Howard Kurtz writes that journalists aren’t loathe to donate to politicians. Frankly, I don’t have any problem with reporters–or their bosses–donating money to political campaigns. But doesn’t this undercut their frequent claims that they’re impartial?
I think history will show the faith in unbiased journalistic “truth” to have been a temporary aberration. The national papers of Great Britain, like the American press of the 19th century, are popular precisely because of their well-known ideological positions, not from any pretense of neutrality. They report the news by their own lights, recognizing that readers prefer the news to be filtered through values and beliefs similar to their own.
So does The New York Times. The Times has become America’s only truly national, general-interest newspaper because it has the best reporting, writing, and editing in the country…and because its worldview matches that of its target consumers. It doesn’t need to purport to be unbiased.
Sooner or later, the media needs to move away from feigning impartiality, because nobody in their audience buys it. They really ought to consider employing the strategy that has allowed a thousand narrowcasted blogs to flourish, and start saying something like, “yes, we’re biased–just like you are. And we know you have lots of different news sources to choose from, each with own slant on things. But if you’re a [Republican/Democrat/atheist/Muslim/hobbit/Wookie] we think you’ll like us.”
Update: Jonathan Gewirtz writes:
Everybody is biased: it’s human nature. And the way for journalists to deal with it isn’t to remain ignorant, or shun open participation in politics, or engage in ostentatious rituals of non-partisanship. It is to admit their biases and allow their customers to make up their own minds about how to interpret information the media provide.
Political contributions are among the clearest indicators, certainly clearer than words, of contributors’ political biases. Far from forbidding them, we should encourage journalists to make such contributions as long as they disclose them. The public is smart enough to evaluate the results. And by permitting political participation by journalists we might encourage better people to become journalists, because becoming a journalist would no longer mean trying to ignore one’s own carefully developed opinions, or abandoning a high-level career in the industry one covers. Disclosure, not bureaucratic restriction of behavior, is the answer here.
Another Update: More on the long partisan history of journalism in America from Shannon Love, who writes, “Before the 1920s, the idea of an ‘objective’ or ‘non-partisan’ media did not exist. Love credits the era of journalistic “objectivity” as beginning with the birth of radio and its limited spectrum of frequencies:
Since broadcasters functioned as public utilities and had monopoly use of a public property, they could not follow the openly partisan traditions of the newspapers. Broadcast journalists began to advertise themselves as “objective” and lacking “partisan” bias. They had no choice. Nobody was going to tolerate their own political opponents having a monopoly on the broadcast media. Also, broadcasting was supported purely by advertising, so the broadcasters had a profound interest in making sure they did not offend any large chunk of their audience by overtly taking sides.
Read the rest.