THE HOLLYWOOD CONGRESS of Republicans will gather for a luncheon today, with five panelists (including yours truly) scheduled to address them. Based on conventional wisdom about the dearth of showbiz conservatives, that means there should be just enough people on hand for a pickup basketball game.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. Despite the town’s liberal reputation there are Republicans in Hollywood, where it’s too often assumed that everyone owns a George W. Bush pinata. Yet given the right’s relentless protestations about liberal bias in media, it’s worth deciphering that perceived phenomenon’s true impact, or lack thereof.

Those convinced of a vast left-wing conspiracy need only witness the voluminous coverage of Ronald Reagan’s death to be reminded that the media’s principal bias, in this age of brutally competitive conglomeration, is a love of profit. Moreover, conservatives who fixate on this alleged unfairness — often to milk its self-promotional benefits — have begun to sound much like the whiny “victicrats” (to borrow a line from talk-radio host Larry Elder) that they frequently assail.

Let’s concede, as a recent Pew Research Center survey again found, that journalists are more apt to label themselves “liberal,” and fewer “conservative,” than the public at large. The rift is especially pronounced on social issues such as religion, homosexuality and abortion rights. Undoubtedly, certain assumptions based on those views sometimes find their way into reporting.

That said, the influence of “liberal media” is consistently overstated by talk radio, Fox News Channel and other bastions of conservative thought that have flourished by billing themselves as an alternative. For them, charging bias has represented a savvy marketing tool — promising like-minded dittoheads the “real” story that Brokaw, Jennings and Rather don’t want you to hear.

THE PROBLEM IS that’s becoming a wearisome refrain. Granted, the New York Times and Los Angeles Times both lean left on their editorial pages, but even with occasional lapses their reporters don’t consciously press a liberal agenda, any more than I would presume the Wall Street Journal does the opposite because its editorial board tilts right. Indeed, the eastern Times’ latest mea culpa, regarding pre-war coverage of Iraq and WMDs, hinges on too-unquestioningly swallowing spin from Bush administration officials, among others.

Although a cliche, journalists invariably pursue stories that comfort the afflicted (the poor, the downtrodden, the Writers Guild) or afflict the comfortable (big business, government, Michael Ovitz). That helps convey an impression of bias against whoever’s in power, which is pretty well accurate, unless I heard those Bill Clinton malfunctioning zipper stories by osmosis.

At the same time, liberals marveling over last week’s musical stage show “Gipper-Mania” obviously haven’t monitored the heart-tugging nonsense in which newsmagazines regularly indulge. When news becomes just another form of unscripted drama, beaming out analysis-free pictures of Nancy brushing her husband’s coffin and the Reagan kids mourning is near irresistible.

Pragmatism also shapes the media’s fascination with a decidedly liberal contingent — namely, Hollywood stars. Celebrity political rants have become just another novelty upon which to cash in, like Shaquille O’Neal’s rap career or Kobe Bryant’s trial. So Sean Penn, Barbra Streisand and Susan Sarandon can readily find forums for their views, though it’s difficult to imagine they rock many votes, even among younger crowds that obligingly hoot at applause lines but seldom get motivated enough to locate their polling places.

IN ESSENCE, such exercises provide two taste treats in one — true crime and sports, movies and politics — the better to maximize ratings. It’s another reason why Arnold Schwarzenegger enthralls news editors otherwise familiar with “Total Recall” and “The Running Man” only as headline puns.

No one says you have to agree with these folks politically, by the way, to make a buck off them, which is why Disney’s decision not to distribute Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11″ remains puzzling to me. After all, the studio already endures considerable heat over everything from ABC News to Sean Hannity’s radio show.

Finally, the press’s esteem has seriously diminished. Local broadcast news is rightfully derided, network news is sullied by corporate synergy run amok and newspapers are reeling from sundry reporting scandals. Even if media types conspired to slap the right around, at this point it’s doubtful their little tyrannosaurus arms could inflict much damage.

This isn’t to dismiss bias as an issue, merely to say that it’s been blown out of proportion for partisan purposes. Or, to invert an old saying, even if they are out to get you, it’s barely worth the energy that it takes to be paranoid.

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