Nice Try, Howie

Media critic Howard Kurtz speaks out on Goldbergesque accusations of a liberal slant in the media, and uncovers the real truth about bias. Except it’s not what he thinks. 

Kurtz bases his conclusion that media bias doesn’t exist on the premise that provincial rags like the New York Times and the Washington Post don’t seem as overtly ideological as conservative organs like the Washington Times or Fox News Channel. 

As Grover Norquist accurately remarks, “The conservative press is self-consciously conservative and self-consciously part of the team.” Kurtz uses this fact, and the convenient example of how the media lapped up the Clinton sex scandal to completely absolve his colleagues. (OK, if one thing trumps ideology, it’s sex.) The logic goes something like this: Margaret Carlson seems more even-handed than Lucianne Goldberg, ergo the mainstream press isn’t biased! 

I’m not one of those who thinks of the “liberal media” as an all purpose explanation for everything that’s wrong with the modern world. Overall, I think the blogging experience desensitizes one to bias in the press. Generally speaking, it’s pretty easy to go over to and pick out just the quality, unbiased articles I want to read. But if I had to sit down every morning with a cup of tea and a red pen and actually pore through all the drivel they publish, including all those insidious secondary sub-heads (“Democrats’ plan more expansive!” ), my outlook might be a tad more militant. 

Nonetheless, I think Kurtz unwittingly pinpoints the nub of the problem: conservative pundits are all too willing to show their colors, and haven’t mastered the token nuance that makes their liberal counterparts seem more reasonable and nonpartisan. (But why didn’t he call Bill Press for this story? -ed.) 

Also, Kurtz writes, leftist pundits are more likely to style themselves as journalists needing to uphold a thin veneer of objectivity, while right-wingers are more content with being polemicists with no such pretenses. That’s all well and good for the conservatives, so long as they resign themselves to the former type getting all the jobs in newsrooms. It’s no wonder conservatives can’t — and don’t — compete. If only liberals strive to be journalists, then yes, the media will be quite biased. 

I’ll defer to SmarterTimes or Brent Bozell to fill you in on most of the specifics, but I did a little bit of research on the bias question. And instead of cataloguing horror stories that could be debated to death, I researched long-term, overall word-usage patterns that show how differently the mainstream press treats the political left and right. 

I start with the pretty basic assumption that any bias that exists will tend to be cynical and oppositional. You won’t find the press cheerleading for the side it likes the most as much as you will find it slamming the side it likes the least. This is a natural role of an institution that fashions itself as adversarial to people in power. 

So I devised a simple test: how often did the press depict either side of the political divide in stark, ideological terms? If you read the Wall Street Journal editorial page, you’ll find the terms “liberal” or “left-wing” used far more often than the terms “conservative” and “right-wing.” When you’re sure of your own beliefs, and are confident they require no further labeling, you tend to use labels only as an insult to the other side. After all, when was the last time you heard someone call themselves as “right-wing” in everyday conversation? 

Somehow, the New York Times and the Washington Post find the “right-wing” to be far more interesting and noteworthy than “left-wing.” Since 1996, the Post has used this loaded term more than twice as frequently as “left-wing.” References to “right-wing” increased in even-numbered election years when the political stakes were higher – 73.2 percent of the “-wing” references compared to 67.5 percent in non-election years. 

This disparity was even more palpable at the New York Times, where 80.2 percent of the left-right mentions on the national news pages since 1996 have spotlighted the right. The research also found that the more loaded and derogatory the phrase, the more likely it was to be associated with the political right. The term “conservative” outpolled “liberal” by 66-34 percent in New York Times news page mentions, while the aforementioned “right-wing” clocked in at 80 percent in a similar measure. However, the term “right-wing extremist” was used at least six times as frequently than “left-wing extremist” (at 87.4 percent since ’96 in the Times). 

The results from the Wall Street Journal provide even more evidence that bias is measurable. The left wing-right wing split was milder than it was at both the Times and the Post, with 56.9 percent of the mentions going to the right. (The WSJ search was not able to separate out its editorial page.) 

One more test I performed was to see how frequently certain well-known liberal and conservative icons were properly associated with those very labels. This test controls for the possibility that there may be more conservatives than liberals worthy of mention in power, or in the country at large. The results were striking. 

At the New York Times, 28.1 percent of the stories mentioning Jesse Helms also mentioned the word “conservative” while only 11.3 percent of the stories with Ted Kennedy in them mentioned the word “liberal.” At the politically savvier Post, both figures were higher, but there was still a disparity: 30.6 percent for Helms, 18.8 percent for Kennedy. Since no one can deny that Helms is as conservative than Kennedy is liberal, what else could explain this but an overeagerness on the media’s part to depict Republicans as more right-wing than they actually may be, while simultaneously concealing the Democrats’ liberalism? 

That an eminent media critic like Kurtz was forced to show all his cards like this is, to me, pretty remarkable. This is, coincidentally, the same week Bias hits #1 on the NYT bestseller list.

Patrick Ruffini is a writer living in Washington, D.C. who was weblogging before weblogging was cool. He also works at the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy research organization. You can read his daily political commentary by visiting his website,


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