A review of The Media Elite: America's New Powerbrokers, by S. Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman, Linda S. Lichter
As the press of this country now exists, it would seem to be expressly devised by the great agent of mischief, to depress and destroy all that is good, and to elevate and advance all that is evil in the nation. The little truth that is urged, is usually urged coarsly, weakened and rendered vicious by personalities; while those who live by falsehoods, fallacies, enmities, partialities and the schemes of the designing, find the press the very instrument that the devils would invent to effect their designs. A witty but unprincipled stateseman of our own times, has said that 'speech was bestowed on man to conceal his thoughts'; judging from its present condition, he might have added, 'and the press to pervart truth.'
-James Fenimore Cooper
The American Democrat (1838)
The Media Elite is a landmark book of sorts. For several years now it has become increasingly apparent to everyone (except perhaps, to journalists themselves) that those in the media do not represent a cross-section of America. Survey after survey has shown that the most influential reporters and editors are overwhelmingly on the left fringe of the political spectrum. Over 80 percent of the leading journalists voted for McGovem in 1972; only 47 percent believe that adultery is wrong; only 25 percent regard homosexuality as wrong. Nor are things likely to get better in the future. The majority in a recent class of journalism students at Columbia University was found to prefer Fidel Castro to Ronald Reagan.
Media defenders pooh-pooh such data, pointing out that it does not follow necessarily that reporters slant their news coverage, and say that journalists today know how to separate their own views from the stories they cover. Critics retort that it is simply common sense that one's personal views would affect one's stories.
The Media Elite provides convincing evidence that vindicates common sense.
Not that the vindication is complete. Rothman and the Lichters suggest that it is while covering the most blatantly partisan issues that most reporters are more likely to be balanced, as they have their guard up; and that it is precisely on substantive issues where the lines of battle are not so clearly drawn that they more easily fall back on their own preconceptions. (This is contrary to the common perception, and perhaps to the truth. Consider: doesn't covering the greatest partisan issues-those which oppose the United States to the Soviet Union-with moral indifference, reflect a bias in and by itself?)
Through the use of psychological tests, the authors demonstrate empirically that reporters' political views correlate with those whom they deem valid sources. In other words, liberal reporters are more likely to consider fellow liberals as trustworthy sources to be used for a story.
The latter part of the book is devoted to specific case studies of how slanting of the news has occurred in the past. The authors devote most of their attention to the coverage of three issues: nuclear energy, busing, and the oil industry.
This book is not a political tract. Rothman and the Lichters frame their conclusions cautiously; they try not to jump ahead of their evidence. This makes the book all the more worthwhile. Anyone interested in studying the state of the media in modern America ought at least to skim it.
Potential buyers should be aware of some structural problems with the first edition, however. First, too few of the results are summarized in tables so that they can be easily assimilated and compared at a glance. Second, the proofreading leaves something to be desired.
And all should be wary of holding objectivity as an "ideal" when it comes to journalism. There may be a reason why Fenimore Cooper, who lived in a day when journalists were openly partisan, never had to stomach the sort of insidious perversion of truth by the media that is revealed-as if we needed proof-in this book.