Those media-bias ships sail on

Porthole panel21In reaction to my latest post about media bias, Dallas Morning News editorial writer Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher posted a short item on that newspaper’s editorial page blog in which he asked his colleagues for their reaction to it. The key question: Am I on to something when I insist that the key media-bias issue today is that the vast majority of mainstream journalists are sailing left on moral and cultural issues, as opposed to issues of economics, foreign policy, health care and other similar “political” issues?

Dreher thinks I’m correct about this. Thus, he wrote:

This is a big reason why so much of the public is alienated from the mass media. When people ask me what the orientation of the DMN editorial board is, I usually tell them “business Republican,” which is not the same thing as conservative. That is, we tend to be conservative on economics and foreign affairs, but liberal on social issues. Some call this “progressive conservatism,” which to me sounds like an oxymoron, but it basically means that as an editorial board (as distinct from individuals) we’re pretty libertarian. Do any of you disagree? …

I was just thinking about this, and I think I’m the only member of the editorial board who is a social conservative. Mike probably comes closest to me, but he’s more of a libertarian conservative than a social conservative. Most everybody else is a social moderate or liberal, right? Help me out here.

So far, the only editorial board member to respond is Michael Landauer, who confessed:

I’d say that’s a fair assessment. I personally, away from politics, am pretty socially conservative, I think. But when it comes to government on social issues, I probably am more libertarian or, some would say, even liberal.

The important point that Dreher makes is that the most explosive issues in media-bias research are not linked to fights between Democrats and Republicans. It may appear that way, but if you dig deeper you find lots of mainstream journalists are Republicans, but they are “business Republicans” who are pro-abortion rights, pro-gay rights and take similar stances on other issues that, in this day and age, dominate the headlines about religion, politics and religion in politics. You can find evidence of this gap in a wide variety of studies, not all of them by researchers on the right.

A 2004 study over at the Pew Research Center and the Project for Excellence in Journalism led to an infamous column by Howard Kurtz at the Washington Post in which he directly addressed this “religious” side of the media-bias wars. Here is a piece of what I wrote about that at the time:

“The survey confirmed that national journalists are to the left of the public on social issues,” wrote Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. “Nine in 10 say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral (40 percent of the public thinks this way). As might have been inferred from the upbeat coverage of gay marriage in Massachusetts, 88 percent of national journalists say society should accept homosexuality; only about half the public agrees.”

There’s more. Only 31 percent of national journalists still have confidence in the public’s election choices, as compared with 52 percent under Clinton. For Kurtz, the implication was clear that “many media people feel superior to their customers.”

Bingo. This is why GetReligion keeps returning to this topic over and over.

The main purpose of this blog is to lobby for improved coverage of serious religion news in serious American newspapers. Yes, that is not a left vs. right matter. However, it is clear that this social issues gap is an important one, especially in an era dominated by religion headlines about abortion, homosexuality, religion in public schools, euthanasia and a whole host of other hot-button topics. This gap is important in an era in which newspaper sales are on the decline. You see, your friends here at GetReligion (confession is good for the soul) are in favor of the survival of mainstream, balanced, “American model of the press,” mass-appeal newspapers.

So is Peter Brown of the Orlando Sentinel. He once provided another crucial piece of this puzzle, noting that it appears that many or most mainstream journalists simply lead radically different lives than the people that they cover. They live in different places, read different magazines, live in different kinds of homes, enjoy different movies and, yes, spend their Sunday mornings in radically different places. In fact, Brown said that the biggest gaps between journalists and readers were linked to patterns in family life, religion and the split between cities and suburbs.

In the end, the biggest clashes were linked to religious and cultural issues.

So, how many true cultural conservatives are out there in the marketplace? How many no longer read a mainstream paper? How many are poised to cancel that subscription? How many continue to hang on, avoiding certain sections of the paper because they feel like their most cherished beliefs and values are under attack in stories that they believe are biased or unbalanced or both? Is the number 10 percent? Closer to 50 percent? As Brown once told me:

Any business that doesn’t understand or respect the lives of somewhere between 25 and 40 percent of its potential customers isn’t a business that is very serious about growing or even surviving.

How many editors and publishers are thinking about this? I mean, other than those who have bravely spoken up.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Michael

    I think this is an important question, but I also think we need–as journalists–to look at this mroe broadly. As a profession where college is now generally an entrance requirement and wages are creeping up to middle-class respectability (and higher), we will always be different than our readers. We have more access to people in power, we get to ask questions that other people don’t get to ask, and we have fairly safe, intellectually-interesting jobs. That’s ALWAYS going to be different from our readers.

