The Press and the State
The "leftist slant" of the mainstream news media in the United States tends to be in the eye of the beholder. For example, when former CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg claimed in his recent book Bias that mainstream news figures such as Dan Rather and others demonstrated outward leftist sentiments, the attacks upon him by his former colleagues were fierce and unremitting. Goldberg is a pariah in his business, and the denials by media figures continue.
As a former journalism graduate and newspaper reporter, I have always been intrigued by the issue of "liberal bias." The newspapers in Tennessee, where I spent my somewhat brief career, were quite conservative, and the editorial page of one of them was decidedly and predictably right-wing, so one could not accuse our paper of being slanted to the left, or so it seemed.
It has been nearly 25 years since I worked in a newspaper office, but my interest in journalism and the issue of "bias" has not abated. Three years ago, I wrote a doctoral dissertation on an economic approach to journalism, and I continue to use this topic as an academic research agenda. My conclusions (if academics are permitted to use that term) are that (1) Yes, Virginia, leftist dogma reigns supreme in the mainstream press, and (2) it is worse than most people believe.
The leftist bias of modern mainstream journalistic outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CBS News is not simply based upon the journalists’ view of the world, as left-wing as it is. The late Warren Brookes, one of the few journalists who actually understood the workings of a free society, said it best when he pointed out that the press is interested in the "statist quo." Government, he said, is the main beat of reporters, and it is in their interest to make it grow and grow.
A small but insightful example comes from my old haunts in Tennessee. Reporters had a number of coverage beats that ranged from general assignment to city hall. The prized beats were the political beats covering the state legislature and the congressional delegation, the county courthouse, the city police and county sheriff, and city government. The Federal Building was less favored if only because there were fewer "big cases" tried in federal district court.
All of us, however, despised the business beat. We considered it little more than a repository for self-serving handouts and press releases given by people who expected us to write their advertising copy for them. (The business reporter also covered the Tennessee Valley Authority, so all was not lost for him.) To a man, all of us saw business owners as nearly useless, except for the fact that they paid for our advertising, which was the major source of revenue for the newspaper. Thus, business coverage was a necessary evil, but an evil all the same.
Looking back at our attitudes, I cannot say I was surprised. Our disdain for the business beat came not so much from antibusiness fervor as it did from the fact that businesses are private entities whose owners are loathe to expose them to bad publicity, although I can also say that most of us there did carry antibusiness prejudices. However, I certainly can say that it was not as fun to cover the business beat as it was to cover a trial or a contentious county council meeting, not to mention a speech by the governor or another politician.
In a word, government was our lifeline, and while there was somewhat (but only somewhat) of an adversarial relationship between news reporters and government officials, as I look back, I see that government and the press were and are mutually dependent upon each other. Thus, it is in the interest of the press not only for government to be big and intrusive, but also for it to grow. For all of the vaunted talk of the press being the "watchdog" of government, if anything, the modern news media is government’s lapdog, and the implications for a free society are enormous. The famous free and independent press that the founders of the USA believed would serve as a check on the power and expansion of the state has now become the biggest cheerleader for the modern Leviathan.
This is not accidental, for the modern press is not so much an artifact of the post-colonial era, when the First Amendment was conceived and written, but rather of the progressivism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The famous "Muckrakers" of the progressive era who dominated journalism all were advocates for government expansion. Furthermore, it was the "progressive press" dominated by the newspaper empires of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer that successfully whipped the nation into war fever, leading to the Spanish-American War and American imperialism, something for which we are still paying. It is an ominous sign of modern journalism that the top awards given to journalists are named after Pulitzer.
Even the so-called Canons of Journalism that were adopted in 1922 did not change the "progressive" focus of journalism. In fact, the façade of "objectivity" actually has made things worse, as journalists can now claim not to be biased when, in fact, their work is solidly antienterprise and antifreedom.
The Great Depression did nothing to engender modern journalism to freedom of enterprise and private property rights. First, like most other Americans, most reporters saw the depression as a "failure of capitalism." Second, and more important, the charming Franklin D. Roosevelt cut a much better political figure than the staid Herbert Hoover, and personal contact in journalism, especially in political journalism, is very important. Given the "progressivist" bias of the press by the 1930s, there was little doubt that the semi-socialistic FDR had more answers than the supposedly "rugged individualist" Herbert Hoover.1 Furthermore, as part of his Works Progress Administration (WPA) programs, Roosevelt made sure that numerous unemployed journalists were on the payroll. This "masterstroke" ensured that journalists would be writing pro-Roosevelt propaganda for many years to come.2
Whatever hope there was for modern journalism to support a constitutional order was lost after World War II. As the U.S. government joined the efforts to make college education available to more and more people through subsidies and the like, newspapers began to require that reporters have college degrees.
Today’s typical reporter, while a college graduate, is relatively poorly educated, especially in economics. Our journalism curriculum at my alma mater, for example, required a year of economic principles, which, I recall, was basically a set of lessons in Keynesianism and other mainstream follies. In other words, I entered journalism school as an economic illiterate and left J-school with even greater economic illiteracy. Multiply this by the number of journalism graduates, and one can see just a small picture of the problem.
The extent of the problem was recently highlighted by Michael Gartner’s USA Today column in which he excoriated people who thought our taxes were too high. Gartner is a "well-respected" journalist who used to be president of NBC News. However, in 1993, NBC’s "respected" news show "Dateline" staged a fake incident in which the show’s principles tried to make it look as though certain General Motors trucks were prone to catching fire in side crashes.
Unfortunately for "Dateline" and Gartner, it was later clearly shown that the entire exercise was a fraud, and that the people at NBC knew it. Gartner resigned from NBC, and the show had to issue a public apology to GM. Today, Gartner is still "well-respected" and "Dateline" is an award-winning show, which also tells us something about integrity within the Fourth Estate.
Last, but not of least importance, is the fact that journalists today remain what they have been throughout most of our history: political operatives. While I have no problems with people who are politically oriented, and newspapers and broadcast media can do what the owners want, I do have a problem with dishonest claims to "objectivity."
Furthermore, to demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between the modern political classes and journalism, one has only to see the current "revolving door" in Washington, D.C. The gaggle of former government staffers working as "journalists"--from Chris Matthews to George Stephanopolous--demonstrates beyond a doubt what is happening in journalism today.
In short, for all of the promotion of freedom of speech given by our modern media, we also lose greatly by the Fourth Estate’s slavish devotion to the growth of government. As Ludwig von Mises pointed out, there ultimately is no freedom of speech without freedom to own and use private property. Unfortunately, the modern journalist is part of the great assault upon property. Unless there is a change somewhere, the press, in the end, will be part of the undoing of freedom of speech itself.
- 1. As Murray N. Rothbard points out repeatedly in America’s Great Depression, Hoover was anything but a free enterpriser, but the myth that the press and historians fostered during the 1930s lives on.
- 2. For example, Studs Terkel, who is well known for his hostility to private property and private enterprise, was one of FDR’s WPA minions.