Liberal media? Depends what you mean by liberal

Jonathan Chait of The New Republic (subscription required)– a pro-Iraq-war liberal who recently wrote an article making the case for hating President Bush– concedes that there is in fact something to the political right’s ancient claim of liberal media bias:

It’s undeniably true that reporters’ personal views tend to be liberal. A 1996 poll, for instance, showed 89 percent of Washington reporters voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. What’s not so clear is how these biases affect coverage. Most journalists insist their commitment to evenhandedness– a gospel spread by the likes of Washington Post editor Len Downie, who refused even to vote because it affirmed partisan feelings– makes their personal philosophies irrelevant. Conservatives, in turn, scoff at this notion, saying that liberals could never put aside their own predilections so easily.

The likely truth is that liberal bias does affect news coverage, but not always in the ways conservatives suspect. For one thing, the elite media are not merely liberal. They’re, well, elite. They share the priorities of the educated classes–liberal on social issues but not necessarily on economics. So, while reporters are more likely to portray anti-abortion or anti-gay rights activists as out of the mainstream than pro-choice or pro-gay rights activists, they dismissively characterize enormously popular programs like Medicare and Social Security as “entitlements” and portray politicians who defend them from cuts as practicing “demagoguery.” (As Newsweek asserted in 2000, “The Democrats’ most tried-and-true weapon was to demagogue Social Security.”) Similarly, when Democrats complain about inequality, mainstream reporters and pundits frequently describe it along the lines that Tim Russert did in 2002, when he posed a question about “the whole class warfare issue that’s being raised by the Democrats”–a term they would never use to describe any Republican policy, even one that very clearly advantages one class over another.

I think it’s true– especially these days, when top journalists are likely to be earning incomes far higher than the median– that the media’s sympathy for social and cultural liberalism is more intense than its identification with old-fashioned bread-and-butter liberalism.

The same goes for “free trade.” It’s easier to accuse politicians who support restrictions on imports of “pandering to special interests” if no one you know personally has been laid off recently from a factory job. And how many leading journalists do you think would know someone like that?