I read the transcript of your interview on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show a few weeks ago. I don’t often get to listen to Hugh’s show because his show typically comes on the air as I go to work at the San Diego Union-Tribune.
I’m not a reporter. I’m not an editor. I design newspaper pages. I like to say that I’m about as far as you can get away from the actual content of the paper and still be in the newsroom — which is probably why the management tolerates this blog. (Standard disclaimer: The views expressed here in no way, shape or form represent the views of the Union-Tribune.)
I understand how stressful the days leading up to an election can be for people in the media, so that’s why I waited until it was over to write this to you.
I’ve got a journalism degree from Cal Poly SLO (1994). In the past, I’ve worked as a reporter, photographer, editor and page designer in my career. I’ve worked in two states, Washington and California. I’ve covered the military, federal prisons, city councils, county supervisors and even the odd congressional race.
I know how newspapers — and to a lesser extent — radio and television work.
I know there’s no conspiracy to slant the news. News editors don’t gather for their morning and afternoon meetings to decide how to promote the Democrats and screw the Republicans. Reporters generally hold individual politicians of both parties with about equal contempt, even as they tend to support the Democratic Party on the issues.
I’m not a right-wing wacko.
But I am a conservative.
And I know I’m part of a small minority of journalists — maybe even the smallest minority. I think former Washington Post reporter Thomas Edsall is right about the ratio of liberal to conservative in most of today’s newsrooms (25- or 15-1) — and I think the ratio climbs as you move to larger newspapers. (That’s merely a factor of larger staffs — a small newspaper with a staff of a dozen can’t have a 15-1 liberal to conservative ratio.)
Having said all that, I side with Hugh Hewitt that it would be better for the media and the public if we fessed up and admitted what the public already knows. Telling the American people to ignore the man behind the curtain and judge the media by its work is a noble ideal — but all it’s done is gotten us where we are today.
Where are we today? We’re in a place where National Review has a specialized Media Blog. The Media Research Center — which once limited its commentary to a daily newsletter — now has a group blog that is updated several times daily. On the left you once had Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting which would issue the occassional report (their operation has since expanded). Now you’ve got Media Matters with funding that rivals a small newspaper, but has a much farther reach.
Then there’s talk radio — mostly from the right, but you’ve got the decidedly smaller Air America on the left — both of whom assail the mainstream media. That’s not to mention the army of bloggers (including myself) criticizing, dissecting and scrutinizing every story.
You want to the public to judge your work on its own merits — but they’ve been doing that for decades. Heck, you even admit that conservatives have every reason to be skeptical of what the old media produces.
What you’re arguing for is more of what got us here in the first place.
Hopefully the public will read your stories online and watch your nightly news broadcasts and come to the conclusion that they’re “fair.”
The American people by and large are not fools — they know that the old media treated Newt Gingrich different (read: worse) in 1994 when the GOP took over the House than that same media treated Nancy Pelosi the past few months.
However, people also know it’s not just how you report the news, it’s what you report.
Witness the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s coverage of representative-elect Keith Ellison. The Star-Tribune downplayed Ellison’s past connections to the racist Nation of Islam, sugarcoating him as your average, tolerant Muslim running for public office. There is no way the Star-Tribune would have treated a GOP candidate similarly if the racist group they were associated with was the Ku Klux Klan.
There are two ways to fix this as I see it — one is easy, the other is hard, if not impossible.
The easy way is simply for journalists to exit the proverbial closet. Yes, the vast majority are liberal, but they (mostly) make a good faith effort to play it down the middle. While there are always some wackos that won’t be convinced by anything, at the very least this would temper the criticism the media receives from the left. (Another problem may be that the old media embraces this criticism from the left under the old, false adage that if both sides are angry, then the story must be right down the middle.)
It would also increase credibility with the political right — something the denials and appeals to authority that their reporting is unbiased alone don’t do. It would also prompt reporters to go a little farther out of their way when it came to trying to overcome their biases — that’s assuming, of course, that the reporter cares.
The hard way is the path it appears you’ve chosen and it’s something that will take decades to accomplish — if the old media truly has the will to do it. You hinted at this hard way in your interview with Hewitt. The hard way involves creating a newsroom that doesn’t just look like America — but one that thinks like America.
There is a practical problem with this method (which the MRC’s Brent Bozell argued for in his book “Weapons of Mass Distortion”) — where are you going to get all the conservatives necessary to move the overall center of political gravity in the newsroom to the center?
It will require the same sorts of outreach, promotional and other affirmative action efforts that the media has made in recent decades to get more women and minorities into the newsroom. Of course, you’ll have the additional hurdle to overcome of conservatives’ generalized disdain for affirmative action — even when it benefits them. Of course, you’ll also likely have to overcome cries, complaints and protests that you are selling out to the right from the liberal newsroom majority.
Mark, you have also apparently saddled yourself with an additional problem. You don’t want the general public to know your own political beliefs. Fair enough, it’s part of the path you’ve chosen.
But do you know the political beliefs of your own reporters, editors and producers? If you hold your employees to the same standard you promote in public, how do you know how you’re doing in your quest for ideological diversity in the newsroom?
(And if you are querying your reporters, editors, producers on their political views in your quest for balance, then why do you get to know and the general public doesn’t?)
The old media isn’t trusted — and its not talk radio’s fault, it’s not the bloggers’ fault and it’s not the media watchdog’s (left and right) fault. This wound has been self-inflicted due to an arrogance that is hard to fathom (I mean, journalism isn’t exactly the most difficult curriculum to master at the college level).
I applaud your willingness to recognize that we are faced by a problem and by your desire to do something about it. Frankly, I’m just not sure how serious you are about doing the tough things and making the hard decisions that will return some respect and trust back to the old media.