When things aren’t going well for people of a certain political persuasion – okay, Republicans and conservatives – they like to point an accusatory finger of blame at what they sort of randomly call “the media,” or worse, “the liberal media,” in an excited “Hey! Those guys are making mountains out of molehills!” kind of way. The suggestion, when they do so, is that the media is biased in how it reports public affairs and that its biases shape public opinion in ways that harm the finger-pointers.
But is this really true? Is the media that influential? More important, is it that biased – and by biased, in this context, we’re asking if it’s really that liberal.
The Curmudgeon doesn’t think so. In fact, The Curmudgeon believes the most powerful force in the U.S. today, with the possible exception of the church, is the same conservative media that’s doing most of the complaining about the media.
So how influential is the media – and is it biased against conservatives? The Curmudgeon doesn’t think so, so let’s take a tour through the different kinds of media to consider whether they are or are not biased – and if they are, whether they are biased in a way that favors liberals.
Let’s start with newspapers.
So which are the big, influential newspapers?
Well, influence presumably begins with size, with the more people who read a newspaper the more theoretically influential that paper might be, so here are the seven newspapers with the highest (print and digital subscription) circulation in the country (followed by their daily/non-Sunday circulation):
- Wall Street Journal – 2.4 million
- New York Times – 1.9 million
- USA Today – 1.7 million
- Los Angeles Times – 654,000
- New York Daily News – 516,000
- New York Post – 500,000
- Washington Post – 475,000
Most people who pay attention to such things consider the New York Times, New York Daily News, and Washington Post liberal, and possibly the LA Times as well; the Wall Street Journal and New York Post conservative; and USA Today pretty much middle of the road.
The Curmudgeon is willing to accept these generalizations, but with two serious qualifications.
First, we need to separate the reporting from the editorial perspective. Yes, the New York Times’s editorials are liberal, as are, mostly, its op-ed columnists, but its news reporting? The Curmudgeon isn’t convinced it’s biased at all. The same can be said of the Wall Street Journal, only in reverse: its editorial perspective is pretty conservative but its reporting is pretty credible and objective. Generally speaking, The Curmudgeon views what he reads in New York Times and Wall Street Journal news articles as credible and fair.
Second, The Curmudgeon thinks we need to exclude some of these newspapers from the discussion. The New York Daily News, New York Post, and Los Angeles Times, while they have a lot of readers, are pretty much local newspapers and can hardly be viewed as influential outside their own geographic markets. The Curmudgeon thinks pretty much the same thing about the Washington Post, but because its particular geographic market includes so many important government decision-makers, he thinks it must be part of this discussion.
But really, the bigger question is how influential these newspapers are in shaping public opinion, which is what complaints about “the media” are all about. How many people do you know who read the New York Times or Wall Street Journal? The Washington Post? Almost certainly your answer is “Not many,” so it’s hard to argue that either liberal or conservative newspapers are influencing the masses. It’s especially hard to argue, though, that liberal publications like the New York Times and Washington Post are influential in areas where their circulation is especially low, such as the south and midwest – the very areas that the conservative finger-pointers dominate. Are we expected to believe that New York Times editorials that espouse liberal ideas, perspectives, and values are influencing people in Arkansas, South Carolina, and Kentucky?
Didn’t think so. Nor are they gathering ‘round the town square in Murray, Kentucky to talk about the latest Wall Street Journal editorials, for that matter.
But what about influencing decision-makers and influencing regular people? That’s a much more complicated question. Certainly the governing class follows these publications closely, as do corporate executives; you see it and hear it in their public utterances all the time. But which side is more influential: the liberals from the Times and Post or the conservatives of the Journal? It’s hard to figure. The Curmudgeon suspects it’s the liberals – but he also believes that when conservatives complain about their ideas being shortchanged by the liberal media and they’re specifically referring to newspapers, they’re talking about a minuscule readership outside governing circles and corporate executive suites. If you agree, you have to ask yourself: Do you think the people who occupy those governing circles and executive suites are changing their minds on issues based on editorials they read in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal?
