Accuracy in Media

An unusual source–MSNBC–has provided the latest documentation of the liberal bias in the mainstream media. It came in the form of a Bill Dedman article on its website looking at journalists who have given money in recent years to federal candidates, political parties, or political action committees (PAC).

The investigation turned up donations from 143 journalists, including editors, anchors, columnists, reporters and editorial cartoonists, but not executives or publishers. They came primarily from the 200 largest newspapers in the country.

The findings, based on an analysis of Federal Election Commission (FEC) records from 2004 through the first quarter of this year, were that 125 of those went to Democrats or liberal groups, 16 to Republicans or conservative groups, and two who gave to both. That’s a major advantage for the Democrats in the major media.

The investigation has resulted in a New York Times columnist being dropped by a paper planning to carry his columns.

Some of the more interesting examples included Guy Raz, a CNN reporter, who now covers the Pentagon for National Public Radio, and who gave $500 to John Kerry’s campaign during the same period he was embedded with the Army in Iraq. Other examples include a producer for Bill O’Reilly of the Fox News Channel who gave $5,000 to Republicans, and a financial columnist for the New York Sun, Liz Peek, who gave $90,000 to the Republican Party.

Another interesting example was George Packer, a war correspondent for the New Yorker magazine. Packer, who gave $750 to the Democratic National Committee in August 2004, was candid when asked to comment for the story: “My readers know my views on politics and politicians because I make no secret of them in my comments for the New Yorker or elsewhere,” he said. “If giving money to a politician prejudiced my ability to think and write honestly, I wouldn’t do it. Fortunately it doesn’t,” said Packer.

But Packer misses the point. The money doesn’t prejudice the writer; it reflects the core beliefs of that writer.

As Dedman sees it, “The pattern of donations, with nearly nine out of 10 giving to Democratic candidates and causes, appears to confirm a leftward tilt in newsrooms–at least among the donors, who are a tiny fraction of the roughly 100,000 staffers in newsrooms across the nation.” He writes that the donors said they try to be fair, and not let their beliefs and donations influence their writing and editing, and that it’s better to be “transparent about their beliefs, and that editors who insist on manufacturing an appearance of impartiality are being deceptive to a public that already knows journalists aren’t without biases.”

News organizations have a range of policies about this matter. Fox News Channel is the only major TV network that places no restrictions on campaign contributions. It’s also allowed at Time, The New Yorker, Reuters and Bloomberg News, and not allowed at the Washington Post, ABC, CBS, CNN and NPR. Other organizations discourage it, but don’t forbid it.

The New York Times forbids donations, but that didn’t stop Randy Cohen, who writes a syndicated column for the Times called “The Ethicist,” when he gave $585 to the far-left activist group in 2004 to organize get-out-the-vote efforts to defeat President Bush. Cohen said he understands the Times’ policy and won’t do it again, but that he had “thought of as no more out of bounds than the Boy Scouts.”

James Taranto of found that laughable: “Cohen’s effort at self-justification approaches high comedy: If it’s OK for his colleagues to make donations to nonpolitical organizations that he finds politically objectionable, it must be OK for him to make donations to political organizations! And anyway, he thinks of as nonpartisan!”

As Dedman pointed out in a follow-up article, the Spokane Spokesman-Review has dropped Cohen’s column, which they had planned to start running this month. “Had he been a Spokesman-Review staff member, he would have faced suspension, at least, for his misstep,” said editor Steven A. Smith. “So, we’re dropping the column. We’ll look elsewhere for a publishable ethicist.”

I was asked to debate this story on the CNBC show, “Kudlow & Company,” along with Eric Alterman, who writes for The Nation magazine as well as Media Matters, a group established by supporters of Hillary Clinton to attack her critics in the press.

Responding to the MSNBC survey, Alterman wrote that “I never give money, or participate in political fundraisers, because I don’t want hassles from stories like this. But I don’t see anything wrong with it either. The more information readers, viewers, and listeners have about the people who are providing their information the better, I say. Not giving money does not eliminate the views and feelings that inspire these contributions. It merely keeps the news consumer in the dark.”

I disagree with Alterman’s claim that there is nothing wrong with journalists giving money to politicians. There shouldn’t be a law against it, but it is a clear violation of the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, which says that journalists should “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived; Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility; Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.” But I agree with his point that news consumers deserve more, not less, information about the political activities and motivations of journalists. That’s why the MSNBC story was so important and necessary.

But Alterman took a different approach on the program, hosted by Larry Kudlow. He declared, “If I were going to give money to a candidate, I wouldn’t want a call from an investigative reporter about it. So you know what I would do? I’d have my spouse give it or I’d give it under my kids’ names, which is what people who give money do all the time.”

A follow-up study may be needed to see if this kind of political activity is in fact being practiced by journalists. It is audacious that he would invite journalists to conceal their political motivations in such a manner.

But Alterman also seemed to think that what Dedman had uncovered was irrelevant. He said he thought the journalists identified by Dedman didn’t have much power or influence. He said that he would like to see what news media executives are giving, and mentioned News Corp., the parent company of the Fox News Channel, among others. The implication was that News Corps executive were right-wingers imposing their political views on those who work under them.

In rebuttal, I pointed out that Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corp., had been a major backer of Al Gore in 2000, and that Peter Chernin, president and COO of News Corp., had been a major and open supporter of John Kerry in 2004.

Alterman replied that “I think if you’ve got to go to Rupert Murdoch as a supporter of the Democrats, you have a few credibility problems yourself.”

With that comment, Alterman demonstrated his ignorance of the facts. FEC records show that Murdoch is a significant backer of liberal Democrats, including Senator Clinton, who was supported for re-election by his New York Post newspaper. Several top News Corp. executives, besides Chernin, are Democrats. Another, Gary Ginsberg, Executive Vice President for Corporate Affairs and Communications at News Corporation, is a former Assistant Counsel to President Clinton.

Murdoch’s ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton have been the subject of numerous stories in the mainstream press.

Who has the credibility problem? Alterman just didn’t like the honest and truthful answer to his own question.

His other point-that the MSNBC story used only one survey that was based on a small sample-is true but beside the point. Every poll or survey is based on a small sample. Small or not, it is consistent with a pattern of evidence proving a liberal bias in the mainstream media that we have been documenting at Accuracy in Media for nearly 40 years.

It’s Alterman who has the credibility problem. In this “Altercation,” the title of his blog carried by Media Matters, he punched himself out.

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