Scholar says the media are less biased than ever

by Chris Vetter

In mid-July Bob Dole criticized NBC’s “Today Show” host Katie Couric as being too liberal because she repeatedly questioned him about campaign funds he received from the tobacco industry.
Politicians’ alleging that the media is biased in favor of their opponents’ parties is not a new phenomenon. But Everette Dennis, senior vice president of the nonpartisan Freedom Forum, said the media are neither liberal nor conservative in their coverage of political news.
Journalists may personally be more liberal than conservative, but that does not mean that their coverage is slanted in favor of liberal views, Dennis said to a crowd of about 200 people Thursday at the Humphrey Center.
“Reporters are more liberal than the general public, and they are more likely to favor Democrats over Republicans,” he said. “This is not exactly riveting information.”
Dennis, who earned his doctorate in journalism at the University and is the author or co-author of 30 books on the media, said that over time the word liberal has changed from its original meaning.
” ‘Liberalism,’ a term once used to champion causes, has all but disappeared from use,” he said. The word ‘liberal’ is now synonym for ‘permissiveness’ and ‘free spending.'”
Dennis said the press, if it wants to survive and prosper, will not become partisan, as it was in the past.
In the formative years of the country the press was blatantly partisan, he said.
Several politicians owned their own newspapers or were given free reign of editorial content by owners who supported candidates’ positions.
This was well known at the time, however, because people used newspapers as a forum for political debate, rather than to obtain straight facts about recent events.
“The papers were supported by and identified with political parties and political candidates,” Dennis said. “That partisan stance disappeared long ago. Market forces and commercialism are among the reasons.”
People must consider the various forms of media before they conclude there is a liberal bias in news, Dennis said.
“The most influential columnists these days are mostly moderate or to the right of center,” he said. “Certainly, the chief talkmeister, Rush Limbaugh, is not only conservative in his views but openly campaigns for Republicans.”
To eliminate the view that journalists are liberal, the media should both publish and respond to charges of media bias, Dennis said. The media also need to be stronger defenders of their neutral position, he said.
Bill Babcock, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law, which presented the discussion, agreed with Dennis’ speech.
“I don’t think journalists can be categorized as liberal or conservative,” Babcock said.
Liberal editorial boards are actually especially tough on liberal politicians because they want to avoid showing bias, he said.
“People bend over backwards to show no bias,” Babcock said. “Some of President Clinton’s toughest critics are The liberal New York Times and Washington Post.”