Commentary Magazine

The Media Elite, by S. Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman, and Linda S. Lichter

A Subtler Bias

The Media Elite: America’s New Powerbrokers.
by S. Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman, and Linda S. Lichter.
Adler & Adler. 342 pp. $19.95.

American conservatives have tended to approach the question of liberal bias in the news media in much the same way that Justice Potter Stewart approached the question of pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio: they know it when they see it. The existence of such bias, in fact, is accepted on the Right as something very much like an article of faith. The key word here, however, is “faith.” While anecdotal evidence of the kind served up regularly by organizations like Accuracy in Media is abundantly available, empirical studies aimed at testing the hypothesis that the news media are biased have invariably produced ambiguous results.

Enter S. Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman, and Linda S. Lichter, a team of political scientists currently at work on a major research project dealing with emerging power elites and the effects they have on American society. The first part of this study has now made its way into print under the suggestive title The Media Elite: America’s New Powerbrokers. Prior publication of some of the material included in The Media Elite has already transmogrified Rothman and Lichter (to adopt the style by which the team is generally known) into icons of the Right. One eager young ideologue of my acquaintance describes them as “the guys who proved that Dan Rather really is a pinko.”

But the purposes of The Media Elite are more complex than that. “There are few ideologues in major media newsrooms,” the authors assure us. Their argument points to a subtler bias and their approach is an empirical one:

[C]onsiderable attention has been focused on the perspectives of those who staff national media organizations, as well as their coverage of controversial issues. Yet no previous empirical study has systematically examined both the life situations of these news-people and the nature of their product, to determine whether or how the two are linked. This was the goal of our research.

To this end, Rothman and Lichter surveyed 238 journalists working at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the three weekly newsmagazines, and the four television networks. These journalists answered a lengthy series of questions dealing with their personal backgrounds, voting records, and opinions on various social and political questions. (Similar questions were addressed to a control group of business executives.) The ten news organizations from which the subject pool of this study was drawn were also subjected to scrutiny in the form of an unusually extensive content analysis of the way in which they covered three key stories over a decade-long period: nuclear power, busing, and the energy crisis.

Such lines of inquiry naturally lend themselves to empirical scrutiny, and The Media Elite more than adequately documents the existence of liberal attitudes among journalists and liberal bias in the stories they file. Many of the findings presented here have already been widely reported and need not be summarized in detail. Suffice it merely to say that the journalists surveyed hold attitudes which “place them to the Left of business executives . . . on virtually every issue the survey addresses” and that equally substantial differences of opinion exist between the media elite and the general public. The content analyses are similarly persuasive, demonstrating that media coverage of the stories in question was one-sided and consistently “diverged from . . . expert assessments in the direction of the media elite’s own perspectives.”



These conclusions are familiar enough. But Rothman and Lichter, in a significant departure from previous studies of media bias, also seek to demonstrate explicitly a causal link between liberal opinions and biased reporting. The 238 journalists surveyed were given the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), a projective psychological test in which subjects view ambiguous pictures of social situations and are asked to write a fictional story about the people seen in the picture. The TAT is designed to provide information about “the underlying fantasy life that helps shape our understanding and expectation of social reality,” and Rothman and Lichter have attempted to show through the analysis of data drawn from this test how the liberal opinions of the typical “elite” journalist shape the way in which he gathers and interprets the news.

Needless to say, the reader is treated to a gaudy array of anecdotal evidence culled from the TAT responses of the journalists who took part in the survey. One TAT drawing, for example, shows two well-dressed men, one middle-aged and the other younger, talking in an office. An editor at the Washington Post, asked to interpret this drawing, obligingly produced the following scenario:

The setting could be McDonald-Douglas [sic], the aircraft corporation, on the verge of deciding to go into production of the DC-10 transport. The older man has learned that the design tests show a serious, systemic flaw that will almost certainly cause crashes. . . . The younger associate is deciding that the arguments of his associate are not sufficiently compelling to risk the loss of status and prospects for advancement. He is on the verge of selling out.

