Open letter to Mark Halperin

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Dear Mark,

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.

Matthew Hoy

0 Responses to "Open letter to Mark Halperin"
  1. Brad S says:

    Matt, your whole article is based on a premise that conservatives actually WANT a foot in the door of MSM. A premise that is rather hard to defend or promote.

    Over the last year, there has been at least one newspaper group that was sold (Knight-Ridder), another one that is in the process of being sold (Tribune), and at least one radio station company that is taking bids to be private (ClearChannel). Did you happen to notice any group of conservatives even putting in a bid for at least a part of these companies? Good grief, with the stable of hosts ClearChannel/Premiere has for its talk radio stations (Limbaugh and Dr. Laura, for starters), I would be chomping at the bit to get a piece of that action.

    You know quite well that “The Freedom of the Press belongs to those who OWN one.” If conservatives are unwilling to get in the game of owning a major paper (and no, I don’t count Phil Anschutz’s Examiner papers as being major), they can’t really complain about a “lack of outreach” in getting themselves hired at one.

  2. ELC says:

    “Matt, your whole article is based on a premise that conservatives actually WANT a foot in the door of MSM. A premise that is rather hard to defend or promote.” This, actually is the premise on which Matt’s open letter is based: “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.” That conservatives would want a foot in the door is, I suppose, an additional assumption. But it’s hardly the premise.

    Besides, those who would want to (and could) buy a mainstream media outlet and those who would want to (and could) be employed at such in news / editorial / opinion are hardly the same set of people.

    It seems to me, then, that both your points are, like, way off base.

  3. hoystory says:

    You guys have got it backwards — it’s not about conservatives wanting a foot in the door of the MSM. It’s Mark Halperin who (if you believe what he’s saying) wants conservatives in his newsroom.

    If he truly wants conservatives in his newsroom then he has to do something. Merely wishing doesn’t make it so.

    As I wrote, I’d prefer if the legacy media just dropped the facade. But, if they insist on keeping it in place — as Halperin does — then they’re going to have to cultivate conservatives and truly diversify their newsrooms or the circulation slide will continue.

  4. Brad S says:

    I understand that Halperin wants conservatives in his newsroom, or so he says. However, I’m dead certain that isn’t his call to make.

    I’m sure you realize, Matt, that the legacy media has bought itself a reservoir of goodwill over the decades when they keep the facade in place. While the reservoir is slowly getting drained, it’s still there.

    I simply maintain that if conservatives want to make an impact in the legacy media, they will have to force the issue. I can’t think of any better way than to put their money where their mouth is, and buy a legacy media outlet.

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