For the sake of argument, let us concede that the first and most sacred duty of the press is to inform the public. Reasonable people might then suggest that the information presented by the mainstream media ought to be as objective as possible, relaying facts and leaving commentary to editorial writers and to the people themselves. But then, it doesn’t appear that the reasonable people are in charge of America’s newsrooms.
I’ve lost count of the number of loaded, negative adjectives describing the Bush administration in stories that putatively are intended to relay facts about the nomination of Gen. Hayden to serve as the new CIA chief.
Those who have spent time in a newsroom are hip to the technique of “angling” a story — that is, to find some aspect to a story and to emphasize that aspect during the writing. Finding an angle can bring context and meaning to personal-profile and human-interest stories, but in the setting of straight news reporting, the less steep the angle, the better.
Yet political pieces datelined from the District of Columbia seem to share a uniform angle — that the GOP is in trouble, that the Bush administration is in chaos, that the economy sucks, that Iraq is a quagmire from which there is no escape.
Perhaps these things are true; perhaps not. Regardless, news coverage of the federal government should not be written as if these things are conventional wisdom beyond all doubt. To do so is to display the very sort of bias that makes readers question the veracity and the fairness of the press.
It doesn’t require a genius IQ to understand that recent shifts in technology and ideology are leading to systemic changes in the way America’s fourth branch of government responds to the world around it. Blogging and conservative talk radio have altered the dynamic of the people’s relationship to the press. That the press seems incapable, in a broad sense, of adapting to the changes to its environment does not mean that the “mainstream media” is destined to collapse. In time, that-which-is will supplant that-which-is-desired as the central motif of news reporting. And that will be a good day, when it finally dawns.
But for now, the shrillness of the thinly veiled commentary in D.C. news stories suggests that agenda-driven news reporting is still very much the rule of the day in our nation’s newsrooms. This is problematic in that much of what gets reported will therefore be greeted with skepticism by people who are sensitive to press bias.
It seems, to this former newspaper editor, that the desire to effect outcomes desired by the class of people who gravitate toward journalism as a profession, is proving too tempting for too many. I can sympathize with this, as I’ve been in that boat. When I was a columnist, and when I became an opinion editor, I had my own agenda that I allowed to influence what I wrote and what I allowed to appear on my pages. It wasn’t until I became an editor-in-chief, and had to deal with well-intentioned by nevertheless slanted reporting by my staff writers, that I became sensitive to the need to maintain the reputation of the franchise through well-reasoned and balanced commentary and through news stories that not only avoided inappropriate angles on a per-story basis, but also through news stories that collectively demonstrated a high degree of objectivity. It wasn’t enough to strip editorial comments from news stories; I started tracking the subject-matter of the news pages over time to determine whether we had a content bias.
In fact, we did — we fell victim to “press release syndrome,” which in its most acute phases reduces the news department to covering those things which are fed to them by publicists savvy in the art of media relations. Consequently, we did a lot of pro-gay, pro-environment stories and barely covered things like the state budget, religion, or law enforcement. And trying to get the news department to look beyond the staff’s collective political sense was very difficult.
The problem was that they didn’t believe their beliefs were open to question. Of course we should protect the environment, they’d say. Of course we should support the rights of gays and lesbians to get married to the people they love. Theirs was the default, normative position, and to deviate from it was the real act of politics. Conforming to it was just common sense. And hence, their default position was never really understood to be a political position, and hence they truly believed they were being fair and objective.
So also with most of the inhabitants of America’s newsrooms, I suspect. It takes a certain type of person to be an effective journalist, and conservatives don’t often fit that bill.
But the preferences of the press and the preferences of the people are no longer in sync, and the profusion of alternative media sources is undermining the credibility of the mainstream press.
Will the trend reverse itself? Probably, in time. But until then, we are at great risk that truly significant stories will be over- or under-valued, depending on the reader’s political proclivities, simply because of the source of the information. It’s hard, for example, to expect many conservatives to get upset by a press-driven Bush scandal story after Rather’s memo fiasco and the relentless and fruitless attempt by many commentators to tar Bush with a very broad brush. But if a real scandal should come along, will the fact that the mainstream press will trumpet it mean that the president’s supporters will therefore minimize it?
Press bias has consequences. We may soon be moving into a political climate wherein real matters of substance are obscured because of politicized reporting, and that does not bode well for that first and sacred duty of the press to present the facts as they are and not as reporters and editors may wish them to be.