But Rothman and Lichter go well beyond the merely anecdotal in their consideration of these responses. After comparing their performances on the TAT with the scores of a control group of business executives, Rothman and Lichter found that journalists scored relatively high on “TAT measures of the need for power, fear of power, and narcissism” and relatively low on “the need for achievement and . . . the capacity for personal intimacy.” The significance of these scores, the authors suggest, is that they “help explain propensities toward negativism, an adversarial posture, and the identification of one’s professional interests with the public interest.”

To be sure, Rothman and Lichter hedge carefully on the evidentiary value of this material (“In the absence of baseline scores from a national random sample, we cannot be certain of this group’s psychological distinctiveness”). But they clearly consider it of sufficient value to devote sixty-odd pages to its exposition and analysis. And the conclusions which they draw are ultimately presented as being every bit as “empirical” in nature as the conclusions deriving from their more modest inquiries into political attitudes and the content of news stories.



Not surprisingly, the reaction of liberal reviewers to these conclusions has been skeptical in the extreme. Much of this skepticism would seem to be amply justified. The TAT scores themselves are not nearly as definitive as the amount of space devoted to them would suggest (“Only a minority responded to each TAT picture with a socially relevant story that fits our scoring categories”). The absence of corroborative findings from a more objective psychological test like the Minneosta Multiphasic Personality Inventory, as well as the use of business executives as the sole control group for the study, necessarily limits the degree to which larger conclusions can be based on these data. And the sweeping use of a projective instrument like the Thematic Apperception Test to buttress “empirical” conclusions about the psyches of the media elite inevitably reminds one of such earlier ventures in sociological folly as T. W. Adorno’s attempt to “prove” (in The Authoritarian Personality) that conservatives are inherently fascist and anti-Semitic in their psychological makeup.

An even more suggestive comparison might well be drawn between The Media Elite and the Kinsey Report. That famous and controversial volume, as Lionel Trilling observed at the time of its publication,

says of itself that it is only a “preliminary survey,” a work intended to be the first step in a larger research; that it is nothing more than an “accumulation of scientific fact,” a collection of “objective data,” a “report on what people do, which raises no question of what they should do,” and it is fitted out with a full complement of charts, tables, and discussions of scientific method.

Trilling, however, was not fooled by the elaborately mounted appearance of objectivity in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. He immediately recognized that the authors of the Kinsey Report “make the mistake of believing that, being scientists, they do not deal in assumptions, preferences, and conclusions.” And he argued that the Kinsey Report “by its primitive conception of the nature of fact quite negates the importance and even the existence of sexuality as a social fact.” The reader of The Media Elite: America’s New Powerbrokers is equally likely to come away from the book with the feeling that its authors have been guilty of many of the same sins as were Kinsey and his colleagues.



Rothman and Lichter refer frequently to the way in which the American media, with their insistence that they cover the news “objectively,” mislead the public in a way that European journalists, who are traditionally more candid about acknowledging the specific perspectives from which they write, tend to avoid. The point is a good one. But despite the fact that the arguments Rothman and Lichter are advancing about the nature of liberal bias in the news media are worlds away from the crude polemics of many right-wing media critics, it is nonetheless hard to resist the impression that their own views permeate the pages of The Media Elite as thoroughly as do the views of the people who put together Newsweek or the Washington Post or the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. (When Rothman and Lichter refer to the “apocalyptic muckraking” of an ABC report on nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, for example, one feels a distinct note of conservative anger peeping through the thick haze of sociological prose.)

The underlying premise of The Media Elite is perfectly correct. Liberal bias in the news media is a fact: we know it when we see it. But the way in which Rothman and Lichter explain it, for all the obvious value of the data they adduce, is dangerously reductive. The problem of liberal bias in the news media is rooted not merely in the psyches of left-wing journalists but in the structural imperatives of the news-gathering process itself, as well as in the larger American culture. Unsophisticated attempts to “objectify” the problem of media bias through the application of projective psychological tests are thus of necessarily limited value. To quantify all is not to understand all.



About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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