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In the lead-up to last year’s US presidential election, The New York Times grew sufficiently concerned that it was not properly covering the then-burgeoning US conservative movement, that it decided to appoint a reporter to cover it. It was mocked for this by the conservative magazine, the Weekly Standard, for sending intrepid correspondents into the heart of darkness, to catalogue its incomprehensible rituals.

Editors at The Times believed that it was often quite difficult to get reporters to take seriously the causes of the right -hatred of abortion, opposition to homosexuality and certain kinds of deep religious belief. They didn’t think that conservatives got a raw deal from the news media, exactly; they did think they could have a point about bias, generally unintentional.

They probably do. A recent report on the State of the News Media by the US-based Project for Excellence in Journalism found that while the frequent conservative charge that the media were largely negative about the war in Iraq was only slightly true (25 per cent negative against 20 per cent positive, with the rest neutral or unclassifiable), it was true that George Bush drew worse coverage than Democrat contender John Kerry. “Across all media,” says the report, “campaign coverage that focused on Bush was three times as negative as coverage of Kerry (36 per cent versus 12 per cent). It was also less likely to be positive (20 per cent positive Bush stories, 30 per cent for Kerry).”

It’s worth considering - since journalists have always been accused by conservatives of being subversive - whether or not journalism is an inherently liberal trade. The heroes of journalism since it became a serious trade in the middle of the 19th century were very often liberal and they made it their business -sometimes their pleasure-to hold power to account, and to prove it wrong.

When William Howard Russell of The Times exposed the neglect of the common British soldiers in the Crimean campaign (1854-56), he assisted in the collapse of the then government. When Emile Zola thundered in the pages of l’Aurore and elsewhere against the 1894 imprisonment of Captain Alfred Dreyfus on charges of spying, he did so from a conviction that the army and the state were heavily influenced by anti-Semitic conservatives prejudiced against the Jewish officer. And when, in the early years of the 20th century, Amy Tarbell - the first female investigative reporter, working for McClure’s Magazine - investigated the activities of Standard Oil, she did so from sympathy for ruined small oil prospectors. Her work, with others of the “muck-raking” journalism school, was influential in legislation passed to curb the power of the trusts.

The patron saints of modern journalism are The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who were crucial in uncovering in the early 1970s the trail of crimes and misdemeanours now known as Watergate -which led to Richard Nixon’s White House and ultimately to the president’s resignation. Woodward was a Republican, Bernstein a Democrat; and both on their account were incredulous that the little thread they started pulling had such huge sharks on the end of it. But they worked for Ben Bradlee, a much more outspokenly liberal journalist than any editor of a big US paper would care to be today. Thus the Watergate affair has entered the conservatives’ demonology as one for the liberals.

Today’s media might seem to disprove the liberal thesis. The most successful papers in Britain have been the tabloid Sun and the mid-market Daily Mail -both strongly conservative. In Italy, the conservative media magnate (and prime minister) Silvio Berlusconi has pulled much of the Italian media to the right of centre. In the US, Fox News has dynamised the news broadcasting scene, confirming a trend towards polarised media, with conservatives and liberals seeking comfort from organs that express their individual opinions - what the State of the News Media report calls “the journalism of affirmation”.

But these outlets share the same impulse that drives the liberal media - a desire to unmask power, which they see as held by morally compromised, arrogant elitists. Further, the report says that the talk of the advance of a “journalism of affirmation” is overdone. Outside the hothouses of cable news and talk radio, the bulk of Americans, right and left, tell pollsters they prefer independent, non-partisan news media - as do advertisers and investors. The more worrying trend is that the basis for this type of news - strong reporting - is being eroded. The media outlets thriving today are weblogs and companies such as Google, which give access to raw facts and opinions whose provenance is unknown and untested. Newsroom budgets are being cut and there is uncertainty and retreat in US network news. The State of the News Media report says that we will soon see whether “passion, inertia or maths” drives the news media’s future.

At a recent seminar at the London School of Economics, I argued with a number of bloggers that they were all very well, but couldn’t displace serious journalism. Most of them thought I was an Old Media elitist, scared of the newly empowered hordes who could swarm round a subject and bring citizens’ journalism to bear on it. But I said that if you were going to prove something big, or complex, you needed money, resources, experience, colleagues and an editor who’d stand by you. They thought I was a conservative: I think I’m doomed, with my trade, to be liberal.

john.lloyd@ft.com

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