People who study bias in mainstream political reporting sometimes reach surprisingly different conclusions about whether there is any and what kind there is. One obvious reason for the disparity is that in the study of human words, the instruments of measurement are human minds. But another is that different kinds of bias may cut across each other; they may not always line up in the same direction. Thus, it may seem that there is no systematic bias when in fact there are several different systematic biases which are at least sometimes in competition.
I suggest that at least five such biases operate among mainstream political journalists.
At the base of everything is conformity with peers. Journalists don’t imitate other journalists per se, but they do imitate journalists in their own circles. If this were the only bias, we would expect a pure demonstration of the Grackle Syndrome, which I have been discussing for the last several posts. But other motives operate too, which produce patterns which are superimposed on it and which channel the chaos in particular directions.
The second bias is love of activity. Journalists like politicians to do things. Activity is interesting. It makes for better stories.
The third bias is the lean to the left. Which kinds of politicians are most likely to do things? Obviously, those who believe in activist government. So whether or not journalists have other reasons for liking liberals, they also like them just because they are a more reliable source of interesting stories than conservatives are. There are, of course, exceptions: For instance, the late Jack Kemp tended to receive favorable press in his day. Kemp was a conservative who believed that the market solves problems better than the government does. But he wanted the government to do a thousand things to make it easier for the market to work, so journalists found him interesting after all.
The fourth bias is the love of scandal. Even if the fellow bleeding in the water is one of their favorites, few journalists can resist joining a feeding frenzy. More is going on here than the urge to conform with peers. Another motive for it is that although virtue may be more interesting to live, vice is more interesting to watch; no one wants to read stories about people who love their wives, care for their children, go to church, work hard at their jobs, and pay their bills. Another possible motive for the love of scandal is that journalists become cynical about political corruption, and one of the ways to stave off depression is to enjoy the spectacle. So do you want to become a special target of the Fourth Estate? One way is to be corrupt, but another is to act as though you think virtue is important -- because cynics find that scandalous too.
The final bias is the fascination with conspicuous power. For example, most journalists are in love with the office of the President, even if they detest the fellow who happens to inhabit it at any given moment. No other office in the government is so made for the media as the Presidency. It's unique, it's potent, it's glamorous, it provides a focus of attention, and it contains within it all sorts of possibilities for tragedy and triumph, agony and ecstasy, buffoonery and glory. What more could a journalist want?