“Where does reporting end and advocacy begin?”

“What’s happened to objective journalism?” an old newspaper buddy of mine lamented the other day.

My former sidekick – a news reporter turned editor who’s now in marketing — was complaining about what was billed as a non-partisan “informational” health care forum in our Kentucky hometown. A local Fox Radio affiliate was the sponsor.

This ex-news reporter turned feature writer and opinion columnist is now a history teacher. So I suggested Republican friendly Fox 2009 looks a lot like the Fourth Estate of 1809.

Two centuries ago, the press was almost completely partisan. Jeffersonians read Jeffersonian papers that slanted the news their way. Likewise, Federalist partisans read Federalist papers that pushed their party’s agenda.

There was no wall of separation between news reporting and editorializing at Jeffersonian and Federalist – and Whig, Democratic and Republican – organs of the 19th century.

Of course, the folks at Fox News claim their reporting is “fair and balanced,” unlike the “biased liberal media.”

But bias can be in the eye of the beholder. I’m old enough to remember the Cold War and Vietnam when conservatives lambasted the U.S. media as irredeemably tilted to the liberal side. At the same time, the Soviets slammed the “liberal media” as a big-time flunkey for capitalism.

Critics charged the Fox station stacked the deck against Obama and the Democrats. The forum panel consisted of a reporter for the station’s online newspaper, the station’s morning show host-program director, the station news director and a physician.

Before the forum, the reporter posted a “review” of House Bill 3200 – one of the health care reform proposals. She panned it. But her “review” read like it was lifted from stock right-wing email and Internet screeds.

The morning show host was the forum’s moderator. He had played cheerleader at a “tax-day tea party” his station sponsored on April 15. The reporter also helped fire up the crowd. “Hello my fellow extremists!” she greeted the gathering. 

The doctor is a conservative who gives liberally to Republicans. He had written a guest column in a local paper criticizing the Democrats’ health care plans.

The news director had a reputation for objectivity. But a local TV journalist reported that she and the other “panelists freely admitted their positions against the bill.” The reporter caught her on camera saying, “I don’t think anybody disagrees that we need changes. It’s just that these changes make the costs skyrocket, and that’s the problem.”

“Where does reporting end and advocacy begin?” an admittedly liberal-leaning, Bluegrass State political website asked before the forum.

I believe in truth in labeling. My politics, and the politics of my ex-reporter-editor friend, are unapologetically Democratic and left-of-center.

But aware of our own biases, we bent over backwards to make sure they didn’t creep into the news stories we wrote. There were conservative reporters in our newsroom who did the same thing.

Is absolute objectivity possible? No. But we and our conservative colleagues strove to play stories straight up the middle. We  presented both sides of a story. If we hadn’t, our executive editor would have let us have it with both barrels, and rightly so.

I can’t imagine him — the guy is a flaming middle-of-the-roader — being part of was billed as a non-partisan forum and openly taking sides.

Many of the forum’s detractors took a “what did you expect?” attitude toward the program, which was held in a very conservative church. Republican voters are easy to find in the pulpit, choir and pews on Sunday mornings.

“When I saw who was putting the forum on and where it was going to be, I just dismissed it for what it was,” said a naysayer who voted for Obama. 

My guess is, most forum goers voted the McCain-Palin ticket and are as skeptical of Democrats and their health care proposals as the panelists. The folks in the folding chairs knew what to expect from the forum’s Fox imprimatur and the setting.  “Judging from which comments drew the most applause, the crowd was clearly tilted against the controversial House bill on health care reform,” the TV journalist reported.

Not surprisingly, the credibility of the station – especially its news director – is getting clobbered in Kentucky’s liberal blogosphere. My guess is our conservative reporter friends would be just as disdainful of the forum, which one liberal blogger called “a dog and pony show.”

A critic suggested Fox News and its small-town radio affiliate that sponsored the forum are motivated as much by profit as by politics.

“…Taking a perspective and advocating is how a radio station like that plays to their listener base to increase revenues,” she said. “So a lot of this editorializing is about ratings and money…The more people you can whip up into an emotional frenzy with your ‘news’ the more devoted listeners you get.” No doubt, Fox fans were plentiful at the forum.

Nineteenth century papers whipped up their readers by telling half-truths and outright lies about the other party. Their readers didn’t get the other side of the story and didn’t really want to hear it.  Subscriptions and profits soared.

Thank goodness all the media hasn’t joined Fox news in the retreat to times when Federalist papers called Thomas Jefferson a Bible-burning atheist who would bring the French Revolution and the Guillotine to America and when Jeffersonian journals claimed John Adams was a snide British-loving aristocrat who wanted to make himself king and his sons, princes.

Meanwhile, my friend and I pine for our salad days when news gatherers and editors – print, radio or TV – worked hard to present the news straight, avoided inserting themselves into stories they were covering and left the editorializing to the editorial writers.

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About Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a native Kentuckian, a professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance journalist. He is a member of the American Federation of Teachers and the Kentucky Education Association/National Education Association. He is the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, which he describes as "a strictly non-partisan chronicle of our political past from Gov. Isaac Shelby to Gov. Ruby Laffoon."
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2 Responses to “Where does reporting end and advocacy begin?”

  1. VH says:

    I agree that Fox is conservative. But what I don’t understand is the endless diatribe by Democrats about Fox News. Particularly when MSNBC with Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, and Chris Matthews are quite guilty of the very same behavior ascribed to Fox News.

  2. Steve in Allen, TX says:

    I believe that Fox News (News Corp) and most other conservative media companies should be sued for fraud, slander, & libel (as appropriate of course). I don’t believe that their behavior would meet the requirements for RICO, but they come incredibly close. Evidence exists that Fox News “reporting” of Bush’s victory in 2000 was fundemental in causing the fiasco which ultimately led to the supreme court deciding the election (unconstitutionally & against popular vote). This would be grounds for RICO as election tampering, but the supreme court judges involved would have to be listed as defendants. I wonder if rule of law applies to members of our legal system.

    Never the less, I have seen “reporters” on conservative media fabricate information, bully opposition, terrorize elected officials, and generally create rancor and antipathy within our society. One could argue this is within our constitutional rights, but the arguments they use are fallacious – and no one seems to be willing to call them on it. Their malfeasance and misrepresentation has caused great harm to the United States. (For you lawyers, yes I mean malfeasance since their is an implied statutory requirement for honesty backed by their claim of “fare and balanced reporting” and similar claims of truth. Also, it can be argued that the intent of their subterfuge is to intentionally sabotage our government.)

    Where is the FCC? Why do they allow these companies to defile our country’s communication? I would like to see the FCC require warning labels on all media indicating if the information is factual or not, and if a company representing itself as a news agency promulgates some fallacious information for personal or political gain they should be fined.

    I’m surprised that the Christian’s haven’t called them on their lies. Doesn’t it say in the Bible, “Thou shalt not bear false witness”? “Thou shalt not lie”?

    I believe that the supreme court may want to revisit their decisions and determine if certain media companies have violated the limits of free speech. Free speech is fine, as long as you don’t try to deceive others. I consider what I hear coming from Fox News hosts (O’reilly, Hannity, Beck, et al), Limbaugh, Alex Jones, and many others definitely riotous and designed to insight/produce imminent lawless action. We have preachers calling for the death of our president. Do we wait for someone to act out in violence? Civil war?

    MSNBC may have it’s faults, but they focus on trying to report something closer to the truth. While MSNBC’s reporters may make mistakes, their intent is not malicious or deceptive.