Why are journalists liberal?
Media | Marvin Olasky
Liberal media bias is so obvious that it’s hardly worth writing about it anymore. I had also thought the trend obvious: At least conservatives have Fox News now, and its ability to nudge the public conversation a little rightward. But Pete Wehner in Commentary last week put forth the interesting proposition that Fox may be making liberal journalists less subtle in their tilting.
Here’s what Wehner wrote, “For decades progressives had a monopoly on news, which meant they were content to slant the news but not routinely cross the line into advocacy. But now that Fox News has offered not only a different perspective, but a popular one, journalists may feel they must, in order to compensate for their loss of influence, increase their liberal advocacy.” I suspect that’s true.
The question remains: Why are the overwhelming majority of big-time journalists liberal? Wehner writes, “more and more ‘objective’ journalists seem to feel that liberalism is synonymous with social justice and they want to be in the midst of the fight to advance it. Hence we see people like Bob Schieffer and Tom Brokaw–who once upon a time would have actually tried to keep their biases reasonably in check–frame the issue over gun control as if we’re in Selma in 1965.”
Wehner concludes, “There’s something emotionally satisfying about trying to recapture, over and over again, the moral moment that was the civil rights era.” That’s true—and journalists like all of us, whatever our ideologies, have a tendency to fixate on certain moral moments, and interpret them in particular ways.
I won’t dive deeply into this now, but in 1990 I wrote for an academic publisher a footnote-filled book that tried to explain the history of American journalism by looking at three macro-stories that served as the basic way journalists of different era viewed the news and their role in telling. I still think that approach works, and I’ll give you the executive summary:
The OFFICIAL story dominated colonial American journalism. Its basic idea was that the king or his royal governors would keep order and impose justice. The job of a journalist was to trust the king, print what his officials wanted printed, and not print anything that would hurt the reputation of the king and his administrators—for if people lost confidence in them, anarchy could result and everyone would be hurt. Journalism and public relations were the same.
In the 18th century, a second macro-story arose in America and went on to dominate much of the 19th century. I called this the CORRUPTION story, because journalists (heavily influenced by Christian thinking) were ready to show that all—including presidents and other leaders—sin and fall short of God’s glory. Maybe I should have called it the CFR story, after the Bible’s teaching of creation, fall, and redemption, because journalists also showed (at least in the early 19th century) that Christ redeems many and allows us to live better lives and build a better society.
The third macro-story, which emerged in the 19th century and dominated much of the 20th, was the OPPRESSION story. Within it man is naturally good, not corrupt, so the protagonist is the liberal or radical who spotlights and opposes the external influences that must be overthrown so that progress will come. The mission is to do away with capitalism or churches or schools or guns or meat or … something that oppresses us. Then our lives will improve.
A fourth macro-story began to emerge in the 1960s and is dominant now, and it grew in response to the question: How do we overthrow oppression? We could call this the O & O, the merger of official story and oppression story. The original impetus for O & O was the civil rights movement, where Washington’s overthrow of some local and state powers in the south helped redress a century of grievances and bring about equal rights for black Americans. Liberal journalists went from that triumph to seeing the federal government as the change-making agent in a vast array of endeavors.
And that’s why Barack Obama gets such enormous press support, with journalism and public relations merged.
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