Crust and bias

What’s wrong with American newspapers today? They’re shallow, sensational, vulgar, celebrity-chasing, conflict-obsessed, parochial, predictable, and boring. “The worst are becoming brainless printed junk food,” Pete Hamill writes in his latest book, News Is a Verb: Journalism at the End of the Twentieth Century (Ballantine, 1998, $8.95).

Hamill is an old-school newspaperman—a crusty, cynical, irreverent, (formerly) hard-drinking, (formerly) chain-smoking storyteller who covered the Vietnam War, did a column for a New York City tabloid, wrote magazine articles, novels, short stories, screenplays, and even a boozy memoir called A Drinking Life.

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Journalists love Hamill because Hamill loves newspapers and wants them to be better. So do we. But what seems to escape him and his many wannabes in the nation’s newsrooms is that they’re part of the problem. They continue to deny a fundamental flaw of the American press: the elite, urban, liberal bias in much of the print and broadcast media that has been thoroughly documented by numerous opinion surveys and is grudgingly acknowledged by most thoughtful journalists.

When Hamill visited Seattle last week, we heard him speak at Kane Hall and later interviewed him at the Alexis Hotel.

Watchdogs: Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said recently: “Bias is the elephant in the living room. We’re in denial about it and don’t want to admit it’s there. We think it’s less of a problem than the public does, and we just don’t want to get into it.” Is he right?

Hamill: I don’t think there’s a liberal bias in the press. It’s certainly not any kind of conspiracy. But newspeople do come from a certain background nowadays. It’s different from when I broke in. More people in newsrooms now are the sons and daughters of professionals rather than the sons and daughters of factory workers—which creates one kind of attitude. There’s a world view that’s sort of essentially white—not completely, because it includes the black middle class too. The values of black reporters are essentially all middle-class values. They’re generally the children of doctors, not children of longshoremen.

I think there are biased papers—the Washington Times and the New York Post are clearly biased right-wing papers. There are very few left-wing papers. Eighty-five percent of the newspapers in the country support Republicans in their editorial pages, and are essentially conservative. My experience has been that whatever the politics of the publisher, the staff’s is the opposite. If you have a liberal publisher, the staff tends to be more conservative. If the publishers are right wing, the staff tends to be more skeptical. I don’t know if biased is the right word. I think the bias is more white middle-class than it is left or right. To say simply there’s a liberal bias, I don’t know what that means anymore.

Watchdogs: In your book, you cite the latest Editor & Publisher magazine survey (“Press Flawed, News Chiefs Admit,” 1/17/98). It polled 359 US newspaper editors and 176 publishers, and found that 89 of them think the public perceives newspapers as liberal, while only 4.3 said moderate and 1.2 conservative. Are they wrong?

Hamill: I think that’s how it’s perceived. I don’t think it’s true. The reason people perceive it that way is that in every town in the country, right-wing radio is much more dominant than left-wing radio. You see the Limbaughs and the Limbaughettes everywhere, who for 10 years now have been hammering the idea into people’s heads that there’s a whole lot of these dirty rotten filthy liberal Comsymps eroding American values that we all stand for. And I don’t think it’s true in the way it’s presented by right-wing radio. Right-wing radio is much more powerful than left-wing radio, television, or newspapers.

Watchdogs: Didn’t talk radio arise to offset bias in the mainstream media?

Hamill: No. A lot of the right-wing guys really thought that the great threat to their politics would come from reporting of stories—on guns, abortion-clinic bombings, or whatever—that would threaten their basic rhetorical principles. So if they could make the reporting suspect by claiming that it was all part of a widespread conspiracy of liberals to shade the news, then they’d be successful in what they are trying to do, which is to undermine the credibility of the news.

Watchdogs: Isn’t there too much interpretation, advocacy, and opinion in news reporting?

Hamill: Yes, and I don’t think that’s healthy. Whether you’re liberal, conservative, indifferent, or whatever, the news pages have to be straight. Otherwise people won’t have the basic information to process their own ideas. I strongly believe that in the news pages, the tone should be more or less neutral. Columnists and editorial writers can have a field day, as long as it’s clearly labeled as opinion. A column is by definition subjective. It better have an opinion—or it’s not a column.

In this column’s opinion, the elephant’s still in the living room.

John Hamer and Mariana Parks are president and executive director, respectively, of the CounterPoint Center for ReMEDIAtion, an independent nonprofit media think tank, and co-editors of CounterPoint, a media-critique newsletter. Call them at 1-888-306-DOGS or e-mail or

Related Links:

The Washington Times

The New York Post