MSNBC investigative reporter Bill Dedman had an obvious but interesting story looking at political contributions from journalists. He found that reporters gave to Democrats and liberal causes nine times as frequently as Republican or conservative causes:
MSNBC.com identified 144 journalists who made political contributions from 2004 through the start of the 2008 campaign, according to the public records of the Federal Election Commission. Most of the newsroom checkbooks leaned to the left: 125 journalists gave to Democrats and liberal causes. Only 17 gave to Republicans. Two gave to both parties.
So mainstream media lacks political diversity -- this is not news. The article goes on to say that most mainstream news organizations discourage political activism, including marches, bumper stickers and donations. To my knowledge, my newsroom doesn't restrict political activity and our parking lot was full of bumper stickers during the last election. I have no problem with this. Why should reporters check their citizenship at the door? The test of whether this lack of diversity is a problem is not a listing of statistics about who gave what -- it's whether each reporter's politics affects the quality of their journalism. I have worked with extremely liberal reporters -- socialists, basically -- who I would trust to report and write any story out there. A good reporter is a good reporter.
The reporters I worry about are the ones like Linda Greenhouse, The New York Times' superstar Supreme Court reporter who thinks her extremely liberal views are not opinions but facts. I've worked with that kind of reporter, too. The arrogance and ignorance implicit in such an approach is what's wrong with mainstream media. And reporters are insane if they don't think readers and viewers pick up on that vibe. In fact, I blame these reporters for the perception that mainstream media are biased toward liberal views more than the fact that, well, the mainstream media are liberal.
Which is why a report like this -- that reveals what many casual observers have probably noted for a long time -- is a good thing. Transparency is good. And there is nothing wrong with reporters having opinions and political views. The proper response to this report is not to clamp down on political contributions but, if anything, to hire a more diverse work force.
On a separate note, the sentiment that causes media companies to ban political donations reminds me of the one that thinks religious affiliation is a net negative for reporters who want to cover the Godbeat. Why do we want reporters who know nothing about what they're covering?
New York Times executive editor Bill Keller issued a 2003 memo to his newsroom dealing with some of these issues. He identified religion as a major cause of the perception that his paper is liberally biased. His words are worth revisiting:
Of course, diversifying the range of viewpoints reported -- and understood -- in our pages is not mainly a matter of hiring a more diverse work force. It calls for a concerted effort by all of us to stretch beyond our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation. . . .
I also endorse the committee's recommendation that we cover religion more extensively, but I think the key to that is not to add more reporters who will write about religion as a beat. I think the key is to be more alert to the role religion plays in many stories we cover, stories of politics and policy, national and local, stories of social trends and family life, stories of how we live. This is important to us not because we want to appease believers or pander to conservatives, but because good journalism entails understanding more than just the neighborhood you grew up in.
Back to the MSNBC article -- which is really well written, thoroughly researched and balanced. The purpose of GetReligion is to look at how well the mainstream media cover religion. One of the things we've noted over the years is the dearth of reporters who get traditional religion and moral conservatism. One of the things the article isn't able to look into is whether the statistics actually understate the problem with regard to that. Is there anyone in a newsroom who sympathizes with morally conservative types? It doesn't look like any donations were given to conservative groups, although many were given to groups like MoveOn.org. Besides, the MSNBC study showed only 17 donors to Republicans in general.
The article does have a few interesting details, such as the Democratic-contributing reporter at the National Catholic Reporter. Is that mainstream media? It also lists contributions from employees at the O'Reilly Factory, Rolling Stone and MTV. I'm not sure people have an expectation that people at those institutions aren't biased. The well-paid New Yorker employees gave over $15,000 to Democrats. Is anyone surprised that employees at The New Yorker sympathize with MoveOn.org? If so, they're not very observant.
Just one more excerpt from the story, so you can get a flavor of the article. It's also interesting how so often religious and political views go together, as some of this shows:
Although donations are banned for journalists at Dow Jones -- if they would be considered newsworthy, the policy says -- several staffers at The Wall Street Journal made donations. Senior special writer Henny Sender said she was just back from Asia and didn't know the Journal's rules when she gave $300 to Kerry in 2004. The editor of the Weekend Journal, Eben Shapiro, gave $1,000 to Democratic Victory 2004. He said the donation was actually the purchase of art at a fundraiser, and when he was reminded of the paper's policy, he got a refund. Credit markets editor Billy Mallard at Dow Jones Newswires gave $200 to MoveOn.org in October and said he "thought MoveOn.org was OK because it wasn't the Republican Party or Democratic Party." Once MSNBC.com called, Mallard said, he realized that it was a partisan group and asked for a refund.
The tally of donors doesn't include a group that gave money to defeat President Bush by paying to hear the Boss. In 2004, Bruce Springsteen and other musicians raised money for MoveOn.org and America Coming Together at a series of 34 concerts billed as "Vote for Change." The ticket buyers included an MSNBC.com producer and more than 20 other journalists. Although all of the purchase price went to the effort to defeat Bush that fall, the intent may have been entirely musical, so those donors are not on our list unless they made other contributions.
One of the Springsteen fans appears to be a blogging editor at Dow Jones, Samuel J. Favate Jr., who gave $1,036 to America Coming Together in 2004. He didn't return phone calls. Favate rewrites press releases for Dow Jones Newswires in New Jersey, which may explain his views that corporate America is "really in charge." On his personal blog, Favate rails against the Iraq war, for gun control and for a tax audit of Christian psychologist James Dobson.
The list of journalists who contributed to various political candidates and causes is also worth reading, in large part because Dedman interviewed them about their contributions and included their explanations and responses.