Tag Archives: liberal media

The Myth of the Liberal Media (part 5 of 5)

(This week The Curmudgeon is taking a look at the myth of the liberal media. On Monday 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. On Tuesday he looked at newspaper endorsements and magazines. On Wednesday he considered television news and what he calls “opinion television.” Yesterday was devoted to talk radio and web sites. Today he concludes by looking at what he considers a special situation and offers a brief conclusion.)

A Special Category

 If there’s one semi-legitimate beef the right might have about the media it’s the accidental success and phenomenon of Jon Stewart and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Colbert, with their former Comedy Central programs.

Jon Stewart poses for a portrait in promotion of his forthcoming directorial and screenwriting feature debut "Rosewater" on Friday, Nov. 7, 2014 in New York. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)

Not exactly “the media” but not exactly not, either.

But you have to look at intent here. The Daily Show is on Comedy Central, a third-tier cable network “distinguished” by such swill as South Park and The Man Show and roasts of C-list “celebrities.” Comedy Central’s agenda is to make money by being funny and it has tried a lot of things to be funny over the years; some have been more successful than others. The original host of The Daily Show was Craig Kilborn, a former ESPN jock announcer whose comedy style might best be described as “snarky.” The show was moderately successful but Kilborn got a better offer from CBS to follow David Letterman and only then did Jon Stewart join the network. At first Stewart’s show was no more successful, but after The Daily Show’s commentaries on the stolen presidential election of 2000 and then the aftermath of the terrorists attacks of September 11, 2001 Stewart somehow was elevated to a respected figure and the show’s popularity rose, as did his influence: the direct role in played in the cancellation of CNN’s Crossfire was an amazing exercise in influence. He had a strong supporting cast, more so in the beginning than in the later years, and the best of those supporters, Stephen Colbert, was given his own program on which he did essentially the same thing in a different way.

There is no evidence – not a hint – to suggest that someone set out to make a liberal comedy show and ended up producing The Daily Show. No, it was an attempt to be funny that stumbled along for a few years until it hit its stride. What some people forget, moreover, is that Fox News tried to create its own version of The Daily Show and failed. It introduced its 1/2 Hour News Hour in 2007 and the program was quickly found guilty of the biggest sin a comedy program can commit: it wasn’t funny. People didn’t watch and it was canceled after only 15 episodes. Does this mean conservatives aren’t funny? Of course not. Does it mean liberals conspired to bring about the program’s failure? Of course not. The first rule of comedy is to be funny, Stewart and Colbert were and the Fox News crew wasn’t, and that’s all there is to it. It’s unfortunate for conservatives but Stewart and Colbert are in no way part of “the media,” to be sure, but they were very, very influential. They’re both gone now, though, and you don’t hear much about their successors, do you? And do you know why? It’s simple: they’re not as funny, and that’s what matters – both to the network that airs them and to the people who choose to watch or not watch them.

 Conclusion

So where is this liberal bias in the media that those on the wrong end of the public discourse like to point to? Maybe it’s hiding in plain view, but The Curmudgeon, for one, can’t find it.

In fact, it looks like it’s the other way around: the conservative media appears to overwhelm the liberal media in the areas that arguably matter most: newspaper columns, newspaper endorsements, opinion television, and talk radio.

And when you think about it, who are the people doing all the complaining about the media?

Think.

It’ll come to you.

Ah, there it is.

The people who complain the most about the media are…Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck, and O’Reilly. The very people who have the most influence are complaining about anything they don’t themselves influence or with which they disagree.

It is, in other words, the media complaining about the media – and the conservative media complaining about the very media it dominates.

And its complaints are just plain unfounded.

 

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The Myth of the Liberal Media (part 4 of 5)

(This week The Curmudgeon is taking a look at the myth of the liberal media. On Monday 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. On Tuesday he looked at newspaper endorsements and magazines. Yesterday he considered television news and what he calls “opinion television.” Today 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.)

Talk Radio

Next we turn to talk radio, where what we find is more conclusive than with any other medium.

The Curmudgeon identified the 16 radio talk show hosts with the most listeners per week. Here’s that list (as of May 2015):

  1. The biggest star in the talk radio world.

    The biggest star in the talk radio world.