    To take your point further, you are likely very different from your column’s readers. You likely make more money, you have a faith tradition that is far removed from most of your readers, you are probably more conservative than most of your readers. Same goes for Rod. As a conservative Catholic in Dallas, he has little in common with most of his readers on that point. He is also likely more conservative than most DMN readers and, arguably, much whiter, more male, and speaks more English.

    The question is not how different we are from our readers, but how can we balance those differences with the reality of our readers. Can we understand the life of a lunchboxer when we grab a Starbucks on the way to our office job? Can we put aside out biases–whether they are liberal or conservative–when we write stories and view issues?

  • Rod Dreher

    Same goes for Rod. As a conservative Catholic in Dallas, he has little in common with most of his readers on that point. He is also likely more conservative than most DMN readers and, arguably, much whiter, more male, and speaks more English.

    Boy, that is very far off the mark. Trust me, I know — I’ve seen our in-house research data. Except for the Catholic stuff (but in most important respects, I track right along with the Evangelicals), I am very much in line demographically with the DMN’s readership.

  • Michael

    So the average DMN reader is a conservative, married white man with a college education, a family income over $50,000, and speaks Engilsh as his first language? If that’s true, the DMN seems pretty out-of-touch with the overall population of Dallas where non-marrieds outnumber married families, whites make up barely 50% of the population, almost a 1/4 of the population speaks Spanish, and the average salary is about $33,000.

    The larger point is that if you are like your readers, your readers are probably not very representative of your potential reader base and there are probably many people who don’t get the DMN because it skews too much to people like you. That’s always the challenge of journalism, understanding both who our audience is and what audience we are missing. It’s a criticism that can be levelled at pretty much every journalist in America.

    When people criticize the NYT or the WP for being too “liberal,” I have always wondered whether the newspaper is that much more liberal than its readership, given the liberal nature of NYC and DC. Washington has a newspaper (and a tabloid tossaway) that wear their conservatism on their sleeves, and both go virtually unread. Maybe that means the WP does reflect the values of its readers.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    With all due respect to Rod: he’s an editorial writer. He’s paid to express his opinions in print. As are his fellows to whom he put his query. To the extent that the editorial pages and the columns written by the editorial board shape public opinion, their biases matter.
    But what our editorial board says has no necessary connection with what appears in our news pages. One of the skills that distinguishes a straight news reporter from a writer is the ability to keep his or her opinions out of the copy. But as I’ve noted elsewhere, good reporters are aware of their biases and bend over backwards *not* to express them. Which means that a good liberal reporter will work extra hard to get the conservative nuance right. We’re human and therefore imperfect. But evidence of bias on the *news* pages needs to be stronger than what I’m seeing here…
    Jeffrey Weiss
    Religion Reporter

  • brian

    I agree completely with what Jeff Weiss said and partially with what Rod wrote.

    My problem with Rod’s post is the elusive quest for ideological purity. If someone is a fiscial or business conservative but socially moderate or liberal/libertarian, all of a sudden they’re not really conservative.

    What of someone who is socially conservative, but liberal on other issues such as taxes, etc.?

    It easily devolves into name-calling (Republican in Name Only) or saying someone isn’t conservative enough or liberal enough.

    I think that misses the nuances that are a major part of our political life here.

    Yeah, thanks to talk radio and Fox News some people just like to say – with little to back them up – that the media is liberal. But when you talk to real people, they have different reasons.

    “Editorial boards never met a tax they didn’t like.”
    Or “Editorial boards hate Christians.”
    Or something else that means something for the individual.

    Anyhow, I’m just saying this focus on ideological purity oversimplifies things a bit to much.

  • smakofka

    When I was in seminary I had a friend who left his career in journalism to enter the ministry. Although we shared most of our beliefs we had very different perspectives on a variety of issues. The main difference was his entrenched journalistic cynicism. Could it be that rather than a bias, journalists are just more cynical than most of their readers?

  • Rod Dreher

    Wait a minute, wait a minute, y’all are reading way too much into my brief comment above. I just said that according to the in-house research I’ve seen, and contrary to what Michael said, I pretty much fit the DMN readership demographic. That’s all I said. On the question of liberalism in the newsroom in general — and not specifically the DMN newsroom, about which I have no information outside of anecdotally, which is meaningless — there’s no question that American journalists rate themselves overwhelmingly as liberals. This is especially true on cultural issues — abortion, gay marriage, etc. — which happen to be where American politics of the past 10 to 15 years has turned.

