I wrote pretty extensively earlier this month on the proposition that the American media would be better off if we admitted where our political interests lie even while striving to be fair and objective.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s reader advocate (aka ombudsman) David House has weighed in on the subject and I think that despite the fact that he probably deals with the public more than any other person at the newspaper, that he’s a little out of touch with the today’s readers.
As attractive as transparency is, disclosing mainstream reporters’ political beliefs would cripple credibility needlessly and create confusion, inflaming anti-media bias, undermining and distracting from all the good work that’s turned in every day and further jeopardizing the First Amendment’s stature.
Disclosure shouldn’t even be an issue — if journalists are professionals, which is to say they’re perfectly capable of divorcing their personal beliefs from their work, as they should be and generally are. Their interest is in exploring an issue or development, not tailoring the topic to fit their opinion.
Every honest American — journalist or not — knows that they have built-in biases.
What House doesn’t get is that by clinging the mirage of an objective, honest and fair Great and Powerful Oz, while the public knows there’s something behind the curtain, does worse damage to the paper’s credibility than just showing the public the little man behind the curtain.
I would argue to the contrary, that revealing your biases while still doing honest, competent journalism improves the newspaper’s trustworthiness.
As the Post’s review of Edsall’s book points out, Edsall worked with that kind of professionalism. Greenhouse’s Supreme Court coverage has reflected that same quality for nearly 30 years. The best in the business have no interest in feathering coverage to advance their views. To say that they do is to engage in hyperbole.
Obviously House has never heard of the “Greenhouse effect” as it pertains to the New York Times reporter. It also seems odd to appeal to Edsall’s career even as he has come out in favor of increased transparency.
There are some genuine concerns about what revealing the newsrooms inner workings would have on the public’s perception of journalism. Some might fear that pulling back the curtain on America’s newsrooms might produce the same effect that Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” had on the meatpacking industry.
Maybe that’s what is needed to make the industry better.
On a side note, I’d like to point out what might be the biggest fear/danger to upper management who would consider newsroom transparency: Edsall’s 15- or 25-to-1 ratio of liberals to conservatives. Media companies do not track the political leanings of their employees like they track their racial/ethnic/sexual-orientation identity. I think there is a justified fear that transparency would create a public backlash to make America’s newsrooms more politically balanced.
The Media Research Center’s Brent Bozell predicted in his book “Weapons of Mass Distortion,” that media companies would have to make affirmative efforts to hire conservatives if they want to be seen as credible and unbiased in the coming information age. I think Bozell’s got a point, but he failed to answer my concern in his book: Where are the media companies going to get the conservatives? There just aren’t enough to go around.