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Should Journalists Have To Declare Their Political Biases And Donations?

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Belief that the media is biased is one thing that unites conservatives and leftists in America and Britain. So why not demand that journalists reveal any political affiliations upfront, to give us better context for their reporting and commentary?

Should online, print and television journalists declare their political leanings (and donations) upfront, in the name of transparency? Jonah Goldberg thinks so, and makes a persuasive case.

Goldberg writes in the National Review:

One of the reasons I like good opinion journalism, particularly in long-form magazine articles, is that it doesn’t hide from the fact it is making an argument. You know where the author is coming from, and you can take that into account as he or she marshals facts and evidence for his or her case. We know opposing lawyers in a courtroom are biased, but if they don’t make strong arguments, they lose.

I understand bans on reporters giving to campaigns, but we should understand what those bans are: a means of hiding the political leanings of reporters from readers and viewers.

This has become a particularly hot topic after a report issued by the Center for Public Integrity confirmed the unsurprising fact that American journalists and media personalities give vastly more in campaign contributions to Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party than to Donald Trump and the Republicans.

And given this vast discrepancy – with $382,000 given by hundreds of media personalities to Clinton and just $14,000 by a handful of people to Trump – Goldberg points out that hiding behind the fig leaf of impartiality or being a political “independent” is no longer fooling anyone:

Anyone who has spent a moment around elite reporters or studied their output knows that they tend to be left of center. In 1981, S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman surveyed 240 leading journalists and found that 94 percent of them voted for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, 81 percent voted for George McGovern in 1972, and 81 percent voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976. Only 19 percent placed themselves on the right side of the political spectrum. Does anyone think the media have become less liberal since then?

None of this means liberals — or conservatives — can’t be good reporters, but the idea that media bias is nonexistent is ludicrous. Judges have far greater incentives to be neutral and objective, yet we know that Democrat-appointed judges tend to issue liberal decisions, and Republican-appointed judges tend to issue conservative decisions.

The Obama administration and campaigns have hired dozens of prominent, supposedly nonpartisan journalists, including former White House press secretary and Time magazine reporter Jay Carney, former Time managing editor Rick Stengel, the Washington Post’s Shailagh Murray, and ABC’s Linda Douglass.

Was it just a coincidence that they were all ideologically simpatico with the Obama agenda? How did the Obama team even figure out they were liberals in the first place?

Of course, exactly the same revolving door between the media and political worlds can be found in Britain, with well-known television journalists from BBC and ITV news suddenly shedding the white robes of virtuous objectivity to mysteriously shack up in Downing Street in a political communications role. This transcends party politics, and the Conservatives are by no means the only ones at fault – in the case of Jeremy Corbyn’s ideological henchman Seumas Milne, we have seen a Guardian polemicist not even leaving his job but merely take a leave of absence to become head of communications for the opposition Labour Party.

You can’t stop this from happening, and nor should anyone necessarily try. But the public do have a moral right to know the political leanings and affiliations of those who report and interpret the news. We expect MPs and Lords to declare their financial interests so that we can monitor their behaviour and ensure that they are not unduly influenced by their commercial connections. But a well-functioning press is every bit as vital to our democracy, so why should we not understand the motivations of reporters, commentators and editors.

Consider the case of Jasmine Lawrence, editor of the BBC’s 24-hour news channel. Lawrence was caught posting virulently hostile (and ignorant) thoughts about UKIP on social media prior to the 2014 European Parliament elections, and received only the mildest of cautions from her bosses.

As this blog noted at the time:

What the BBC fail to address in their response is the fact that the remainder of the BBC’s election coverage is not the problem. The problem is the fact that Jasmine Lawrence will remain the editor of the BBC News Channel, presumably resuming full duties as soon as the election coverage is completed on Sunday.

Yes, it is certainly likely that she caused editorial harm and biased coverage in the weeks leading up to the election before her ill-advised tweet saw her stripped of her duties, but how much more damage can she now do in the coming year leading up to the general election?

We all have political preferences, and that’s fine. But the Jasmine Lawrence tweet doesn’t just reveal a tendency to lean one way or the other along the political spectrum. The editor of the BBC News Channel clearly has a deeply ingrained, long held antipathy toward UKIP and the people who support that party or agree with its policies.

Are we really supposed to believe that when she walks into the BBC offices in the morning, Jasmine Lawrence takes off her scornful, UKIP-denigrating hat and puts on her cap of unblemished impartiality, and that the decisions she makes regarding story selection, focusing of time and resources, determining which guests to interview, lines of questioning and other matters will not be influenced by the same sentiments that prompted her to call UKIP supporters white, middle aged sexists and racists?

At present, we are deluding ourselves that the people who report the news – and worse still, the people who get to decide what even counts as news in the first place – are uniformly honest and committed to impartiality, and that the possibility of subconscious bias simply doesn’t exist. And this is holding human beings to a standard of behaviour which cannot possibly be met.

Far better that we more fully embrace the free market in our journalism, and equip news consumers (i.e. ordinary voters) with more perfect information – not just about our politicians, but also about the people who report on them. That way, television and print journalists can continue to strive for objectivity where appropriate, but we will have the backup of knowing about any political memberships, donations or affiliations that may influence their reporting, either consciously or subconsciously.

This doesn’t need to be an official thing. Indeed, nothing would be worse or more totalitarian than keeping a centralised state register of journalists’ political affiliations – that would be Orwellian in the extreme. Rather, the culture should be changed so that declaring one’s political allegiances upfront comes to be seen as a matter of honour and journalistic best practice.

Only earlier this week, a BBC television journalist named Danny Carpenter was suspended from his job for describing Theresa May’s new Conservative government as “the new Nazis” on his personal Facebook page.

The Daily Mail reports:

A BBC news presenter has been suspended for allegedly calling the Tory government ‘the new Nazis’ in an online social media rant.

BBC Look North’s Danny Carpenter reportedly accused the government of being ‘cynical, vicious, racist and xenophobic’ in a Facebook rant and has now been suspended by the corporation as they carry out an investigation.

Mr Carpenter is also said to have called for the Brexit to be ‘voted out’ by Parliament because of a ‘combination of dishonest fear-mongering and lies about the economy’.

This is clearly a partisan zealot of the highest order, someone with political beliefs even more pungent than those of this blog – and clearly very ideologically different. But just as I would never expect to be allowed to stand in front of a television camera reporting the news with a straight face, so Danny Carpenter should never have been allowed within 5 miles of a BBC studio except as a paid opinion contributor (like my star turn on the BBC Daily Politics earlier this year).

Jonah Goldberg is quite right to point out that the pretence of journalistic impartiality is a fraud which we all perpetrate on ourselves. Pretending that we are being served a conscientiously-curated stream of objective, unbiased reporting at all times lulls those of us credulous enough to believe it into a false sense of security, meaning that people do not apply their own scepticism or challenge what they are told.

And the rest of us, fully aware that what is being sold to us as objective coverage is in fact ideologically skewed, are increasingly spurning the mainstream media. More and more of us are taking refuge in new independent media sources, curated for us by algorithms and presented through social media, some of which are diligent and honourable but many of which can trap us in an ideological bubble of bias confirmation.

Goldberg concludes:

This lack of transparency benefits news organizations, but it really doesn’t fool anybody — except maybe the reporters themselves.

I agree. And playing along with the deception by furiously pretending that we have an impartial media only fuels the atmosphere of distrust and resentment in our politics. Having prominent journalists declare any strong political allegiances upfront would not solve all of our problems by magic. But it certainly wouldn’t do any harm.

 

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