    Rush Limbaugh – 13.25 million listeners a week

  2. Sean Hannity – 12.5 million listeners
  3. Dave Ramsey – 8.25 million
  4. Glenn Beck – 7 million
  5. Mark Levin – 7 million
  6. Michael Savage – 5.25 million
  7. Jim Bohannon – 2.75 million
  8. Mike Gallagher – 2.75 million
  9. Michael Medved – 2.75 million
  10. George Noory – 2.75 million
  11. Doug Stephan – 2.75 million
  12. Bill Bennett – 2.5 million
  13. Clark Howard – 2.5 million
  14. Dennis Miller – 2.5 million
  15. Thom Hartman – 2 million
  16. Laura Ingraham – 2 million

The Curmudgeon confesses that until he started doing research for this piece he’d never even heard of Levin, Bohannon, Gallagher, Noory, Stephan, and Hartman – half of the top 12. And he thought Michael Medved was just a movie critic. Of course he’d rather go to the dentist, or watch a soccer game, than listen to talk radio, so perhaps that explains his ignorance.

Now let’s throw out a few: Ramsey and Howard have financial talk shows, Stephan’s show is considered general interest, and Noory’s show centers on mystery and the unknown (seriously!).

That narrows down our original 16 to 12, and this time, let’s add a notation of the political perspective of each:

  1. Never, ever trust a man who wears his hair like this.

    Never, ever trust a man who wears his hair like this.

    Rush Limbaugh – 13.25 million listeners a week (conservative)

  2. Sean Hannity – 12.5 million listeners (conservative)
  3. Glenn Beck – 7 million (conservative)
  4. Mark Levin – 7 million (conservative)
  5. Michael Savage – 5.25 million (conservative)
  6. Jim Bohannon – 2.75 million (middle-of-the-road)
  7. Mike Gallagher – 2.75 million (conservative)
  8. Michael Medved – 2.75 million (conservative)
  9. Bill Bennett – 2.5 million (conservative)
  10. Dennis Miller – 2.5 million (conservative)
  11. Thom Hartman – 2 million (liberal)
  12. Laura Ingraham – 2 million (conservative)

Pretty conspicuous, isn’t it, that 10 of the 12 most popular political radio talk shows in the country are conservative and only one is liberal. And who are the people on this list who are most widely considered influential? Clearly, Limbaugh, Hannity, and Beck. And are they influential? Well, consider the same word The Curmudgeon offered as proof of the influence of opinion television: Benghazi. There is no – no – liberal counterpart to the manner in which conservatives have chosen to raise the profile of that sad but ridiculous issue.

Web Sites

Next we come to another category for which solid information is hard to come by: web sites (or, as some people insist, although The Curmudgeon is resisting, websites). The Curmudgeon had a difficult time finding hard numbers for how many people visit individual web sites but he did find a widely respected source for rating the relative popularity of web sites based on how many visitors they have – although strangely, no one seems interested in breaking down those ratings into hard numbers of visitors. The source is called Alexa ratings, generated by a company called Alexa that a Google search describes as “a California-based company that provides commercial web traffic data and analytics. It is a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon.com.” Before sharing some Alexa ratings, The Curmudgeon should note, in fairness, that some conservative groups believe Alexa ratings are biased. As far as The Curmudgeon can tell, the only explanation he has encountered to support this charge is that when Alexa reported a drop in ratings among some conservative web sites, conservatives immediately insisted that the ratings therefore must be biased.

Which makes perfect sense, right?

To give you a frame of reference, the top ten web sites in the U.S. – “top” as in “most frequently visited” – are pretty much what you’d expect:

  1. Google.com
  2. Facebook.com
  3. Youtube.com
  4. Amazon.com
  5. Yahoo.com
  6. Wikipedia.org
  7. Ebay.com
  8. Twitter.com
  9. Reddit.com
  10. Netflix.com

No major surprises there, except maybe for Reddit.

According to Alexa ratings, the ten most popular conservative web sites in the U.S. today (and the number following the name of the site is its overall ranking (it’s not clear whether this is a U.S. or world-wide ranking, but The Curmudgeon suspects it’s U.S. only)) are:

  1. If you don't know the difference between The Drudge Report and the National Enquirer - well, join the club.

    If you don’t know the difference between The Drudge Report and the National Enquirer – well, join the club.

    Fox News (212)

  2. Wall Street Journal (294)
  3. Independent Review Journal (341)
  4. The Drudge Report (635)
  5. Western Journalism (819)
  6. New York Post (870)
  7. The Blaze (1045)
  8. Breitbart (1533)
  9. WorldNetDaily (2500)
  10. Conservative Tribune (2555)

An observation:

Huh?

The Curmudgeon confesses that he’s never heard of five of the ten. Well, he’s not conservative, so maybe that’s not so surprising.

How about you? Have you heard of all of these sites?

Now, the top ten liberal sites according to Alexa ratings:

  1. CNN (52)
  2. Huffington Post (393)
  3. Time (553)
  4. NPR (1524)
  5. Slate (1569)
  6. Newsweek (1690)
  7. S. News & World Report (2408)
  8. Politico (2470)
  9. Salon (2455)
  10. Indy Media (3534)

A few observations here.