    And by the way, I have no idea if we have any research data here in Dallas on the ideological composition of our readership, but this is a quite conservative area, as our political results show time and time again.

  • Rod Dreher

    Oh, wait, I apologize … I thought this was the earlier GetRel thread. I hadn’t realized that Terry posted my stuff from the DMN Editorial Board blog, in which I tried to suss out the leanings of the board. We established that blog in part to provide for more transparency with our readership, so they would see that we’re not a monolith, but real people. Still, there’s a reason why the board keeps coming down on the liberal side of social issues, and it didn’t really occur to me until after we’d had a discussion about assisted suicide that I’m probably the only social conservative (that is, someone who takes the conservative position on most social issues, and who defines his politics primarily in cultural terms) on this board. I wasn’t on a quest for ideological purity — as a matter of fact, I expect that my book out next month, “Crunchy Cons,” will take a beating from friends of mine on the Right for criticizing GOP orthodoxy — as it is an attempt to understand how we as an editorial board relate to the community we serve.

  • Steve Nicoloso

    I am beginning to wonder if even the 4-ary breakdown (social/business conservative/liberal) is really even sufficient, and that we need an additional dimension to account for Statist vs. Localist sensibilities. What, for example, is the social conservative view on Oregon’s “right-to-die” law? As a social conservative, I should be against euthenasia, which I am. But as a social conservative, I should also be in favor of local (or State) initiative and certainly against heavy-handed tactics by the US AG and DEA to overrule or nullify it. So which is it: is the social conservative against euthenasia even if it means Federal overreach, which most “conservatives” decry? Or is he against Federal overreach even if that means Oregon gets what it wants?

    The same goes for the abortion debate to some extent. Quite a few social conservatives would be happy to elect a US President who would stop abortion by executive fiat (e.g., Peroutka), and others are outraged that Scalia finds nothing in the US Constitution that either requires OR forbids states to legalize it. Again, which does the social conservative support?

  • Dave2


    “whites make up barely 50% of the population, almost a 1/4 of the population speaks Spanish, and the average salary is about $33,000.”

    The figures you quote must be for those inside the Dallas city limits. The DMN probably has more readers in the suburbs than in the city limits. Those figures don’t represent the metro area, which is mostly white, English speaking and having a family income well above $33K.

  • Dave2

    One more for Michael,

    “As a profession where college is now generally an entrance requirement and wages are creeping up to middle-class respectability (and higher), we will always be different than our readers. We have more access to people in power, we get to ask questions that other people don’t get to ask, and we have fairly safe, intellectually-interesting jobs. That’s ALWAYS going to be different from our readers.”

    Who do you think your readers are?? Morons? Don’t you think they are middle class? They
    don’t have interesting jobs, etc?? Your arrogance is showing.

    It sounds like you seriously look down your nose at the average reader. That’s too bad. But there’s another side to this. Many readers consider themselves brighter, better educated, and having a lot more common sense than the average reporter! “Journalists” have lost a lot of respect in the past couple of decades. Obvious bias is just part of the problem. Watching TV news is only done these days because there are very few other comedies on TV now. And newspapers don’t rank much higher!

    But you’re right, you guys do have more opportunity to ask questions of those in power. It’s time to start asking “fair and balanced” questions.

  • Michael

    The usual criticism of journalists is that we aren’t like our readers beacuse we are middle class and college educated and therefore can’t relate to blue-collar readers. That’s a pretty consistent theme in media bias stories, especially those coming from the right that accuse journalists of being “elite.” So I was just agreeing with that position.

    My numbers about Dallas were based on the city’s demographics. If it’s true DMN has more readers in the suburbs, then there is a larger question about why city residents who are more liberal, more non-white, and have less money don’t read the DMN. If there is handwringing about declining readership, maybe it’s just not conservatives who are turned off by the MSM and who feel their views aren’t reflected.

  • trainman

    Bravo Dave2. The only reason I read newspapers is for the comics and that is becoming tiresome. Newscasts? News plays second fiddle to the newscasters. The net is where I go today to find out what’s happening.

  • Tim J.

    I find the designation “business Republican” to be interesting, because I seem to recall some study a while back that said over 80% of journalists had voted for Clinton. I don’t know what the numbers were in the last election, but I’d wager a large majority went for Kerry.

