Spiro Agnew

Weekend thinking about the greatest threat to journalism and American public discourse

Weekend thinking about the greatest threat to journalism and American public discourse

Republicans have always loved to complain about media bias.

I mean, who can forget hearing the soon-to-fall Vice President Spiro Agnew proclaiming: “Some newspapers are fit only to line the bottom of bird cages.” Here’s another one: “Some newspapers dispose of their garbage by printing it.”

However, the serious study of media bias issues didn’t really get rolling until Roe v. Wade, an issue that transcended mere partisan politics — even more than the fighting in Vietnam. Slanted coverage of abortion and related cultural issues (classic Los Angeles Times series here) created a link between media-bias studies and debates about the coverage of religion in the mainstream press.

I began my full-time work in journalism in the late 1970s, when all of this exploded into public debate. Here is a big chunk of my graduate project at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, as published as a 1983 cover story by The Quill:

According to a study by S. Robert Lichter of George Washington University and Stanley Rothman of Smith College, editors, producers and reporters of the nation's "prestige" media do not share the public's interest in religion.

"They're very secular," Lichter told George Cornell. The leaders of American media are "much less religious than people in general," he added.

In each "elite" news organization, Lichter and Rothman selected individuals randomly. At newspapers they interviewed reporters, columnists, department heads, bureau chiefs, editors, and executives. In broadcast newsrooms they interviewed correspondents, anchormen, producers, film editors, and news executives. A high proportion of those contacted, 76 percent, took part in the survey. In the blank on the survey labeled "religion," 50 percent of the respondents wrote the word "none." In national surveys, seventy percent of the public claims membership in a religious group. Gallup polls indicate 41 percent of Americans attend church once a week. In a report in Public Opinion, Lichter and Rothman said:

"A predominant characteristic of the media elite is its secular outlook. Exactly 50 percent eschew any religious affiliation. Another 14 percent are Jewish, and almost one in four (23 percent) was raised in a Jewish household. Only one in five identifies himself as a Protestant, and one in eight as a Cathiloc. . . . Only 8 percent go to church or synagogue weekly, and 86 percent seldom or never attend religious services."

In the Associated Press story reporting the results of the survey, Lichter said the "non-religious aspect" of the media simply showed up in the data. "We asked the standard things, and it just jumped out at us," he said.

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