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Two to Tango: Media Overlooks Secular Influence

• March 28, 2008 • 10:23 PM

Analysis: In the second part of an examination of “A Prejudice for the Thinking Classes,” two professors argue that liberal-leaning outlets harp on religious conservatives’ ties to GOP.

For Part I of our two-part series on an examination of “A Prejudice of the Thinking Classes,” click here.

For more than 15 years, pollsters and students of political behavior have shown that the public has become politically divided over religion — and that this cleavage occurs more between “seculars” and “traditionalists” than between members of different denominations.

That is, today’s religious cleavage pits individuals with no religious affiliation, or those who, though nominally affiliated with a church or synagogue, do not practice their faith, against those who exhibit high levels of religious commitment.

American National Election Study data collected by the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan show that since the first Clinton elections, two-thirds of seculars have supported the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, the mirror image of traditionalists, who voted for GOP standard bearers (see, Layman 2001; Wilson 2007).

Despite the mountain of evidence and numerous studies amassed by social scientists and surveyors documenting the alignment of secularists with the Democratic Party and traditionalists with the Republican Party, media elites, until recently, focused almost exclusively on the latter phenomenon, the political mobilization of religious conservatives, e.g., fundamentalist and evangelical Christians.

According to our analysis of stories appearing in the news-agenda-setting New York Times between 1992 and 2004, readers were more than 13 times as likely to come across a front-page story characterizing the GOP as the party of religious fundamentalism than page-one articles identifying the Democrats as the partisan home of secularism.

Predictably, the skewed coverage had the effect of not merely politicizing attitudes toward religious conservatives but engendering animus and negative stereotypes toward traditionalists, particularly among those attentive to these media. The obvious question is why media elites fixated on the mobilization of Christian conservatives and were virtually silent about politicized secularism and its disruptive effects on the social and political order.

One explanation involves the difficulties journalists might have in taking notice of an outlook that is so close to their own. Social psychologists, particularly students of prejudice, have long observed that individuals are more likely to overlook, take for granted and feel comfortable with objects that appear “familiar” in their milieu but home in on and feel uneasy with persons or groups exhibiting qualities that are unfamiliar or strange.

Survey research indicates that professionals who work in news organizations, compared to the larger public, have more in common with seculars than with traditionalists. As a consequence, journalists are less likely to view secularist values as threatening to their worldview and more likely to see secular outlooks as normal or commonplace.

Journalists, for example, are more highly educated and cosmopolitan, much more likely to vote Democratic, appreciably more liberal ideologically and culturally, and less likely to be religious than the typical American. Indeed, in their path-breaking study, The Media Elite, Robert Lichter and his associates found that one of the most distinctive characteristics of the media elite “is its secular outlook.” Half of the journalists they surveyed claimed no religion and more than eight of 10 never or seldom attended religious services. A Media Studies Center/Roper Center 1995 survey of Washington-based reporters and MSC/RC’s 1996 survey of national political journalists and editors and a 2004 Pew Research Center poll of journalists and of editors for the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an institute affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, provide more recent findings that are in accord with the results reported in the Lichter study.

Taking secularist/left views for granted, journalists might not see secularism as a distinct ideology or think secularists are definable as a political category or perceived as threatening to their core values. The Project for Excellence in Journalism, in the report cited above, found, for example, that unlike a substantial majority (68 percent) of conservative reporters and editors who could identify liberal and conservative news organizations (e.g., The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times as compared to the Washington Times), most liberal journalists (79 percent), though they could easily name conservative organizations, had a hard time identifying “liberal” news outfits; less than a quarter could name “any news organization as especially liberal.”

The tendency for media elites to overlook the political importance of secularists and the liberal worldview of secularism is illustrated by the greater attention they pay to ephemeral and sociologically meaningless social categories that verge toward faddishness. For example, “Soccer Mom” is a rather loosely defined political or sociological construct — certainly more so than secularist — but the ambiguity in the meaning of soccer mom did not stop The Washington Postand The New York Times from publishing more than 60 political news stories speculating on the potential clout and vote direction of this group during the 2000 election season while offering their readers just seven political news accounts about political importance of seculars.

