The “liberal media” shibboleth redux – Part I


Candidates for office in 2008 already are in full cry, sadly, and so are the party organizations, conscienceless consultants and tunnel-vision corporate press and television pundits. We also have an early start on the high-volume touting of myths that have worked for one side or another in the past, and truth be damned.

Opinion: The “liberal media” shibboleth redux – Part I. Part II will run tomorrow. If you just can’t wait, you can find it at The “liberal media” shibboleth redux – Part 2.

One of the most effective of those groundless myths is the claim that “the press” is overwhelmingly prejudiced in favor of liberals – or maybe it’s against conservatives. Either way, it’s widely believed, even by some who work for “the press.”

The latest claim for press liberalism comes in a long piece by MSNBC reporter Bill Dedman. In the piece, Dedman analyzed Federal Election Commission records and identified 144 journalists across the country who made political contributions over the past three years. Of those, 125 gave to Democrats and “liberal causes,” Dedman said, and only 17 gave to Republicans, while two gave to both parties.

Eric Black, who spent about as long at the Star Tribune as I did, and who has a carefully nurtured reputation for calm observation and erudition, seconded the Dedman conclusions in a piece written for the and re-published in the TC Daily Planet. For years, he wrote analyses of political and social situations and issues with a somewhat scholarly tone. Both pieces, Dedman’s and Black’s, will provide considerable fodder for the right wing Republican campaign propaganda mill.

The Dedman figures are at the same time undoubtedly accurate and unmitigated bullshit in terms of what they imply to readers.

At the time of the research for the MSNBC story, there were somewhere around 120,000 working journalists in the country, not counting stringers for country weeklies and the like. That makes 144 pretty small potatoes. Again: just 144 of roughly 120,000 people made political donations -– far too small a number to be at all meaningful. It simply is not a representative number. If anything, it shows how clean of overt political activity the vast majority of journalists keep themselves.

Secondly, as pointed out June 22 by Jamison Foser, a writer for Media Matters, an outfit that keeps a clear eye on news operations here and abroad, many of the 144 journalistic contributors mentioned in the Dedman piece are in no position to influence political coverage. They include a sports statistician for the Boston Globe, sports columnists for the South Florida Sun-Sentinal and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and a sports editor for the San Jose Mercury News among others removed from any influence on political or social coverage.

Dedman acknowledges that many of the journalists listed as donors “cover topics far from politics” such as food, fashion and sports, but that doesn’t change the thrust of the piece for most readers.

Third, the Dedman and Black pieces fail to mention, as Foser does, the hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to politicians – Republicans over Democrats by considerably more than two to one -– by publishers, other corporate officers and top-level editors of newspaper and magazine companies. They are, of course, people with the power, often used, to influence coverage.

In a note to me, Dedman said his piece was not an article about liberal bias but about journalistic ethics and so he looked only at journalists and not publishers and other corporate ethics. To my mind, the question of “ethics” and “not bias” is splitting hairs too fine to grow on a human head, but you can make your own judgment on that.

The idea of examining the donations of writers and editors without looking at those of others in positions of great power over the news operations, even though he acknowledged that is what he was doing, is, as I said to him in a responsive note, like publishing a critique of a new car model while ruling out any comment on the engine.

But, hey, the repeated charge works to intimidate reporters and, especially, already right-leaning editors. If you’re someone who appreciates a nicely executed fraud, this one is a truly great scam.