First, The Curmudgeon has heard of nine of the ten; “Indy Media” is the unknown.

Second, he doesn’t think Time, Newsweek, Politico, and U.S. News & World Report are liberal at all and he doesn’t think CNN’s web site, which he assumes people visit more for breaking news than anything else, is liberal, either.

And third, overall, the top conservative sites appear to be more popular than the top liberal sites – but not by a whole lot in the greater scheme of things. Also, The Curmudgeon questions whether these are really the “top” sites in these categories. Whether they are or they aren’t, it’s certainly hard to accept any suggestion that the most popular web sites lean left, isn’t it?

Tomorrow: We look at a special situation and offer a brief conclusion.

The Myth of the Liberal Media (part 3 of 5)

(This week The Curmudgeon is taking a look at the myth of the liberal media. On Monday 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. Yesterday he looked at newspaper endorsements and magazines. Today 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.)

Television News

Next we turn to television news – real news, not the opinion-news of networks like Fox News and MSNBC; we address that separately below.

abc newsHere we run into a potential problem: The Curmudgeon rejects the idea that the news operations of NBC, ABC, CBS, and CNN are biased. You, obviously, may disagree. They’re critical of everyone, that’s their job, and especially those who hold office. When Republicans occupy the White House they’re hard on the Republican president and when Democrats occupy the White House they’re critical of the Democratic president; the same is true of Congress. Yes, they’ve given Obama a bit of a pass, but The Curmudgeon doesn’t think that’s because he’s liberal; he thinks it’s because they’re afraid to be critical of an African-American president.

Just like many on the right, when you think about it, whom The Curmudgeon believes dislike Obama primarily because he is African-American.

Also, a difference between Republican and Democratic administrations that The Curmudgeon has observed over the years that affects how the press treats them is that since the Reagan administration learned how to work around the mainstream media and speak directly to its followers, Republican presidents have been less accessible to reporters than Democratic presidents. White House reporters, The Curmudgeon has long felt, are naturally inclined to be sheep: feed them what they’re looking for and they’ll be happy and content and won’t go looking for anything else. Deny them their sustenance, however, and they have no choice but to go looking for things, and if you look hard enough you’re bound to find something, even if only by accident. In this sense, The Curmudgeon thinks Republican administrations invite more critical reporting by not giving the press enough to enable it to live its preferred, lazy ways.

Even though The Curmudgeon thinks this barely matters, let’s take a quick look at the numbers. The following were the major network numbers for their nightly news broadcasts for the week of March 7, 2016:

  • NBC – 8,742,000 viewers
  • ABC – 8,665,000 viewers
  • CBS – 7,427,000 viewers

What about CNN? As far as The Curmudgeon can tell, CNN no longer has a traditional evening news broadcast. The closest it comes is afternoon news programs, when the audience is much smaller, so it’s not a fair comparison.

It may be a lot of things but "news" is not one of them.

It may be a lot of things but “news” is not one of them.

And Fox News? Please: they can call it “news” until they’re blue in the face but we all know it isn’t news. To the degree that people tune into Fox expecting “news,” this is the most biased aspect of the media today and it’s biased in favor of conservatives.

As far as The Curmudgeon is concerned, television news borders on the irrelevant. Except when its cameras are trained on a live event, in which case it often does very fine work, television mostly regurgitates what newspapers have already reported. It’s too afraid of alienating viewers – specifically, it’s worth noting, those on the right – to offer any perspective at all. In addition, the balance between hard news and soft continues to shift toward the soft. Today, television news’s biggest influence is in how effectively it is cultivating a less-informed public.

Opinion Television

Where The Curmudgeon thinks television is seriously influential is in its prime-time television news-opinion broadcasts, and that involves three networks: Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. In The Curmudgeon’s eyes, Fox News is conservative; MSNBC is liberal; and CNN is not in the middle but leans clearly left when it is talking about public affairs, as opposed to when it is reporting on those affairs, when it seems pretty much middle of the road.

So who’s watching what these days? The Curmudgeon took a look at Thursday, March 17, and here’s what he found.

7:00 p.m.

  • Greta Van Susteren (Fox) – 2.017 million viewers
  • Erin Burnett (CNN) – 983,000 viewers
  • Chris Matthews (MSNBC) – 1.019 million viewers

8:00 p.m.

  • The king of opinion television.

    The king of opinion television.

    Bill O’Reilly (Fox) – 3.205 million viewers

  • Anderson Cooper (CNN) – 1.141 million viewers
  • Chris Hayes (MSNBC) – 1.113 million

9:00 p.m.

  • Megyn Kelly (Fox) – 2.426 million viewers
  • Anderson Cooper (CNN) – 1.114 million viewers
  • Rachel Maddow (MSNBC) – 1.453 million viewers

10:00 p.m.

