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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Politicians Aren’t Entitled To Their Own Facts, But Neither Is The Media

An independent political press corps with the knowledge and authority to call the shots and confidently call out lies when politicians tell them – rather than giving equal credence to two diametrically opposed crazy positions – is a great idea. If only our media was sufficiently trustworthy and capable of performing such a nuanced, sensitive role

Something funny seems to have happened to the New York Times.

For the past week or so, the newspaper which once twisted itself into a risible-looking pretzel trying to justify calling the practice of waterboarding “torture” when inflicted by America’s enemies but “enhanced interrogation” when conducted by American forces has discovered a new passion for clarity and bold truth-telling.

Peter Beinart explains, over at The Atlantic:

Last Saturday, The New York Times published an extraordinary story. What made the story extraordinary wasn’t the event the Times covered. What made it extraordinary was the way the Times covered it.

On its front page, top right—the most precious space in American print journalism—the Times wrote about Friday’s press conference in which Donald Trump declared that a) he now believed Barack Obama was a US citizen, b) he deserved credit for having established that fact despite rumors to the contrary and c) Hillary Clinton was to blame for the rumors. Traditionally, when a political candidate assembles facts so as to aggrandize himself and belittle his opponent, “objective” journalists like those at the Times respond with a “he said, she said” story.

Such stories, according to the NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, follow this formula: “There’s a public dispute. The dispute makes news. No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story … The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.”

[..] But the Times, once a champion practitioner of the “he said, she said” campaign story, discarded it with astonishing bluntness. The Times responded to Trump’s press conference by running a “News Analysis,” a genre that gives reporters more freedom to explain a story’s significance. But “News Analysis” pieces generally supplement traditional news stories. On Saturday, by contrast, the Times ran its “News Analysis” atop Page One while relegating its news story on Trump’s press conference to page A10. Moreover, “News Analysis” stories generally offer context. They don’t offer thundering condemnation.

Yet thundering condemnation is exactly what the Times story provided. Its headline read, “Trump Gives Up a Lie But Refuses to Repent.” Not “falsehood,” which leaves open the possibility that Trump was merely mistaken, but “lie,” which suggests, accurately, that Trump had every reason to know that what he was saying about Obama’s citizenship was false.

In other words, the New York Times has sporadically started to report objective facts and truth, rather than doing what has long been traditional among the political press corps – walking a neutral tightrope between two partisan positions of staggeringly obvious falsehood or stupidity.

Despite his protestations and evasions, Donald Trump has been one of the key players in the birther movement from the beginning – picking up from the memorably loopy Orly Taitz – and has certainly been the conspiracy movement’s most public face. I remember blogging about it over four years ago, back in 2012.

Given the context of a presidential election and the extra scrutiny on media bias, it is surprising and rather heartening to see the Times displaying the courage to report fact rather than controversy; the same headline a month ago might easily have read “Trump Withdraws Birther Allegation”, with no reference to the established facts and outcome of the story.

Jon Stewart (formerly of The Daily Show) must be smiling. Since 2004 and even earlier, Stewart railed against political coverage which ginned up conflict in pursuit of ratings and incessantly reported issues through the prism of Left vs Right, Democrat vs Republican without ever seeking to either restrict coverage to facts or move beyond partisan talking points to get to the truth. The video at the top of this article shows Stewart’s memorable appearance on CNN’s Crossfire show, in which he castigated the hosts for “hurting America” by injecting partisanship and sucking nuance out of the political discourse.

Obviously the New York Times does not inhabit quite the same infotainment space as Crossfire, but the basic operating principle has been very much the same of late – present two or more strongly opposing partisan viewpoints, let the talking heads (or journalistic sources) slug it out in defence of their respective positions, and then move on without ever really applying any kind of judgment as to the respective merits of the contrasting positions.

Nowhere is this approach better summed up than the slogan of the Fox News Channel – “we report, you decide”. It is a relativist worldview which suggests there is no truth in even quite straightforward binary debates, and that we are free to pick our own facts and construct our own reality in accordance with our personal biases and interests.

Now, there is yet more evidence that the New York Times is moving away from this risk-averse and rather cowardly stance – yesterday the newspaper described as “false” Donald Trump’s claims that Hillary Clinton has sinister plan to destroy the Second Amendment:

In justifying his remarks, Mr. Trump falsely claimed that Mrs. Clinton wants to “destroy your Second Amendment,” apparently a reference to her gun control policies.

My emphasis in bold.

At face value this is a good development – the “he said she said” approach to political coverage is what has enabled so much of the spineless print journalism and sensationalist, conflict-stoking television news reporting in Britain and America. Seeing a “respectable” institution finally buck that trend and push back against the toxic idea that reality is malleable and truth exists only in the eye of the super-partisan beholder is, in theory, a very good thing.

