The never-ending debate over the existence of left-wing bias in the media got a boost a few days ago with the revelation that the editor of one of America's top daily newspapers had evidently joined the ranks of critics of the "liberal media." A leaked memo from Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll discussed "the perception -- and the occasional reality -- that the Times is a liberal, 'politically correct' newspaper" and noted that "occasionally we prove our critics right."
The specific target of his displeasure was a front-page story about a new Texas measure requiring women who seek abortions to receive counseling about abortion alternatives and abortion's alleged risks. The article, Carroll complained, showed a clear slant in favor of the law's pro-choice critics.
Conservatives generally responded to the story with a mix of, "What else is new?" and, "We told you so." Meanwhile, some liberals voiced concern that the media were bending over backward to appease their right-wing critics.
These reactions are fairly typical. To most people on the right, the liberal slant in news coverage on television networks and in the major newspapers is a self-evident truth. To most people on the left, it's a right-wing canard that much of the public believes, simply because it's repeated often enough -- for instance, in books such as last year's best-seller, "Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News," by Bernard Goldberg, and "Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right," by Ann Coulter.
The latest book to charge into the battle of the media, "What Liberal Media?: The Truth About 'Bias' and the News," by Nation columnist Eric Alterman, attempts to give ammunition to the liberal side. According to Alterman, liberal bias in the major news media did exist once but withered away with the start of the Reagan years. He argues that in the past two decades, conservative complaints on the subject have been either deluded or manipulative -- a way to intimidate the media into favoring the right for fear of being accused of favoritism toward the left.
Like many liberals, Alterman deplores the prevalence of conservative opinions on talk radio, in television punditry and even in print commentary. But in all these cases, the audience knows what it's getting: political opinion, not straight-up news coverage. Goldberg and other critics argue that truly insidious bias comes wrapped in the cloak of neutrality, when reporters confuse their biases with facts. Thus, the Los Angeles Times story on the Texas abortion law referred to "so-called counseling."
Actually, Alterman concedes a major part of the conservative critics' case. He writes that most elite journalists are "pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-separation of church and state, pro-feminism, pro-affirmative action and supportive of gay rights," and that coverage of these issues tends to reflect those views. On the other hand, he asserts that the media lean rightward on economic matters and tend to be tougher on Democrats than on Republicans in their political coverage.
Media criticism is a tricky business. It's relatively easy, without resorting to outright distortion, to produce phony or dubious evidence of bias by focusing on particular articles or TV stories -- or even portions of stories -- while ignoring other things that do not fit one's argument. To some extent, both sides in the media wars resort to such tactics.
What's more, there's some truth to the cliche that bias is in the eye of the beholder. Many of my liberal friends hold the media guilty of fawning on George W. Bush and demonizing Bill Clinton; my conservative friends believe the opposite.
In many ways, conservative and liberal critiques of media bias mirror each other. Both are skewed by the critics' often extreme ideologies. To Coulter, journalists who have once worked for liberal politicians, such as New York Mayor John Lindsay, are members of the "far left," comparable to the John Birch Society on the right. To Alterman, conservative pundits such as George Will and Bill O'Reilly are radical rightists, whose counterparts on the left would be unreconstructed Stalinist Alexander Cockburn and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
Both sides are also given to using media bias as a convenient excuse for the political failures of their camp. In my view, the conservatives, for all the flaws and the hyperbole, make a stronger case. Nonetheless, complaints about the liberal media often smack of a right-wing version of the "victim culture," which conservatives, themselves, have so heartily mocked.
The dispute over media bias is unlikely to be settled any time soon. For the readers and viewers, a strong dose of skepticism toward both sides might be the only healthy response.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at the Boston Globe.