Well that would be pretty silly, wouldn’t it?
In the end, The Curmudgeon thinks there are just a few influential newspapers in this country, their readership is relatively small, and they are virtually invisible, both figuratively and literally, in most parts of the country. Just because the people who complain about the media’s influence read the New York Times doesn’t mean their followers have ever even touched a copy of the New York Times, let alone ever read it, and if people in general haven’t read it and don’t follow it, how can they be influenced by it? In fact, the only way the average person knows what the New York Times is saying is when someone who is unhappy with the Times is telling them about what it says.
Let’s call it a slight advantage for the liberals.
Next let’s look inside newspapers, at their op-ed columnists. Once upon a time, national political columnists were very influential, both courted and consulted by presidents and other leaders. Now? Not so much.
But who are the most widely read columnists these days and what perspective do they bring to their writing?
This is a hard question to answer: numbers are hard to come by and unfortunately, the single best source The Curmudgeon found – the only comprehensive source, really – is an organization called “Media Matters for America” and it has a decidedly liberal slant. He’s going to use those numbers, though, although he recommends taking them with a grain of salt. Also, the study is eight years old, so the numbers need to be taken with yet another grain of salt, and they’re probably a bit high because newspapers have fewer readers these days and there’s so much more opinion available out there than in the past (more about that below).
So what do the numbers tell us?
The top ten columnists at the time of the study were:
- George Will – 328 newspapers with 21.3 million readers
- David Broder – 218 newspapers with 15.1 million readers
- Kathleen Parker – 282 newspapers with 15 million readers
- Ellen Goodman – 239 newspapers with 13.9 million readers
- Cal Thomas – 306 newspapers with 13.9 million readers
- Leonard Pitts, Jr. – 186 newspapers with 13.8 million readers
- Charles Krauthammer – 110 newspapers with 12 million readers
- Thomas Friedman – 122 newspapers with 11.8 million readers
- Maureen Dowd – 100 newspapers with 9.6 million readers
- David Brooks – 90 newspapers 8.8 million readers
Not all of these people are still columnists: Broder passed away in 2011 (his perspective died years before that) and Goodman no longer writes columns.
Of the remaining eight, five – Will, Parker, Thomas, Krauthammer, and Brooks – are considered conservative; two are viewed as liberal – Pitts and Dowd; and Friedman is viewed as centrist; The Curmudgeon disagrees about Friedman, who seems clearly liberal to him. (The Curmudgeon suspects that an updated version of this list would include Paul Krugman and he’s liberal, too.)
The Media Matters study points out that when you look at the top ten conservative and top ten liberal columnists, the conservatives appear in 641 more newspapers with 20 million more readers.
So is this the dominant liberal media people are pointing fingers at? A portion of that so-called liberal media that’s pretty clearly dominated by conservatives?
Really, though, The Curmudgeon doesn’t think most of these people are influential or respected at all. Thomas Friedman is, and so are Paul Krugman and George Will. And the others? Well, they’re read by people who are pre-disposed to like what they have to say. Their role in the public discourse, moreover, has been at least partly usurped because this is now a world in which every Tom, Dick, and Curmudgeon can step into the public square and mount his or her own soapbox via the internet. Everyone has opinions, more of us are expressing them, and our collective volume is drowning out the Kathleen Parkers, Charles Krauthammers, and Maureen Dowds of the world.
Seriously, have you ever joined a circle of people conversing and found them talking about the latest Leonard Pitts column?
But on points, you have to give the edge, and a pretty considerable edge, to conservatives here. On paper, conservative columnists’ reach is far, far greater than that of liberal columnists, so newspapers’ op-ed pages look like one pretty seriously conservative-dominated aspect of the media. On the other hand, two of the three columnists The Curmudgeon suspects are the most influential are liberal: Friedman and Krugman.
So overall, how does this contribute to a liberal-dominated media?
(Tomorrow: We look at newspaper political endorsements and magazines.)