  • Sean Hannity (Fox) – 2.356 million viewers
  • Don Lemon (CNN) – 1.089 million viewers)
  • Lawrence O’Donnell (MSNBC) – 1.131 million viewers)

Before proceeding, yet another quick note: The Curmudgeon doesn’t watch any of these folks; he finds them all insufferable. When someone puts you on television four or five nights a week and tells you to share your opinions and then you learn that people are actually watching you, how can you possibly avoid becoming insufferable? Yes, yes, The Curmudgeon knows: just like bloggers.

The numbers don’t exactly suggest a bias toward a liberal perspective, do they? In two of those four prime time periods the conservative Fox program drew more viewers than the very-left MSNBC and the somewhat-left CNN combined. In one of those hours it was virtually a dead heat. And in the fourth, the conservative Fox program had about 100,000 fewer viewers than the other two combined.

Maybe it's the influence of "Saturday Night Live" spoofs, but The Curmudgeon can't watch this guy without breaking out into laughter.

Maybe it’s the influence of “Saturday Night Live” spoofs but The Curmudgeon can’t watch this guy without breaking out into laughter.

Now, consider this: of all of the individual broadcasters listed above, whom do you consider to be the most influential? The Curmudgeon would argue O’Reilly, Hannity, Maddow, and Matthews – in that order. Do you agree? Disagree? From his own perspective, The Curmudgeon never even heard of Megyn Kelly until the Republican presidential debate she moderated and he had to look up the first name of MSNBC’s Chris Hayes; before doing so, he thought the guy’s name was the same as that of the former Will and Grace star. As for Chris Matthews, well, whenever The Curmudgeon sees Chris Matthews he just laughs and wonders how anyone can take that guy seriously.

So if anything, the television news opinion industry, in The Curmudgeon’s view, leans pretty clearly and hard right, not left.

But since these programs are purely opinion, The Curmudgeon doesn’t think we’re talking about bias at all. It’s just television programming and viewers expressing their preferences through their viewing choices. As long as no one’s keeping any particular point of view off the air for ideological reasons it’s not bias. Other than that, it’s all about ratings: conservatives watch these kinds of programs so there are more of them and liberals don’t, so no one’s lining up to air programs with no real audience. But opinion television leans pretty strongly conservative, making claims that the media is biased toward liberal perspectives seem pretty silly – and empty.

But if you need any proof of the influence of opinion television, and that this influence is more conservative than liberal, The Curmudgeon has to offer only one word: Benghazi. Without Fox News, barely anyone has ever even heard that word.

Tomorrow: We look at talk radio and web sites.

The Myth of the Liberal Media (part 2 of 5)

(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.)

Newspaper Endorsements

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.

Some facts.

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?

While Bill Clinton's presidency is frequently remembered as a great success, the majority of daily newspapers endorsed his opponent, Bob Dole, when Clinton ran for re-election in 1996.

While Bill Clinton’s presidency is frequently remembered as a great success, the majority of daily newspapers endorsed his opponent, Bob Dole, when Clinton ran for re-election in 1996.

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.

Magazines

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.

  • readers digest

    Preferred reading material for doctors’ offices and the bathroom.

    #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):

  1. No, actually, he couldn't.

    No, actually, he couldn’t.

    National Review – 167,000

  2. The Weekly Standard – 105,000
  3. Commentary – 33,000
  4. The American Conservative – 8000
  5. 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):

  1. The New Yorker – 1 million
  2. Mother Jones – 203,000
  3. New York Review of Books – 134,000
  4. The Nation – 113,000
  5. American Prospect – 37,4000
  6. 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.

A favorite of The Curmudgeon.

A favorite of The Curmudgeon.

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.

The Myth of the Liberal Media (part 1 of 5)

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.

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.

wsjFirst, 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.

Newspaper Columnists

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:

  1. George Will – 328 newspapers with 21.3 million readers
  2. David Broder – 218 newspapers with 15.1 million readers
  3. Kathleen Parker – 282 newspapers with 15 million readers
  4. Ellen Goodman – 239 newspapers with 13.9 million readers
  5. Cal Thomas – 306 newspapers with 13.9 million readers
  6. Leonard Pitts, Jr. – 186 newspapers with 13.8 million readers
  7. Charles Krauthammer – 110 newspapers with 12 million readers
  8. Thomas Friedman – 122 newspapers with 11.8 million readers
  9. Maureen Dowd – 100 newspapers with 9.6 million readers
  10. 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.

george will

George Will

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?

Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman

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?

It doesn’t.

(Tomorrow: We look at newspaper political endorsements and magazines.)