Commentary

“Left” Out of Media Coverage

For years complaints of liberal media bias were dismissed with a simple demand: “Prove it.” But thanks to Lexis-Nexis, that’s becoming easier to do. These days anyone with a computer can perform media searches that reveal with unsettling precision the slanted nature of news coverage.

Consider the Republican and Democratic conventions. The anecdotal evidence of bias was compelling enough, such as the reporter who claimed that if Bush ’s national security adviser didn’t mention her support for abortion rights in her speech, it would call into question the image of an inclusive convention. Abortion rights. In a speech by the national security adviser. But Lexis-Nexis confirms that the media viewed the GOP gathering as a parade of political fringe dwellers while the Democratic convention abounded with safe, sensible centrists.

By the numbers, the news media labeled Republicans “right-wing” 373 times during their convention but found only 120 occasions to refer to “left-wing” Democrats during theirs. The disparity was more pronounced among major newspapers: The New York Times labeled Republicans “right-wing” 14 times, Democrats “left-wing” only twice. Major papers as a group tilted against the Republicans 142-37 on this score.

What about even harsher terms? The major networks called Republicans “far right” 22 times and “hard right” six times, but Democrats were “far left” only five times and were never “hard left.” All news sources labeled the Republicans “far right” or “hard right” 188 times, but found only 52 occasions to label Democrats “far left” and “hard left.” And don’t forget, many of the latter labels referred to protesters outside the Democratic convention, not to Al Gore, Joseph Lieberman, or other party leaders.

The conservative Media Research Center confirms that this is nothing new. A 1985 study conducted for the group by professor William C. Adams found that in 1984 “both CBS News and NBC News called the Republican party, its platform, or its dominant leaders by conservative labels 113 times. They called the Democrats by liberal labels 21 times” — even though that was the year popular Republican incumbent Ronald Reagan won 60 percent of the vote while the Democratic convention in San Francisco seemed to strike most Americans as too far to the left. Similar bias remained in 1988 and 1992.

Why does this happen? Why do journalists consistently portray Republicans and conservatives as more ideological than Democrats and liberals? One easy answer is that most journalists are left of center politically. But since their own views tend to be shared by their coworkers and friends, they think of themselves as moderates. Thus Democratic activists and candidates seem sensible and moderate to them, while conservatives seem foreign and ideological. That’s not intentional bias, just a natural inclination.

Another possible answer, of course, is that Republicans are farther to the right than Democrats are to the left. That would be a difficult proposition to prove or disprove, because it depends on how one defines the center. But if we take four presidential elections, from 1984 to 1996, in which Democrats and Republicans each won the presidency twice, with the Republicans getting more total votes over that period, it seems hard to claim that the Republicans are farther from the center than the Democrats. As for 2000, can anyone seriously claim that Bush and Cheney are farther to the right than Gore and Lieberman are to the left? Gore, after all, has written a book advocating the abolition of the internal combustion engine, which would seem a fairly left-wing position, and Lieberman — for all his short-lived flirtation with new ideas like school choice and Social Security reform — has compiled a lifetime liberal rating of 95 from Americans for Democratic Action.

If Dick Cheney can be called “far right,” then it’s ridiculous not to call Democratic National Convention featured speakers such as Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, abortion-rights hardliner Kate Michelman, and gay-rights activist Elizabeth Birch “left-wing.” If Phyllis Schlafly is the “doyenne of the far right,” as The Washington Post put it in a news story, then who was the doyenne of the far left at the Democratic convention?

Print and especially television media are the filter through which voters receive information about politics and elections. As conveyors of that information, journalists have a responsibility to their patrons and their profession to resist news reporting that is wittingly or unwittingly biased.

  All News Sources* Major Newspapers New York Times Washington Post
Republicans labeled as        
Right wing 373 142 14 6
Far right 144 46 1 1
Hard right 44 13 2 3
Religious right 141 44 0 1
Conservative 3170 1093 63 61

  All News Sources* Major Newspapers New York Times Washington Post
Democrats labeled as        
Left wing 120 37 2 2
Far left 49 17 1 0
Hard left 7 3 1 0
Religious left 4 3 0 0
Secular left 2 1 0 0
Liberal 1589 374 36 25

SOURCE: Lexis-Nexis search, Republicans during period July 30-August 4, Democrats August 13-18.
*All sources included in Lexis-Nexis news.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute