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From AJR,   December 1994  issue

The Press Shifts to The Right, But Slowly   

Words have moved the center as journalists followed the pols.


By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     

November's elections reminded us that journalists take political positions whenever they describe political trends and politicians. It is inevitable, but we hate to admit it.

Ideologically, in their choice of the tools for their daily work, journalists have been shifting to the right for more than a decade. They may not be conscious of it. Their own voting may not reflect it. They may even be more "liberal" in some ways in their personal views, since ideological assumptions that were aberrational three decades ago are now the orthodoxies of people in their 30s and 40s.

But look at their use of the words that are basic in their daily work: terms such as conservative, liberal, moderate, religious, radical, right and left. These are shorthand: crude descriptions of what we perceive someone or something to be. The words are altogether subjective. In choosing any one of them, journalists express their views of the world.

Journalists follow the voters and the politicians on this. Sometimes they accelerate or decelerate the flow. They don't direct it.

In news reports now, journalists avoid terms such as "radical" and "arch-conservative." The word "reactionary" has almost disappeared from the news. Too bad. It would be a very useful word right now.

Journalists' ideology of "objectivity," a splendid aspiration if you know you can't achieve it, has made them captives of other people's ideology. If a news person is "neutral," that means in the center. If the center is to the right, so is the language of the journalist.

The politically centrist nature of the country leads to centrist language in reporting: not neutral language, but centrist as defined by the political winds. Reporters put on blinders in order to avoid "hot" words such as "radical" and "reactionary." They tilt the news so they can appear to be neutral, even though they may just be centrist in a sea of radicalism or reaction.

Then there are the French. You remember, of course, when their government was in the hands of the Radical Socialists, very popular terminology in France a few years back. The Radical Socialists were the conservatives.

Remember "Iranian moderates"? That was a good one.

Now we routinely see news stories that call right-wing radicals "conservatives." So no longer is there a right wing. Centrists have become "liberals." What to call a real liberal? Nobody knows anymore, except maybe Rush and Newt. They call them Socialists or counterculturists.

The extremists on the religious right are seldom called radicals. And their self-definition as Christians is taken at face value. Maybe that cannot be avoided, since no one wants to be accused of religious bigotry and we usually let people choose their own names. But, of course, the Pat Robertson radicals are far removed from traditional Christianity and from the beliefs of most Christians throughout the world.

So what to do. When in doubt, put "conservative," "liberal" and "Christian" in quotes? But that would be wrong. It might sound snide. It might blow reporters' cover, and they need their cover, just as Supreme Court justices do. Journalists, like the judges, follow the election returns. But neither they nor the judges can admit it. l