Bernard Goldberg is hardly the first person to claim that the media
have a liberal bias, and his Bias is far from the best-written or
best-argued book to try to make that point. Even so, it has climbed to the
top of the New York Times bestseller list, maybe because Goldberg
is himself a CBS insider with lots of tell-all tidbits to offer about the
likes of Dan Rather and Bob Schieffer.
For the most part, Goldberg's book is a farrago of anecdotes, hearsay,
and unsupported generalizations. But at one point he strays into territory
that can actually be put to a test. That's when he claims that the media
"pointedly identify conservative politicians as conservatives," but rarely
use the word "liberal" to describe liberals. As Goldberg explains the difference:
"In the world of the Jennings and Brokaws and Rathers, conservatives are
out of the mainstream and have to be identified. Liberals, on the other hand,
are the mainstream and don't have to be identified."
That basic premise is sound enough -- that the media mention things
that they see as being out of the mainstream more often than they mention
things that they see as in it. If a major company names a seven-foot-tall
Hare Krishna from Tonga as its CEO, those attributes are more likely to show
up in the story than if the new chief is a 5'10" Methodist from Ohio.
But does that difference show up in the way the media deal with
liberals and conservatives, too? TV newscasts aren't easy to check, and Goldberg
doesn't offer any research to back up his claim. But Goldberg and the other
critics of media bias also make their charges about the language of the
press, which is available online. So I went to a big online database and
did a search on the articles from about 30 major newspapers, including
The New York Times , the LA Times, the Washington
Post, The Boston Globe , the Miami Herald, and
the San Francisco Chronicle .
For purposes of comparison, I took the names of ten well-known
politicans, five liberals and five conservatives. On the liberal side were
Senators Boxer, Wellstone, Harkin, and Kennedy, and Representative Barney
Frank. On the conservative side were Senators Lott and Helms, John Ashcroft,
and Representatives Dick Armey and Tom Delay. Then I looked to see how often
each of those names occurred within seven words of liberal or
conservative , whichever was appropriate. Of course some of those hits
involved extraneous noise, say when the word liberal just happens
to find itself near Barbara Boxer's name with no real connection between
the two. But when I checked a sample of the results by hand, it turned out
that more than 85 percent of them did in fact involve the assignment of a
political point of view, with phrases like "Paul Wellstone, the liberal senator,"
or "Senate conservatives like Jesse Helms." And with a sample of more than
100,000 references to the names on the list, the results were statistically
In fact, I did find a big disparity in the way the press labels
liberals and conservatives, but not in the direction that Goldberg claims.
On the contrary: the average liberal legislator has a thirty percent greater
likelyhood of being identified with a partisan label than the average
conservative does. The press describes Barney Frank as a liberal two-and-a-half
times as frequently as it describes Dick Armey as a conservative. It gives
Barbara Boxer a partisan label almost twice as often as it gives one to Trent
Lott. And while it isn't surprising that the press applies the label conservative
to Jesse Helms more often than to any other Republican in the group,
it describes Paul Wellstone as a liberal twenty percent more frequently
At first I wondered whether I had inadvertantly included a bunch
of conservative newspapers in my sample. So I did the same search in just
three papers that are routinely accused of having a liberal bias, The New
York Times , the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times
. Interestingly, those papers tend to use labels of both sorts slightly less
than the other papers do. But even there, the liberals get partisan labels
thirty percent more often than conservatives do, the same proportion as in
the press at large.
The tendency isn't limited to politicians, either. For example,
Goldberg writes that "it's not unusual to identify certain actors, like Tom
Selleck or Bruce Willis, as conservatives. But Barbra Streisand or Rob Reiner.
. . are just Barbra Streisand and Rob Reiner." But Goldberg's dead wrong
there, too. The press gives partisan labels to Streisand and Reiner almost
five times as frequently as it does to Selleck and Willis. For that matter,
Warren Beatty gets a partisan label twice as often as Arnold Schwarzenegger,
and Norman Lear gets one more frequently than Charlton Heston does.
It's the same with other figures. Goldberg claims that Robert Bork
is always called a conservative whereas Laurence Tribe is just identified
as a Harvard law professor, but when you look at the data, it turns out that
the two are labeled with almost exactly the same frequency. And the columnist
Michael Kinsley gets a partisan label slightly more often than George Will
does -- and more often than Jerry Falwell.
There are some exceptions here. Americans for Democratic Action
gets a label slightly less frequently than the Heritage Foundation, though
both are labeled very often. In fact, the ADA gets a label more often than
the Young Americans for Freedom does, and almost three times as often as
conservative groups like the Cato Institute or the National Association of
Scholars. And the overall tendency is overwhelming: liberals are singled
out for their views more often than conservatives are.
I found the results surprising, not because I assumed the press
had a liberal bias, but because liberal has become such a problemmatic
word that nobody seems to want to use it. Since the Reagan era, the right
has gone after it as "the L-word," to the point where a lot of politicians
are nervous about owning up to being liberals. And people on the genuine left
have always been suspicious of the term, preferring to think of themselves
as progressives. But nobody every talks about "the C-word," and people
on the right are always happy to call themselves conservatives.
I'd have figured that all that would make the press, too, a bit
reluctant to use the "liberal" label. But it turns out the newspapers label
liberals much more readily than they do conservatives. Of course it's possible
that things work differently on TV newscasts. But that's pretty unlikely,
unless you're willing to assume that the language we hear on CBS and ABC
has a much more liberal slant than what we get in the Washington Post
and The New York Times, a position that not even critics like
Goldberg have tried to argue. If there is a bias here, in fact, the data
suggest that it goes the other way -- that the media consider liberals to
be farther from the mainstream than conservatives are. Or maybe sometimes
it's a case of the press bending over backwards to avoid the charge of bias.
The one thing that's certain is that there's another bias operating here,
as well -- the one that leads media critics to hear what they want to hear.
 Note: After this piece aired, I had a couple of emails from
people who suggested that another choice of legislators might have made the
results come out differently. That's true, but a look at the accompanying
table will show that the tendency to label liberals more than conservatives
was no less marked for other figures.