(This week The Curmudgeon is taking a look at the myth of the liberal media. Yesterday he outlined what the issue is and looked at the degree to which newspapers and newspaper columnists are or are not biased toward the liberal perspective. Today he looks at newspaper endorsements and magazines. On Wednesday he considers television news and what he calls “opinion television.” Thursday is devoted to talk radio and web sites. And on Friday he concludes by looking at what he considers a special situation and offers a brief conclusion.)
Across the broadsheet from columnists is the editorial page where, among other things, newspapers endorse candidates for public office. Those endorsements are surely a sign of liberal bias because Democrats get all the endorsements, right?
Actually, no, that’s not true.
But first we have to qualify something: The Curmudgeon struck out when it came to learning about how different parties’ candidates fare in accumulating newspaper endorsements for offices other than president. Short of selecting and researching individual races in different states over a period of years – something that goes well beyond the means and energy of this blog – we’ll have to focus this review on endorsements of presidential candidates.
And no, newspapers do not always endorse Democrats. In fact, over time, they mostly endorse Republicans.
“Do not!” you insist.
“Do too!” The Curmudgeon replies.
In 16 of the 20 presidential elections since 1932, the Republican candidate won more endorsements than the Democratic candidate. In the 1940s Republican candidates got 76 percent of the daily newspaper endorsements; in the 1950s, 68 percent; in the 1980s, 78 percent; and in the 2000s, the Democrats won a majority for the first time: 51.9 percent.
That’s hardly a liberal bias.
This shouldn’t be such a surprise: until recent years and the rise of newspaper corporations, newspapers have always been owned by rich guys. Rich guys usually prefer Republicans, don’t they?
From 1972 to 1988, Republican presidential candidates got 84 percent of daily newspaper endorsements. The first Democrat to get the majority of endorsements was Lyndon Johnson, in 1964, and that didn’t happen again until 1992, when Bill Clinton ran for his first term. That, though, was just a little detour on the road of Republican domination: in 1996 and 2000 the Republican candidates (Dole and Bush Jr.) received more endorsements than their Democratic opponents (Clinton and Gore).
How important are these endorsements? That’s hard to say: the experts disagree. But ask yourself this: have you ever voted for someone because your local newspaper suggested that you do so? The candidates with more endorsements have lost three times since 1972: Gerald Ford in 1976, Bob Dole in 1996, and John Kerry in 2004. Going back a little further, Richard Nixon received more endorsements than John Kennedy in 1960.
So have Democrats been racking up more presidential endorsements in recent years? Absolutely. But bias? If anything, a balance of power has developed after years of rich Republican newspaper owners exercising their will, as was certainly their prerogative. Today, though, it appears that those who are complaining about a liberal media bias may more accurately be described as complaining about the loss of a dominant conservative media bias that had sustained and supported their cause for many decades. As for their complaints of a liberal media bias today? When it comes to newspaper endorsements, they don’t have a leg to stand on.
Now let’s look at magazines. Remember magazines? Magazines are dying a slow (and sometimes not-so-slow) and painful death, but people still do read them.
Let’s start with some context and a look at some of the top 100 magazines in the country based on circulation.
#1 – AARP The Magazine – 23.7 million subscribers
- #2 – AARP Bulletin – 23.6 million subscribers
- #3 – The Costco Connection – 8.2 million subscribers
- #4 – Better Homes and Gardens – 7.6 million subscribers
- #5 – Reader’s Digest – 6.1 million subscribers
- #13 – Time – 3.3 million subscribers
- #52 – Newsweek – 1.6 million subscribers
- #88 – The New Yorker – 1 million subscribers
- #100 – The Star – 946,000 subscribers
A few observations: the two AARP magazines, which have so many more readers than all the rest, are free; no one’s writing a check to subscribe to AARP The Magazine. The same is true of the Costco magazine. Once you get past them, magazine circulation seriously plummets.
Before proceeding, another quick note: getting decent numbers for the publications we’re about to discuss is difficult; some of these numbers are a few years old.
Here are the top conservative magazines in the country (followed by their circulation):
National Review – 167,000
- The Weekly Standard – 105,000
- Commentary – 33,000
- The American Conservative – 8000
- The American Spectator – folded its print magazine in 2014 and is now only available on the web
Now, the top liberal magazines in the country (followed by their circulation):
- The New Yorker – 1 million
- Mother Jones – 203,000
- New York Review of Books – 134,000
- The Nation – 113,000
- American Prospect – 37,4000
- The Washington Monthly – 10,600
For the record, The Curmudgeon subscribes to The New Yorker, Mother Jones, and The Washington Monthly, and he cites them periodically in this space. He once subscribed to the New York Review of Books but it’s waaaaay, waaaay too erudite for him; once subscribed to The Nation but found its tone too obnoxious; and once subscribed to American Prospect but found it to be just plain awful.
Clearly, liberal magazines are much more widely read than conservative magazines, even granting that only small parts of The New Yorker are about politics and only parts of The New York Review of Books are about politics.
But really, when was the last time you noticed someone – okay, someone other than The Curmudgeon – talking or writing about what they read in Mother Jones or the National Review?
Yes, that’s what The Curmudgeon thought: seldom or never. Mostly, these magazines are preaching to the choir: liberals read liberal magazines and conservatives read conservative magazines and never the twain do meet. The only people they’re influencing are people who’ve already declared their political allegiance.
When it comes to magazines, liberals clearly have bigger numbers – but relatively speaking, those numbers are miniscule. The Curmudgeon loves Washington Monthly but it’s circulation is only 10,000 for six issues a year. How influential can that possibly be? Do you think someone in Montana or Tennessee or Utah has any chance of even accidentally running across a copy of Washington Monthly, except maybe on or near a college campus? Of course not. Liberals may have more influence in the magazine world but it’s strictly preaching to the choir – and a very tiny choir it is.
Tomorrow: We look at television news and opinion television.