    Does anybody have any hard numbers on this, or am I way off? Because it seems to me that if they keep voting for Democrats, “Democratic businessman” would be a much more accurate term.

  • tmatt

    A few random comments after reading Michael and the various threads:

    * I grew up in north Texas and my father was a regional leader in the Baptist General Convention of Texas. There are a few Southern Baptists in this region and I speak their language rather fluently — the Baptist left more than the right, however.I am sure there are some people from similar backgrounds at the Dallas Morning News. There had better be.

    * Rod is primarily arguing for intellectual diversity and tolerance. Michael thinks things are pretty much fine as they are, despite the worries of a lot of people in the journalistic mainstream. You don’t get more establishment that Pew people and Howie Kurtz.

    When an industry is sliding the way the MSM is right now, it is a good thing to listen to customers and respond as best you can, without compromising your ethics. In this case, seeking a diversity of voices on the hottest issues in our culture sounds like good business, to me. I care about the future of the newspaper industry.A lot.I want it to be harder for conservatives to attack it so much.

    * I agree that the NYTs editorial board should reflect the norms of NYC (although there is some interesting stuff going in on that city, too, related to faith and culture). If the NYTs wants to continue its role as a national newspaper, if might want to rethink that a bit. Note, of course, that even the NYTs “conservatives” are pro-abortion rights and pro-gay rights. This seems to enforce Rod’s point.

    Now, the question before us is why it makes sense — on MORAL AND RELIGIOUS QUESTIONS — for the editorial board of the Dallas Morning News to reflect the norms of NYC, as opposed to Dallas.

    * I would predict that the Dallas Morning News is, like many major city dailies, doing better in the core city than in the suburbs. This could be why the newspaper is struggling so much financially, even as its metro area EXPLODES with growth.

    The work by journalist Peter Brown referenced in this post speaks directly to this. There are wide gaps of life experience and understanding between MSM journalists and the people they cover and, he found, the biggest gaps centered on faith and family patterns. And the divide between city and suburbs.

    I am sure that the Dallas Morning News, like all newspapers, is spending oodles of money researching this. I predict they are NOT, however, asking questions about faith and family and how these issues relate to their subscriber base (What to suburban women think of the newspaper? Do they trust it? To they think it cares about their lives and families?) and readership patterns.

    To ask those kinds of questions, one must be open to hearing the answers.

  • Michael

    Terry, do you have a link to the Brown study, as opposed to various analyses? I can’t seem to find it by googling.

  • Michael

    I’m curious to see where I said things are “fine,” but I understand your point. My point was merely that journalists–even socially conservative ones like you and Rod–are still likely different from your readers and that all journalists need to question our biases.

    You may have similar positions on faith or family–dismissive comments about megachurches and nonliturgcial evangelicals notwithstanding–but you still have a gulf when it comes to economics and education which is the other key part of findings on media bias. By attending conservative Catholic and Orthodox churches, your daily experiences are going to be vastly different from working class Southern Baptists or Pentacostals and miles away from African American evangelicals, Latino Pentacostals, and conservative Muslims.

    I agree that we need to have intellectual diversity and “tolerance” and newspapers clearly have failed to understand their audiences. But if we are going to have an “open mind,” it requires we consider there are other audiences that are likely alienated from the MSM and they may be on alls sides of the faith and family gulf.

  • Rod Dreher

    Michael: By attending conservative Catholic and Orthodox churches, your daily experiences are going to be vastly different from working class Southern Baptists or Pentacostals and miles away from African American evangelicals, Latino Pentacostals, and conservative Muslims.

    Well, first of all there are no conservative Catholic churches in Dallas, at least not to my knowledge. But that’s beside the point. You’ve identified a distinction without a difference here, Michael. As Terry and I keep saying, we are talking about the way newspapers and newsrooms report and comment on politically significant moral issues — abortion, gay marriage, and the like. Baptist, Muslim, conservative Catholic, whatever, you are not going to find a whole lot of difference among those folks when it comes to how they feel about those specific moral issues.

    Let’s say you pulled a sample of 15 journalists from any given American newsroom, and compared their views on these hot-button social issues with 15 Texas Muslims, 15 Texas members of Opus Dei, and 15 Texas suburban megachurch Baptists, I predict you would find pretty much the same divergence in views. Whereas if you put the Muslims, the Opus Dei Catholics and the Baptists side by side, you wouldn’t see a lot of variation.

    That’s the point.