Media elites did begin to take notice of secularists and their influence in the Democratic Party during the 2004 electoral cycle. This “great awakening” can be accounted for, in part, as mainstream media’s response to the outpouring of over a decade of academic research findings identifying the Democrats as the party of secularism. The association of secularism with the Democratic Party was brought into the national conversation around the time we published a piece entitled “Our Secularist Democratic Party,” in the fall 2002 issue of The Public Interest. That theme was picked up subsequently by prominent conservative pundits such as Rod Dreher, Daniel Henninger, John Leo, Maggie Gallagher, David Brooks, Richard John Neuhaus, Stanley Kurtz, and on TV shows and other venues such as The McLaughlin Group, Fox News, Christian Broadcast Network, and The Weekly Standard. The chatter among conservative opinion makers became a backdrop for mainstream journalists and essayists writing for highbrow political journals to evaluate the viability of the Dean candidacy and the political effects of being tagged as secular or indifferent to the values of religious people in a nation famously described by G.K. Chesterton as having a “soul of a church.”

Despite the jolt roused from a political reality backed-up with hard poll data, readers of the Times and Post during the 2004 election cycle were still more likely to find stories in these papers speculating on the political impacts of “security moms” and “NASCAR Dads” — the two fashionable social constructs that excited the journalistic imagination that year — than news accounts reporting on the influence of secularists and the secularist worldview in the Democratic Party.

Just because journalists are significantly more liberal and secular than the general public does not necessarily mean that their coverage of political news will be slanted, or betray a liberal or secularist bias. Professionalism and standards of fairness would dictate that journalists and editors should be expected to set aside their own values in the interest of “news objectivity.”

Nevertheless, there is an emerging body of research employing different methods and examining different types of media that indicates that the journalistic goal of objectivity is more of an ideal than reality.

In the study of Washington-based political journalists and editors nationwide cited earlier, Dautrich and Dineen found that 78 percent said “their own opinions affect their work at least occasionally. Virtually no one said that their opinions never affected their coverage.”

The preponderance of the scholarship on media bias, moreover, shows that when the cultural values and political opinions of journalists and editors do “affect their work,” the news slant predominately gravitates toward the left.

In a content analysis of network television stories on the 2004 presidential election, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, for example, found the “campaign coverage that focused on Bush was three times as negative as coverage of Kerry. It was also less likely to be positive.” A study of ABC, NBC and CBS evening news coverage of the 2006 congressional races by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (released on October 30, 2006) showed that more than three quarters of references to Democrats were positive while 88 percent of the coverage of Republican candidates was negative. Tim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo (2005a and b), using an innovative quantitative methodology to assess media bias, found a systematic leftward bias in mainstream media. (Riccardo Puglisi, Kenneth L. Woodward, David Brady and Jonathan Ma, John Lott and Kevin Hassett, M.J. Hetherington, Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter and others mentioned earlier also offer evidence demonstrating a liberal slant in mainstream political media.)

The political messages conveyed by mainstream press are not the only information that reaches the public. During the 1990s, a new media with an alternative slant emerged in the form of talk radio, the Fox News Channel and conservative newspapers, such as the Washington Times, which could provide listeners, viewers and readers of these media countervailing views of religious conservatives. The Fox News Channel was launched in 1996 and its reach is confined to cable and local Fox outlets; its most popular political talk show, The O’Reilly Factor, rarely exceeds 2 million viewers. Certainly most would admit that the Washington Times does not have the national stature of The New York Times and the Washington Post, particularly with respect to setting news agenda.

In any event, the key issue is not whether there exists an alternative media identifiably known as “conservative,” but whether conservative media forms political attitudes independent of the predispositions of the audience.

Data in the 1996 ANES study provide some answers to this question. This survey asked respondents whether they listened to political talk radio and Rush Limbaugh in particular. ANES also inquired about how frequently respondents listened to these programs. Among white nonfundamentalists, listening to talk radio and to Limbaugh was correlated with feeling positively toward Christian fundamentalists and the Religious Right. “Media effects” were especially evident among frequent listeners, but these “impacts” vanished entirely once the party identification and the ideology of the listener were taken into consideration.

Political talk radio preaches to the choir, and we suspect that O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, the Washington Times, and the rest of conservative media also preach to a chorus composed of individuals having similar ideological and partisan predispositions.  Conservatives listen to Rush and Hannity and watch the “Factor” precisely because they know what they are getting — a culturally conservative perspective on the news.

