“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.