Journalists are biased, and for the good of society

Saturday, September 13, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT

The Republicans are bashing the press again, and we journalists are doing our usual whine about how can anybody accuse us of being biased. So today, as a special bonus addendum to the School of Journalism's centennial celebration, I offer you the not-yet-famous Kennedy Theory of Journalistic Bias.

It's really pretty simple. The most important of the several biases of American journalism is revealed in the job description. What do we say we do? What are we proudest of? What do we honor?

Journalism is self-described as the outside agitator, the afflicter of the comfortable and comforter of the afflicted. Journalists expect ourselves to be the watchdogs of the powerful, the voice of the voiceless, the surrogate for the ordinary citizen and the protector of the abused and downtrodden. Journalists are expected to be - and expect ourselves to be - forever skeptical, consistently open-minded, respectful of differences and sensitive to what sociologists call "the other." Neither patriotism nor religion is exempt from critical examination.

Look at that description. Does it seem more liberal or more conservative?

Consider that conservatives generally tend to be respectful of authority, resistant to change, supportive of the status quo, comfortable with conformity and suspicious of new ideas and foreign ideologies. American conservatives have mainly backed the current administration and are, more often than not, religious believers.

Is it any surprise, then, that the overwhelming majority of conservatives and a good many liberals see a liberal bias in journalism?

Where I disagree with the partisan critics of the press is that I don't think this fundamental bias has anything to do with party politics. Instead, it reflects what might be better called an activist worldview.

I would defy you to identify a single reporter — print, broadcast or online — in a mainstream news organization whose work favors either political party. (You'll notice I said "reporter," not commentator, editorialist or blogger. And I'm talking about the daily newspapers and the networks, not the journals, programs or blogs of opinion and advocacy.)

As the conservative scholar S. Robert Lichter reports, most journalists describe themselves as liberals. And why wouldn't they? Why would conservatives, in general, be attracted to a craft with the job description above and with, in addition, penury and inhumane working conditions as the entry-level standards?

Still, even Lichter finds little evidence that these liberal journalists tilt toward Democrats in their coverage.

So the so-called "liberal bias" is not a myth, after all. No news there. The news is that this is a very good thing for society.

Just suppose we had a journalism that WASN'T questioning, disrespectful of authority, open to new ideas, dogging the powerful and speaking for the weak. Remember when that reviled liberal Dan Rather promised in the post-9/11, pre-Iraq days to salute and follow the marching orders of our elected leader? Too many of us did, and we all remember what resulted.

That's just one illustration of the danger to the democracy of a journalism that is quiescent, compliant, you might even say conservative.

Indeed, the most serious failures of journalism arise when we don't live up to our own job description. Biased? You bet — and every American should be glad we are.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.


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Lane Wilson September 14, 2008 | 3:09 p.m.

Well put! I am glad to read of this while it is still not-yet-famous.
I never understood why so many people feel threatened by the "liberal media" when journalists ask questions. One can reinforce previously held beliefs or have the opportunity to revise them in the face of conflicting evidence. Either way, a better, more educated worldview should emerge. Isn't this what journalism is all about?

(Report Comment)
Leroy Jenkems September 14, 2008 | 9:33 p.m.

Obama said, "I think America's greatest moral failure in my lifetime has been that we still don't abide by that basic precept in Matthew that whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me." So why have no journalists asked him why he and his wife have not even given 5% of their income, let alone the standard tithe of 10%, to charity this decade?

(Report Comment)
Jim Dog September 17, 2008 | 1:44 p.m.

Hey Leroy - here is an even better question... Why has Obama not even given $12 to his biological brother this year to increase his brother's annual income by 100%. (

I find particularly hilarious Professor Kennedy's assertion that journalists are "consistently open-minded". In one paragraph he openly admits that journalists are liberals, then in the next suggests that they are open-minded. It is no wonder newspapers are going the way of the dinosaur.

(Report Comment)
Leroy Jenkems September 17, 2008 | 1:50 p.m.

Or why Obama has not given even 5% to charity this decade and yet complains that society has not done enough for "the least of these."

(Report Comment)
Nicolás Jiménez September 17, 2008 | 4:07 p.m.

A bias toward an open-mindedness that logically is followed by the conclusion that only liberalism could be good for democracy.
For democracy's sake, I hope this theory stays "not-yet-famous" for a good long time.

(Report Comment)

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