For example: If we were able to survey their opinions on the issues that divide left and right, we would undoubtedly find that the people in the political press—the Gang of 500, asMark Halperin calls them—are much more liberal than the population as a whole. We would also find that they are typical of the population in the cities where they work, which formed the basis for this famous column by Daniel Okrent: Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?
But if we were able to engage our political journalists in a deeper discussion we would also find that most of them are skeptical about changing society in any fundamental way. And they are big believers in the law of unintended consequences. So: liberal or conservative? My answer: it’s complicated. One thing we can definitely say: political journalists are cosmopolitans, and they will see the world through that lens. They may also stop seeing it as a lens, and that’s when it becomes an ideology.
But even if we had an x-ray machine that gave us perfect information about the beliefs of the journalists who report on politics, the ideological drift of the work they produce wouldn’t necessarily match the personal beliefs or voting patterns of the reporters and editors on the beat because there are other factors that intervene between the authors of news accounts and the accounts they author.
Take for instance the way professional journalists try to generate authority and respect among peers, or, to state it negatively, the way they flee opprobrium. Here it is important for them to demonstrate that they are not on anyone’s “team,” or cheerleading for a known position. This puts a premium on stories that embarrass, disrupt, annoy or counter the preferred narrative—the talking points, the party line—of one or both of the sides engaged in political battle. An incentive system like that tends to be an ideological scrambler, which doesn’t mean that it scrambles consistently or symmetrically across political lines. It means what I said earlier… this is complicated.