Peter Beinart certainly seems to think so:

A certain etiquette has long governed the relationship between presidential candidates and the elite media. Candidates stretch the truth, but try not to be too blatant about it. Candidates appeal to bigotry, but subtly. In turn, journalists respond with a delicacy of their own. They quote partisans rather than saying things in their own words. They use euphemisms like “polarizing” and “incendiary,” instead of “racist” and “demagogic.”

Previous politicians have exploited this system. But Trump has done something unprecedented. He has so brazenly lied, so nakedly appealed to bigotry, and so frontally challenged the rule of law that he has made the elite media’s decorum absurd. He’s turned highbrow journalists into referees in a World Wrestling Entertainment match.

Last Saturday, the Times answered Trump’s challenge. He’s changed the rules, so it did, too.

But this analysis only holds if one has reasonable grounds to trust the journalistic institution or media outlet doing the reporting; will they reserve their merciless news analysis features for instances when there really is a right and wrong binary perspective, or will editorial judgment and personal bias cloud the picture?

Remember, the New York Times was happy to characterise the EU referendum and the Brexit campaign as being motivated not out of concerns for democracy and sovereignty but primarily by xenophobia and anti-immigrant prejudice. And while there were highly visible elements of the latter, under the “News Analysis” model what would prevent the Times deciding that the entire Leave campaign was based on racism and then reporting this skewed perspective to their readers as simple, self-evident “truth”?

While the “he said, she said” ra-ra approach may be divisive and unseemly, it at least offers a right of reply to those whose views are misinterpreted or deliberately slandered by shameless opponents. And while conventional wisdom might hold that it is more often conservative voices who live in a sealed bubble of their own facts, in reality we would all be vulnerable to a style of news reporting in which reporters and editors are given sweeping new authority to pass what often amount to value judgments on behalf of readers. At some point in the future, any one of us could find our unpopular, minority opinion almost entirely  frozen out of the public discourse.

So this blog will cautiously cheer along with Peter Beinart at the New York Times’ sudden willingness to call out lies – provided that this is to be genuinely bipartisan new scrutiny rather than merely a one-sided club with which to bash the Trump campaign.

But we should be aware that we are at the top of a slippery slope here. Smacking down candidates and their statements is a positively good thing when we are dealing with easily proven questions of who said what, and when. But the temptation to apply this swashbucklingly assertive style of journalism to more subjective debates (like economic policy, immigration or foreign affairs) may prove to be irresistible for journalists with human biases and editorial boards with agendas.

In case they hadn’t noticed, the mainstream media doesn’t presently enjoy a particularly enviable trustworthiness rating among the general public. Abuse “news analysis” by using it as a blatantly partisan cudgel and they will drive that rock-bottom rating still lower.

 

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Could The Media Have Prevented The Rise Of Donald Trump?

There is no longer an Edward Murrow or Walter Cronkite to stand up to Donald Trump

Could mainstream television, radio, print and internet journalism outlets have done more to prevent the rise of Donald Trump? And should they have done more?

Glenn Greenwald thinks so:

Actually, many people are alarmed [by the rise of Trump], but it is difficult to know that by observing media coverage, where little journalistic alarm over Trump is expressed. That’s because the rules of large media outlets — venerating faux objectivity over truth along with every other civic value — prohibit the sounding of any alarms. Under this framework of corporate journalism, to denounce Trump, or even to sound alarms about the dark forces he’s exploiting and unleashing, would not constitute journalism. To the contrary, such behavior is regarded as a violation of journalism. Such denunciations are scorned as opinion, activism, and bias: all the values that large media-owning corporations have posited as the antithesis of journalism in order to defang and neuter it as an adversarial force.

[..] This abdication of the journalistic duty inevitably engendered by corporate “neutrality” rules is not new. We saw it repeatedly during the Bush years, when most large media outlets suppressed journalistic criticism of things like torture and grotesque war crimes carried out by the U.S. as part of the war on terror, and even changed their language by adopting government euphemisms to obscure what was being done. Outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and NPR refused to use the word “torture” to describe techniques long universally recognized as such — which were always called torture by those same media outlets when used by countries adversarial to the U.S. — because to do so would evince “bias,” lack “neutrality,” and “take sides” in the torture debate.

Contrary to what U.S. media corporations have succeeded in convincing people, these journalistic neutrality rules are not remotely traditional. They are newly invented concepts that coincided with the acquisition of the nation’s most important media outlets by large, controversy-averse corporations for which “media” was just one of many businesses.

I’m not so sure.

While Greenwald is absolutely right to chastise mainstream media outlets for clinging desperately to an “appearance of objectivity at all costs” dogma which routinely sees them humiliate themselves by speaking and writing about the utterly ridiculous as though it were merely an equal and opposing side to an argument, the idea that prestige nightly news anchors could have killed Trump’s candidacy in the crib either by initially declaring it ridiculous and mocking it, or by waging an Edward Murrow or Walter Cronkite crusade against him, seems to be wishful thinking.