When people watch CBS, NBC or ABC nightly news they think they are getting an objective account of the news, which available evidence, as we noted above, suggests otherwise. We could not find a single empirical study documenting systematic conservative bias in political stories carried in mainstream media during the period under study (cf. Mayer 2005).

Scholars are not the only ones to detect a liberal news slant. According to a variety of polls, the public also perceives liberal bias. Gallup polls, conducted between 2001 and 2006 and reported on Media Research Center’s Web site, show, for example, that the public characterized the news media during this time span as “too liberal.”

A 2005 Pew poll for the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that nearly two-thirds of public complained that the news media slanted the coverage of politics; of those who saw bias, twice as many saw liberal bias rather than a conservative news slant. Among Pew’s respondents, conservatives, predictably, were most likely to see liberal bias (72 percent vs. 20 percent). But by almost a two to one margin, self-described moderates also said that they thought news was slanted leftward. Even liberals were more inclined to admit that the press reflected a liberal rather than a conservative tilt (39 percent vs. 32 percent).

The latter finding is in accord with a 1996 Harris poll conducted for the Center for Media and Public Affairs; in this poll liberals were twice as likely (41 percent vs. 22 percent) to see mainstream media exhibiting a liberal over a conservative slant. It is not just liberals among the mass public who acknowledge liberal bias in mainstream media political coverage, but liberal political elites as well. More than three-fifths of self-described liberal congressman surveyed by Dautrich and Dineen characterized the national press as “liberal or liberal to moderate.”

What perhaps is most telling about the liberal slant of mainstream journalism is that editors of major news organizations, such as Evan Thomas, assistant managing editior of Newsweek, and Mark Halperin, ABC News political director, also acknowledge that the establishment, or “old” media, slants its news in the liberal direction. Thomas not only admitted the left-wing bias of mainstream media on Wolf Blitzer’s July 11, 2004, “Inside Politics” news program, but speculated that the press’s liberal slant “is worth maybe 15 points” in elections. Halperin acknowledged on Hugh Hewitt’s October 30, 2006, radio talk show that “well over 70 percent” of the political journalists who work for him are liberal and would vote Democratic.

Given that some prominent liberal media elites concede that the press is biased, it is not shocking that Daniel Okrent, the former public editor of The New York Times, published a revealing essay admitting that the Times was also guilty of  liberal bias.

Just because the press tilts left does not necessarily mean that its coverage of religious conservatives would reflect bias. However, it is plausible to expect that the same social characteristics, political orientations, and policy concerns that incline journalists to view groups and causes embodying secularist values sympathetically would dispose journalists and editors to view Christian conservatives and their policy preferences negatively — that is the media elite’s secularism, and ideological and cultural liberalism.

According to the Williamsburg Charter poll of mass and elite opinion on church-state issues, for example, a majority of television news directors and newspaper editors polled in the survey felt that evangelical and fundamentalist Christians had “too much power and influence” and a third thought both religious groups were a “threat to democracy.” In contrast, not one of the media elites sampled in this survey perceived secularists as threats to the stability of the social and democratic order, and only 4 percent thought nonbelievers and secularists had too much influence over public life (reported in Jelen and Wilcox 1995).

In view that a majority of the media elites in this poll also believed that “religious people are intolerant,” it is easy to see how political activism by religious conservatives would appear threatening to the media establishment, and therefore warrants intense scrutiny.

According to a self-study of the reporting practices of The New York Times commissioned by its editor, Bill Keller, dubbed the Siegal Report, it was this sort of concern that drove the Times‘ slanted coverage of Christian conservatives in news stories on religion and politics. The Credibility Committee discovered that the Times systematically (though apparently not by conscious design) “labeled whole groups,” — i.e., “religious fundamentalists” and “Christian conservatives” (the only two groups mentioned in this context) — “from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype and unfairly marginalizes them.”

It is the type of mindset that can lead to a bias which manifests itself primarily in the selection of stories that are covered (the importance of fundamentalists and evangelicals to the GOP) and those that are not (the importance of secularists to the Democratic Party and their influence on this Party’s cultural agenda), in the emphasis put on anti-Christian conservative frames and “news,” and the minimization of negative information associated with seculars.

Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio
Louis Bolce teaches political science at Baruch College/City University of New York. His research interests include religion and politics, public opinion and political parties and voting behavior. Gerald De Maio is a member of the Department of Political Science at Baruch College/City University of New York. His research focuses on religion and politics, political behavior and American political thought.

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