News media need to own their biases
by Jeff Jacoby
WRAPPING UP two years as public editor of The New York Times, veteran journalist Arthur Brisbane last week reflected on the liberal slant that often pervades the news coverage of what is still the most influential brand in American newspapers.
"The hive on Eighth Avenue," he wrote, referring to the headquarters of the New York Times Company (which owns the Boston Globe), "is powerfully shaped by a culture of like minds -- a phenomenon, I believe, that is more easily recognized from without than from within." He credited the papers' editors and reporters with trying to enforce "fairness and balance" in their presidential campaign coverage. But by and large, what appears in the Times "virtually bleeds" with "political and cultural progressivism." The result is that "developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in the Times . . . more like causes than news subjects."
Brisbane isn't the first Times ombudsman to say so. A predecessor, Daniel Okrent, was even more forceful in 2004. "Is the Times a Liberal Newspaper?" asked the headline on his final column. "Of course it is." Listing some of the most controversial issues of the day, he lamented: "If you think the Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you've been reading the paper with your eyes closed."
Liberal media bias isn't merely in the eyes of conservative beholders. Large pluralities of the public routinely tell Gallup that the news media are too liberal. At least some journalists concede the point. There are so many left-leaning journalists, ABC's then-political director Mark Halperin observed in 2006, "that it tilts the coverage quite frequently, in many issues, in a liberal direction. . . . It's an endemic problem." On C-SPAN last March, Politico's executive editor Jim VandeHei said there was "no doubt" about the dominant mindset within the profession: "If you put all of the reporters that I've ever worked with on truth serum, most of them vote Democratic."
Yet denial is widespread. At the Republican convention in Tampa last week, ABC's chief political correspondent George Stephanopoulos -- who first came to prominence as a senior aide to Bill Clinton -- was asked whether he sees a liberal bias in the media. "I don't," he answered tersely. When the question was repeated, Stephanopoulos walked away.
Is this willful blindness? By my lights, the leftward tilt of the "mainstream" news broadcasters -- ABC-CBS-CNN-NBC-NPR -- is as self-evident as the rightward tilt of the notable exception, Fox News. But human beings have a great capacity for believing in their own objectivity. If you are "surrounded by a culture of like minds," as Brisbane wrote of the "hive" at The New York Times, it's easy to assume that your own political prejudices represent the neutral center. When nearly everyone in the newsroom is a liberal Democrat, casting conservatives and Republicans -- and their ideas -- in a negative light can become second nature.
But maybe that wouldn't be such an "endemic problem" if news organizations were more forthright about hoisting their ideological colors. For decades newspapers and broadcasters have tried to maintain a façade of impartiality. Reporters and editors cover political developments and public controversies that generate strong, even emotional, views. Yet they are expected to keep their own strong and emotional views -- which everyone knows they have -- entirely separate from their coverage. The ideal of objective, unbiased journalism may be admirable. But I wonder if it doesn't cause more distortion than it prevents.
Consider the mainstream media's fixation on the supposed racism of the Republican Party. Republicans canceled the entire first day of their convention last week in response to the threat posed by Hurricane Isaac. (They did the same thing in response to Hurricane Gustav in 2008, when their convention was in Minnesota.) Clearly the GOP was at pains to show respect for those in the storm's path. That didn't prevent David Chalian, Washington bureau chief of Yahoo News, from declaring heatedly that Republicans were "not concerned at all," but were "happy to have a party with black people drowning."
Only Chalian didn't realize he was speaking into a live microphone. His slander was publicly broadcast, and in the ensuing tumult Yahoo fired him. I have no sympathy for Chalian, whose slur was contemptible. But is political journalism really elevated when it's OK for reporters and editors to express such toxic prejudices among their colleagues in private, so long as they dissemble when the camera or mike comes on?
Better to have media bias than media that only pretend not to take sides. As long as news organizations don't hide or deny their strong partisan leanings, viewers and readers can make up their own minds. Let Fox and CNN and the Times and The Wall Street Journal wear their political biases on their sleeves. We would have less sanctimony about the purity of journalism, and a more freewheeling marketplace of ideas.
"That's the way it is," Walter Cronkite used to say. But there never was just one way to report the news. Maybe it's time the pretense stopped.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. His website is www.JeffJacoby.com).
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