RNC chairman Ed Gillespie told CNN last week. That spin comes straight out of the GOP handbook that insists the mainstream press tilts to the left, so of course newspapers love Democrats come Election Day.

Only problem is it’s not accurate. In fact, the complete opposite is true. Since 1940 when the industry trade magazine Editor & Publisher began tracking newspapers during presidential elections, only two Democratic candidates — Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Bill Clinton in 1992 — have ever won more endorsements than their Republican opponent. That’s because newspaper publishers, who usually sign off on endorsements, tend to vote Republican (like lots of senior, corporate executives), which means GOP candidates pick up more endorsements. A lot more. In 1984, president Ronald Reagan landed roughly twice as many endorsements as Democrat Walter Mondale in the president’s easy re-election win. And in 1996, despite his weak showing at the polls, 179 daily newspapers endorsed Republican Bob Dole, which easily outpaced the Democrats’ tally by nearly a 2-to-1 margin.

In 2000, the overwhelming trend towards Republicans continued."

Of course, competence can be a factor rising above ideology, and thus Bush lost the endorsement race in '04 (but by a rather narrow margin - 208 for Kerry, 189 for GWB).

Well, since few blog-readers will come this far, and fewer still who have figured out that I question the whole premise that the MSM is a big liberal propaganda machine, I will simply sum up by saying that the MSNBC report appears to prove very little, and that where there is bias, and where such bias matters most is that of the owners, the editors (editorial boards), and the corporate publishers/producers of these various news outlets. And MTV News is about as serious of an objective news source as The O'Reilly Factor or The Colbert Report.

But I have a little time to kill, so...
Whew! You weren't kidding!

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