BOB GARFIELD: Newspaper editorials generally follow a consistent pattern of partisan opinions, so it's easy enough to figure out whether a paper is liberal or conservative. But though partisanship comes in varying degrees, there is one constant -- conservative editorial pages tend to be more partisan than liberal ones. That's according to research from Michael Tomasky who spent this spring studying editorial pages as a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard University. Tomasky reviewed two liberal papers -- the New York Times and the Washington Post -- and two conservative ones -- the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times -- and he joins me now to discuss his findings. Michael, welcome to On the Media.
MICHAEL TOMASKY: Thanks. Hi, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: You looked at editorials written during the Clinton administration and the first three years of the Bush administration. How did you make these comparisons?
MICHAEL TOMASKY: I chose ten what I called roughly comparable episodes from the Clinton administration and the Bush administration and looked at how all four newspapers editorialized about those episodes. I chose five episodes that had to do just with policy and then five under the rubric that I labeled Politics/Process which covers other things -- the scandals and the controversies that pop up in the course of politics from time to time. For example, I compared editorial reaction to Bill Clinton's 1993 stimulus package and editorial reaction to George Bush's first tax cut in 2001. Those were the two centerpiece economic legislations in the first year of each administration. Then under the rubric Politics and Process, the charges of secrecy surrounding Hillary Clinton's health care task force and the charges of secrecy surrounding Dick Cheney's energy task force in the Bush administration.
BOB GARFIELD:So conspicuously absent, although they may have been the biggest stories, are Whitewater, Monicagate, various military actions and nothing about 9/11, of course.
MICHAEL TOMASKY: Well, that's right. I threw out all extraordinary circumstances and tried to look at how these editorial pages operate and write and express their partisanship under normal circumstances.
BOB GARFIELD: How do you measure degrees of partisanship?
MICHAEL TOMASKY:What I did was I, I took these editorials --there were 510 in the study -- and as I read each one, I gave it a grade -- Positive if it supported the administration; Negative if it opposed the administration; and Mixed if it was somewhere in between. And then I just counted up the totals.
BOB GARFIELD: And-- the results are interesting. I, I can't say that they're stunning--
MICHAEL TOMASKY: Right--
BOB GARFIELD: -- but they're, they're certainly interesting. In 20 words or less what did you learn?
MICHAEL TOMASKY:[LAUGHS] We learned that the liberal papers were more willing -- and, by the way, I say "liberal papers" -- there are some people who would give you an argument about how liberal a paper the Washington Post is -- but it did endorse Clinton twice and it endorsed Gore --the liberal papers were far more willing to criticize the Clinton administration than the conservative papers were willing to criticize the Bush administration. Finding number two: the conservative papers were measurably more negative toward the Clinton administration than the liberal papers were negative toward the Bush administration. So there's more partisan intensity on the conservative editorial pages, and the language tended to be more aggressive and more--swashbuckling, let's say.
BOB GARFIELD:Well let's talk about some of the factors that could have skewed the results. If the liberal papers were "less aggressive" towards President Bush than the Wall Street Journal, for example, was towards Bill Clinton, doesn't some of that come, and maybe even a lot of it come from the halo of deference the president was bestowed by the tragedy of 9/11?
MICHAEL TOMASKY: Well, some of it may, but it's not necessarily the case that that aura extended out to the policy areas that I studied, and another thing that I specifically sought to avoid was looking at too many things that, that followed in the immediate aftermath of September 11th. I also looked at a lot of things that happened before September 11th like Bush's tax plan, trying to neutralize extraordinary factors. You know, I should say -- look, I'm a liberal. Anybody who reads my writing knows that. I'm not stupid. I know that people know that about me. So I bent over backwards to try and be as objective as I possibly could, and I think I really did that.
BOB GARFIELD:Let's just now stipulate that your data prove that yes, the conservative papers are more partisan. Let's get to the why. Why? Why is it that way?
MICHAEL TOMASKY: The conservative papers are more partisan because they have less of a problem of thinking of themselves as an organ of the party to which they're sympathetic. I think the New York Times and the Washington Post have a different attitude and a different model of journalism. It's an old-fashioned and antiquated, maybe, and maybe threatened model -- trying to establish their independence and integrity and trying to show that by being critical more often. I mean the classic example in this study is the comparison of the secrecy charges around Hillary Clinton's health care plan and Cheney's energy plan. The New York Times wrote four editorials very strongly critical of Hillary Clinton. They wrote five editorials very critical of Dick Cheney. The Wall Street Journal wrote a series of savage editorials about the Clinton health care process. With regard to Dick Cheney they wrote one editorial. It defended Cheney and it was very flippant, and it said "Well, we guess these Democrats have to have something to do with their time now that they're in the minority."
BOB GARFIELD:Well the sympathetic way of viewing this issue would be that the conservative papers are designed more along the European model -- that papers intentionally align themselves with a certain political point of view. But in your conclusion I'm gathering you're saying that there's some intellectual dishonesty going on.
MICHAEL TOMASKY: In a couple of places I do. I mean when a newspaper takes two roughly similar situations and writes such completely different things as the Wall Street Journal did in those two episodes, well I think that is dishonest. There's only one explanation for it! They're on one side and they're against the other side. However in other ways, I admire their model a little bit more than I admire the New York Times and, and Washington Post's model. Be partisan. Be aggressive. They're certainly winning with it. [LAUGHTER] At least for the time being.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Michael. Thank you very much!
MICHAEL TOMASKY: Yeah. Thank you!
BOB GARFIELD:Michael Tomasky, author of the study Whispers and Screams: The Partisan Nature of Editorial Pages; will soon become the editor of the avowedly liberal monthly magazine The American Prospect. [MUSIC]