MediaWatch: December 1997

Vol. Eleven No. 12

Institutions Ask Why Credibility Down

Denying the Obvious: Bias

Last summer the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) and the Freedom Forum launched $1 million plus projects to determine why the press is losing credibility. They could save a lot of money if journalists would concede that liberal bias exists. Instead, as polls point to bias as a hindrance to credibility, much of the media remain in denial.

The latest example: A Fox News survey asked "What do you believe is the media’s worst problem?" The most popular reply, "bias" at 44 percent. After announcing the result on the Nov. 9 Fox News Sunday, host Tony Snow turned to Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson who conceded previous bias but rejected it now: "I don’t think that there’s a bias in the media now the way there used to be." Alerted to the many surveys documenting liberal views of reporters, Isaacson declared: "I’m not sure I really believe those polls."

Isaacson complained about how "we get blasted from both sides." A bewildered Brit Hume of Fox News replied: "Walter, do you really think the newsrooms of America are equally divided between conservatives and liberals?" Isaacson insisted: "I think that our newsroom at Time and the people who write there are open minded and are not Democrats and liberals as the popular perception is."

The October Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists, featured a story by former New York Times reporter John Wicklein who rejected the relevance of liberal views held by reporters since journalists "express a strong professional desire to be fair and honest in their reporting."

Unwittingly demonstrating the prism through which reporters miss bias, Wicklein insisted: "I’ve yet to find a paper in which I could discern a deliberate liberal — or conservative — slant to news stories. Instead, I’ve found reporters and editors working hard to play it straight." Indeed, Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie dismissed the public as ignorant, telling Wicklein: "I think people confuse reporting that exposes problems and seeks solutions as liberal bias."

But there may be hope. ASNE’s magazine ran a February cover story titled "The Myth of the Liberal Slant." The September American Editor, however, featured Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial page editor Ross Mackenzie’s piece titled "Liberalism’s Role in Our Collapsing Credibility." Up front, ASNE President Sandy Rowe, of the Oregonian, noted that reporters "dismiss the critics as cranky conservatives" but, she suggested, "we cannot improve our credibility with the majority of our public unless we are willing to examine bias through their lens, not ours." If only more journalists would take up her challenge.