It’s wrong because it underestimates the anti-establishment surge now underway in America (and in Britain too, as we saw with the rise of UKIP and the SNP). Suppose that mainstream news outlets like the New York Times, NBC, NPR and others had come out strongly to argue that Donald Trump’s ideas were outside the Overton window of “acceptable” political thought in America, and that he should henceforth be ignored by the media regardless of how many people were attending his rallies or how high he climbed in the opinion polls. What difference would it have made?

Political journalism is scorned by the public as much as Washington politics itself, and often for quite valid reasons – the incestuous, back-scratching relationship between the two is often entirely self serving and actively prevents the holding of government to proper account. Trump’s candidacy is fuelled in significant part by the opposition of those opinion columnists and TV talking heads who have come out to criticise him. If they were joined by everyone else, including news anchors and print journalists whose material does not appear in the opinion section of their television shows or newspapers, it is hard to see it doing anything other than confirming the suspicion of Trump fans that the “establishment” is out to get them, thus driving his poll ratings even higher.

This is important. Trump is riding high partly because of a small group of “let it burn” conservatives who believe that Washington is so corrupt that an authoritarian outsider beholden to no one is as good a choice as any to sweep out the garbage, but mostly because Trump supporters feel ignored and patronised by almost everybody else. And frankly, the opposition to Trump in the media has not helped, tending toward hand-wringing “ooh, isn’t he evil” editorials and one-sided accounts of violence at his campaign rallies rather than granular deconstructions of his policy proposals (such as his policies exist). Increasing the frequency and volume of the existing anti-Trump media coverage will not fix the problem, because it does little to tackle the sentiments and ideas which drive his support.

But more to the point, if we are to set arbitrary limits on our political discourse, beyond which any candidate promoting “unacceptable” ideas is rounded on by the corporate media as it is currently comprised, who gets to set the limits? Who gets to decide which ideas are okay to debate, and which are traps which will bring the entire media establishment crashing down on the person who dares to raise them?

There is almost nothing as infuriating as watching high profile journalists discuss an issue where one side obviously has the moral and intellectual high ground in terms that suggest that it is a finely balanced debate – witness the debates on torture, climate change, Brexit (UK secession from the European Union)  and more. But even worse than this would be a collusion between media outlets to freeze out certain ideas or candidates from being mentioned altogether because they are “evil” or contradict prevailing orthodoxies.

I’m sure that this is not what Greenwald has in mind. As a consistent advocate of free speech, I’m sure that he would prefer a brash and lively media landscape of much more fractured ownership, in which a multitude of independent news outlets are free to carry out the kind of unabashedly partisan campaigning journalism that Greenwald (and to some extent this blog) advocates. Greenwald would likely be fine if some outlets produced coverage very supportive of Trump, so long as other outlets were equally free to oppose him.

But we do not have such a media landscape right now, and moving in this direction would be a process taking years, not months – certainly too long of a timescale to have any impact on the rise of Donald Trump. The difficult truth is that given the hysterical, rabble-rousing behaviour of the Republican Party over the course of the Obama presidency – in which they chose hyperbolic, apocalyptic scaremongering over principled opposition to bigger government – there was nothing that could have prevented the monster they created from coming to life, breaking free of its chains and devouring them, as Trump is now doing.

It may feel good to imagine an American media landscape filled with luminaries like Edward Morrow and Walter Cronkite, journalists who would have taken one look at Donald Trump back when he launched his presidential bid, and masterfully snuffed it out in the course of one withering nightly news broadcast or newspaper column. But that is not the world we live in. Any attempt by major media outlets to scrutinise or inveigh against Trump in these anti-establishment times would only have fuelled his campaign even more than his many critics already have.

“Compelled journalistic neutrality” is not to blame for the rise of Donald Trump. Though corporate media has many faults – witness CBS chairman Les Moonves enthusing about the ratings Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is bringing to his network – they did not create the Trumpian monster, and nor can they stop it.

Far more deserving of blame are the Republican Party establishment, who shamelessly and hypocritically rode the anti-establishment, anti-Obama tiger for seven years before finally it turned on them. And also at fault is an entire remote and self-serving political establishment which in many ways thoroughly deserves the kicking it is now receiving – just not by Donald Trump, the opportunistic and undeserving current beneficiary.

Would it be a cathartic experience to witness more mainstream media types casting objectivity aside and coming out against Trump? Quite possibly. But would it have done anything to stop his rise? Let’s not kid ourselves.

 

Postscript – The following is an excerpt from Edward R. Murrow’s famous report on Senator Joseph McCarthy:

Earlier, the Senator asked, “Upon what meat does this, our Caesar, feed?” Had he looked three lines earlier in Shakespeare’s Caesar, he would have found this line, which is not altogether inappropriate: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

No one familiar with the history of this country can deny that congressional committees are useful. It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between the internal and the external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.

This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

Good night, and good luck.

 

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