The Extremely Tired And Overemphasized Notion Of Liberal Media Bias, And That MSNBC.com Story About Same

Posted by: Jon Fine on June 21, 2007

This is a simpleminded, blunt-tool kind of story, and an obvious bit of blog bait. (Big surprise: It worked.) Inevitably, the Drudge Report headline was THE GREAT DIVIDE: REPORTERS GIVE MONEY TO DEMS OVER REPUBLICANS 9 TO 1, even though the data compiled by MSNBC’s Bill Dedman does not get you to that conclusion.

There are a few examples that are just, well, kind of duh: if you’re doing on-air reporting, you should not be shilling for Obama. But plenty of these examples MSNBC’s Bill Dedman cites are just silly, and rather pointless. I refuse to get exercised about the fact that the New Yorker’s film critic and theater critic and Hollywood reporter gave money to Democrats; or that the Economist’s technology reporter, a Newsweek medical writer did the same, and –oh no! the damage done to journalism!—the “sports statistician” from the Boston Globe did the same. (The full list of who-gave-what-when is here.)

Because I refuse to get exercised about maintaining a myth of journalistic objectivity, especially if what you cover as a journalist has little or nothing to do with politics whatsoever.

Needless to say, Drudge did not pay attention to which employees were giving what, and so people whose jobs do not remotely touch on politics—or even reporting, in the case of the critics and sports statistician and the designers and copy editors—somehow still count as evidence of the Media’s Massive Democratic Conspiracy.

But, really. As long as many media outlets are based in big coastal cities, like New York, Los Angeles, and D.C., is it any surprise that the white-collar journalists in those towns will broadly reflect the white-collar biases of their locales—that is, overwhelmingly democratic?

And, by the way, the press pack works in mysterious ways. I know nothing about the personal politics of three excellent, savvy journalists who in 2000 were based in Washginton DC: Katherine “Kit” Seelye of the New York Times, Ceci Connolly of the Washington Post, and Sandra Sobieraj of the Associated Press. But if you think their milieu, meant they were shilling for the Dems as they covered the election of 2000—well, go back and read the clips. And, for that matter, mention their names to any member of the Gore’s inner circle, and stand back, since they’re probably still convinced their (extremely) tough coverage tilted the election against him. (Hat tip to this book, which is one of the places I’m lifting this idea from.)

By the way: I gave several hundred dollars to the Kerry campaign in 2004. (I’d be more precise, but I honestly don’t recall off the top of my head.) These donations were in keeping with the wise guidelines of my then-employer, Advertising Age, which only exempted journalists who covered politics from making political donations.

My current role at BusinessWeek is as a columnist (that is, someone who is paid to generate and express opinions), and, as our spokeswoman points out, BusinessWeek-ers are not banned form giving political donations.

In 2006, I gave donations to Democratic Senatorial candidates Jon Tester, Harold Ford, Claire McCaskill, and Jim Webb.

I will be donating early, often, and enthusiastically to the ’08 candidates of my choice, so long as BusinessWeek’s policies permit me to do so.

The New York Times’ Ethicist columnist, Randy Cohen, calls it all Ethicist-style here—his slightly-annoying style made all the more annoying because I agree with him:

“We admire those colleagues who participate in their communities — help out at the local school, work with Little League, donate to charity … But no such activity is or can be non-ideological. Few papers would object to a journalist donating to the Boy Scouts or joining the Catholic Church. But the former has an official policy of discriminating against gay children; the latter has views on reproductive rights far more restrictive than those of most Americans. Should reporters be forbidden to support those groups? I’d say not. Unless a group’s activities impinge on a reporter’s beat, the reporter should be free to donate to a wide range of nonprofits. Make a journalist’s charitable giving transparent, and let the readers weigh it as they will.

“Those who do not cover anything, but write a column of opinion should have even more latitude. It is such a writer’s job to make his views explicit. Those donations to nonprofits will no doubt reflect the views he or she is hired to express. In evaluating such civic engagement, it is well to remember that to have an opinion is not to have a bias. To conceal one’s political opinions is not to be without them.”

UPDATE 6/22 regarding The Ethicist: This is idiocy. a columnist, not a reporter, with no remote overlap with politics, being penalized for something he did well before he even started working at this particular newspaper.

(Additional disclosure: the head copy editor at BusinessWeek, Prudence Crowther, is cited as a Democratic donor in Dedman’s article. While I have not discussed any of this with her, I salute her straightforward response to Dedman’s inquiry.)

Reader Comments

Don

June 22, 2007 8:54 AM

who did that LonelyGirl video blogger donate to?

Bella Stander

June 22, 2007 11:59 AM

So the Spokesman-Review won't run Cohen's column on ethics (how ironic!) because of a political contribution he made long ago.

How far back should news organizations delve into their correspondents' past? Should a columnist have to tell about, say, the $5 donated to the Black Panthers 35 years ago? Or collecting money for the Young Republicans in high school?

