Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Seattle Times News Room Politics

I thought this was an interesting piece posted by David Postman on his Seattle Times "Postman on Politics" blog. Apparently, a number of people were pretty enthused about a certain resignation as of late (Postman quoting Seattle Times Executive Editor Dave Boardman):

When word came in of Karl Rove's resignation, several people in the meeting
started cheering. That sort of expression is simply not appropriate for a

At first, I kind of agreed with Boardman on this one. But the more I think about it, the less I consider it faux pas. I think this poses a couple of questions about journalistic integrity and bias in general.

I know journalists aren't supposed to be biased. Or at least they aren't supposed to make their biases apparent. This is considered to be a mainstay of an open democracy - the fourth estate which keeps the rest of the powers-that-be in check by informing citizens as to what's going on. Of course, everyone is biased. It's ridiculous to think that journalists are somehow above personal preference. Now, I don't think anyone seriously contends that journalists should be above political preferences (well, at least, normally functioning people don't), but what people do think is of critical importance is that the news media not actively engage in public opinion manipulation.

I'm not really sure what I think when it comes to this. Bias exists, and its impossible to get rid of, nor do I think we should try. The personal preferences of journalists, news readers, editors, producers, and corporate big-wigs are naturally going to skew the kind of coverage and content that their papers and news programs produce. Since Neil Cavuto is a heartless pervert, his show is full of pieces on why taking care of poor people hurts America, and gratuitous shots of Hooters girls' and female correspondents' cleavage (here, here, and here). I don't necessarily think that this is a bad thing (although, when it comes to Cavuto...). On one level, it's important for the news media to collect information, and to contextualize it. If the President claims something that is patently false, a reporter has the responsibility to say that, hey, this is incorrect. If the Federal Reserve raises interest rates it is the job of the reporter to explain how that affects home owners, consumers, and workers, otherwise it means nothing to the reading/watching public at large. "Just the facts ma'am" doesn't cut it when it comes to informing people; sure, the President said something, but so what? What does it mean? Is it true? What are the possible consequences? Journalism, as I understand it, is not about repeating what is said, or what has happened, but is more about digesting information and showing its importance. Of course, when one relies only on a single news source, this becomes problematic, since those preferences held by the journalists, news readers, producers, and corporate big-wigs threaten to be adopted wholly by the information consumer. This is the inherent risk in media ownership consolidation.

But bias? I just don't think it's that big a deal.

Now, here's something with which I take issue; news organizations claiming that, somehow, they're above it all. Now, let me differentiate between bias and opinion. Bias usually affects news content; what is covered, how it's covered, and the priorities of story placement. Opinions are normative; this is good, that is bad, this thing does or does not matter. Opinions have no place in news reading, but are fine in editorial sections (i.e. Bill O'Reilly's opinions, however stupid, are fine. Brit Hume's, when reading the news, are not). What bugs me the most about Fox News is that they claim, daily, to be unbiased - fair and balanced. That is ridiculous. The idea that Fox doesn't succumb to the biases of the news media is insulting. But, you know, so what, right? I mean, they're only deluding themselves... right? RIGHT!?

Unfortunately, the way Fox goes about address bias misinforms their consumers as to what constitutes bias and opinion. Their rhetoric only works toward consolidating their viewership and increasing their market share. Of course, as a business, this is Fox's job. However, instead of competing in the realm of journalism by providing better analysis or more comprehensive coverage, they just deride their competition and try to undercut everyone else's credibility (have you ever heard O'Reilly talk about the print media? He basically lists everything that printed on paper as part of the "Secular-Progressive Crowd" whatever that is). Unsurprisingly, this is akin to the Republicans questioning the patriotism of Democrats every time they try to address legitimate concerns about runaway military spending or curtailed civil liberties; it's not about issues, it's about market share.

So, when the Seattle Times news room expresses its joy that Karl Rove has departed 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, so long as they aren't lying in their news pieces, so what?

Does anyone think I'm off base here? There are lots of fine publications that are obviously biased. The Economist, Mother Jones, Harper's, the Atlantic, Foreign Policy... I dunno, maybe even the Weekly Standard (although, I think the line must drawn somewhere, and I call that line "LYING", so the Standard is probably excluded). We still read them, and they offer lots of really good information and analysis, but they still have their biases.