Media issues

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on October 8, 2006

There's a couple of media issues that I want to hit on rather quickly. The first is an interview last week between radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt and Eric Black, a reporter for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The entire interview is interesting, but I want to highlight one part of it.

HH: Eric Black, last couple of questions, just to get you sighted on a map. Are you a Democrat, a Republican, or an independent?

EB: My job description precludes me from answering that question.

HH: Okay. Did you vote for Bush or for John Kerry?

EB: I’m not going to answer that question.

HH: Are you pro-abortion rights?

EB: You have the message by now. What is the point of this?

HH: Well, no. That’s different from not being…identifying yourself partisan. I’ve got lots of journalists like Thomas Edsall, 25 years at the Washington Post, who answers all my questions right away. He’s never voted for a Republican, he’s pro-choice. Are you pro-choice?

EB: Well, hats off to Tom Edsall. I’m not going to answer questions about how I have voted, or what I favor or don’t favor. Perhaps some day, when my job description changes, I can answer your question.

HH: Which part of your job description forbids candor with the public?

EB: I’m sure you are well aware that traditionally within the norms of journalism. Reporters who write about politics are expected to keep their personal politics confidential.

Hewitt goes on to allege that "traditionally" that isn't the case, referring back to Joseph Pulitzer, not to mention William Randolph "You provide the pictures, I'll provide the war" Hearst. However, that was around the turn of the last century. Post-World War II, it has been the journalistic norm that reporters, editors, etc. do not divulge their political preferences. Reporters who fess up to their personal political beliefs are few and far between, precisely because there is a journalistic aspiration to appear objective.

I think that's precisely one of the problems the American media has today. The aspiration to appear objective. There is a widespread belief throughout the nation's newsrooms that if readers knew exactly where the reporter on a story exists on the political spectrum, that the credibility of the words the reporter writes will come into question. The problem: the credibility is already being called into question on a daily basis.

A Republican reads an article and has questions about it because of the knowledge that a vast majority of the journalistic establishment votes Democrat -- a fact anonymous survey after anonymous survey of journalists reveals. So, the article is assumed to reflect a liberal bias and deemed less trustworthy.

This converse is also true.

A Democrat reads an article and has questions about it because of the knowledge that the paper is owned by a corporation interested only in profit and it forces those GOP-values on every bit of copy including Doonesbury.

There's something to be said here for transparency. A newsroom where you know the reporters' and editors' politics is one that carries greater credibility with the public. For example (and this is a hypothetical, because I don't know most of the reporters involved), if you knew that the reporters who broke the Randy "Duke" Cunningham story had been members of the Young Republicans club in college, had voted for Reagan (twice), Bush (41 and 43) and Bob Dole for president, doesn't that add enormous credibility to what they write about a GOP congressman? Whether you're a Republican, Democrat or Independent, that background information certainly helps you better weigh the story. If, on the other hand, all of the reporters on the Cunningham story had been members of the college World Workers Party, and voted for Lyndon Larouche for president since 1972, then Republican readers are going to look at the story more skeptically. It's this sort of situation where bulletproof reporting really shines and a paper can honestly lay claim to that elusive mantle of objectivity. If you've got all your i's dotted and t's crossed then this is a boon to your reputation.

(There will always be some screwballs on both ends of the political spectrum that won't be convinced of anything under this transparent system -- they don't invalidate this case, because they can't be convinced of anything under the current system.)

The staus quo isn't going to change anytime soon. There isn't nearly enough self-reflection in the newspaper industry to take this issue seriously. And, perhaps an even larger impediment to change, would be the fact that as Thomas Edsall said, the average newsroom is 15- or 25-1 Democrat to Republican. It's one thing to see that number every once in awhile in a survey, it's something completely different to see that as you scan through the political bios of all of the reporters and editors on your local newspaper's Web site. Of course, on the positive side, that might make newspapers and other media outlets embrace a standard of diversity that is more than skin deep.

Speaking of newspapers, and a smooth segue into my second media-related link, Jeff Jarvis over at Buzzmachine.com has an informative take on the future (or not) of newspapers.

It’s sadly fitting that the API report, called Newspaper Next, landed as a 91-page PDF, requiring me to print it out on paper and run out of ink just to read it, with no opportunity to interact with it. I won’t say that there aren’t some good ideas in the report or in newspapers today. But as Susan Mernit says, the industry’s $2 million might have been better spent on real development instead of just blather.

Yet the real problem the report exposes is cultural inertia, the inability to think in radically new ways and to blow up old assumptions. I feared when the project was announced that they saw their job as fending off threats to newspapers rather than exploiting new opportunities for journalism. When I heard an early version of their recommendations, I warned that they were taking false comfort from making tiny steps when what is needed is an atomic bomb.

Read Jarvis' entire take and then cruise over to Bill Hobbs place where he notes that "the future of newspapers will be brighter once the people who own them recognize -- and act on -- the truth that the key part of the word 'newspaper' isn’t 'paper.' "

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