I see what's next: asking potential employees, "Are you now or have you ever been...?"

keith metz-porozni

June 22, 2007 12:37 PM

The first thing I learned in journalism school: objectivity does not exist in journalism; bias colors everything.

Why is this so hard to understand?

Thanks for the column, even though it is incredibly "duh." Sometimes one needs to be beaten over the head with reality for it to finally sink in.

William Cooke

June 22, 2007 2:11 PM

Where was the "liberal media bias" while George Bush was trouncing the Constitution, removing our fundamental freedoms in the Patriot Act and Military Appropriations Act of 2006? George 43 has been given a free ride for 6 years. Now that people are BEGINNING to ask questions, it's a "liberal media attack?!" Puuleeeze!

J

June 22, 2007 2:39 PM

Of course there is liberal bias in the media. It is pervasive in my own newsroom.

But what I thought was bizarre was Prudence Crowther's assertion that she's not a journalist. An odd and disheartening claim for someone who helps shape her magazine's news presentation and an insult to those of us who DO consider ourselves journalists even if we don't write news stories.

William Barber

June 22, 2007 2:54 PM

If stock analysts are required to disclose what stocks they are invested in, why shouldn't reporters be required to disclose the same? Journalists get into the biz to "change the world", that's their motivation, the least they should do is disclose where their mindset is BEFORE they report on politics. It still AMAZES me how self-righteous reporters are, how critical they are of everyone's and every profession's judgement except their own! And NO, I read the article and ALL the details. I even had an email exchange with the author; very FEW (38 actually, yes I actually counted them) of the reporters were food, sports, film, etc. reporters, the author of this column is being VERY disingenuous, and is, frankly, spewing disinformation about the column. More concerning is that almost HALF of the 140 or so were EDITORS! They shape what gets into newspapers and on the evening news in the end! Perhaps he didn't read it at all and is just recounting what his (D) friends tell him?

William Barber

June 22, 2007 3:31 PM

Mr. William Cooke, obviously "they" haven't gotten to you yet, but how BRAVE you are to come out here on this site and expose the dictatorial Hitlerian Bush (I think that was the New Yorkers Mark Singer's reference to him -- no bias there!) for all of us to see. Quick, hide and start the REVOLUTION before "they" send you to GITMO . . . what a ridiculous person you are.

Paul

June 22, 2007 4:11 PM

Of course more journalists and media people donate to Democrats than to Republicans.

If you're a Republican-leaning and work in the media, you TAKE the money, you don't give it. And it's not a few hundred or a few thousand we're talking about, it's hundreds of thousands.

Mark

June 22, 2007 8:05 PM

The media is liberal and they have control of the information given to the American people. Thus, liberals have been given an avenue to brainwash the American public.

The liberal media needs to diversify and add more conservatives. If they do not, they are no better than the Democrats who prevented blacks from integrating.

Mediadavid

June 25, 2007 8:20 AM

I have to disagree with you here....
It seems pretty obvious that journalists/reporters/copyeditors/editors who are actively engaged in covering a particular beat or making decisions about how that beat is covered, should not simultaneously be an active participant in the beat they are covering.
ie...if you cover politics or edit political stories, you shouldn't be out campaigning for one side or the other. giving money is clearly a part of campaigning. some might say it's the most important part.
I think this applies to the Boy Scouts issues cited as well. You shouldn't be covering the scouts/gay issue if you are a scout leader.
You shouldn't cover the catholic church's stand on abortion if you're counseling women as part of a church outreach to not get abortions. this seems so easy and logical, I don't understand why some don't get it.
As for the assertion that your BusinessWeek copyeditor isn't a journalist, I have to agree that is pretty sad.
Maybe her role is just checking grammar, in which case, I apologize. But if she's asking a reporter to explain why he didn't include a particular quote, hey, that's part of journalism.

Don

June 27, 2007 9:29 AM

I do not believe that donating money to a political cause is considered campaigning. It certainly is NOT considered campaigning by the US government when crafting the "Hatch Act."

Mediadavid

June 28, 2007 9:46 AM

My point is that while donating money is obviously not physically campaigning, it is clearly one of the key building blocks of any political action. It enables a campaign to operate and shows clear support for the candidate to whom money is given. So yes, I will stick with my belief that donations are "a part of campaigning."
For all of us who watch or cover or are involved in politics, its clear the money part grows in importance every day. But forgive me if I in any way suggested the Hatch Act declares donating to be campaigning.
However, would any reasonable viewer or reader conclude that a journalist who gives money to a candidate doesn't in fact support and endorse that candidate and their views?

bartkid

July 16, 2007 12:49 PM

Sorry not to be outraged by 12 dozen reporters'/media persons' contributions, but eyeballing the figures, I doubt the sum of their contributions are more than or much more than a single Bush Pioneer (someone who gave $200,000 to the Bush-Cheney campaign).

Also, I do not see Rupert Murdoch, Sumner Redstone, Brian Roberts or Dick Parsons on this list. Report on how much these guys and their corporations gave to politicians if you want me to be outraged.

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