Washington Post writer-turned-Huffington Post editor Thomas Edsall argues at length for a point that I made in passing when I interviewed a couple of months ago at the Sacramento Bee: If you're going to be liberal, or "progressive," then make no pretense of being something else. The readers don't buy it anymore anyway.
Here's Edsall, writing at the Columbia Journalism Review:
If reporters were the only ones allowed to vote, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry would have won the White House by landslide margins. More specifically, reporters and editors tend to be social liberals, not economic liberals. Their view of unions and the labor movement is wary and suspicious. They are far more interested in stories about hate crimes than in stories about the distribution of income.
But, and this is a mega-but, even though the mainstream media are by this measure liberal, ending the discussion at this point would be a major disservice to both the press and the public. While the personnel tend to share an ideological worldview, most have a personal and professional commitment to the objective presentation of information, a commitment that is not shared by the conservative media. FOX News, The Weekly Standard, National Review, The Washington Times, Drudge, The Washington Examiner, The American Spectator, CNS News, Town Hall, WorldNetDaily, Insight Magazine are all explicitly ideological. FOX makes the bizarre and palpably untrue claim of ideological neutrality, “We Report, You Decide”—a claim it violates so routinely that no one takes it seriously.
While the mainstream media often fail to live up to their own standards, their committed pursuit of neutrality and objectivity is crucial to the quality of American journalism. That commitment is the main reason the mainstream press is so intensely sensitive to allegations of bias. The refusal of mainstream media executives to acknowledge the ideological leanings of their staffs has produced a dangerous form of media guilt in which the press leans over so far backward to avoid the charge of left bias that it ends up either neutered or leaning to the right. This happened at The Washington Post and was reflected in weak and sometimes fawning coverage, first of the opening years of the Reagan administration, and even more so during George W. Bush’s first term—when not only the lead-up to the Iraq invasion but key domestic initiatives went largely unexamined, with disastrous consequences.
I'd take issue with a number of particulars, but I think Edsall's broader point is right on: The press has a vast and ever-expanding trust deficit with readers and viewers, and pretending to be "objective" when the opposite is obvious to even the least-comprehending consumer is counterproductive and economically ruinous.
Edsall goes on to offer several interesting suggestions for how the media should reposition itself. He ends with the following:
Although it is the subject for another essay, the fact is that there are very few good conservative reporters. There are many intellectually impressive conservative advocates and opinion leaders, but the ideology does not seem to make for good journalists. In contrast, any examination of the nation’s top reporters over the past half-century would show that, in the main, liberals do make good journalists in the tradition of objective news coverage. The liberal tilt of the mainstream media is, in this view, a strength, but one that in recent years, amid liberal-bias controversies, has been mismanaged.
That is indeed a subject for another essay, and I think here Edsall's biases get the better of him. Why are there so few good conservative reporters? Perhaps because like attracts like. Journalism, in the main, attracts a certain type of personality and temperament. At the risk of over-generalizing, that personality tends to gravitate toward do-good causes. For whatever reason, many conservatives are simply not wired that way. But the lack of intellectual diversity in America's newsrooms has contributed to the media's implosion.
Again, it's not that Americans do not want straight news, or prefer opinion to fact -- although there does seem to be a sizable segment of the choir that prefers to be preached to by safe and predictable ministers of the liberal or conservative Gospel. Don't forget: "Objectivity" is a mostly 20th century phenomenon. Nobody outside the serene cubicles of a modern newsroom believes that objective journalism guarantees accuracy or truth. Often, the opposite is true. And, let's face it, the republic survived and thrived with openly partisan journalism. It might have been a bit more vicious, but there was a certain honesty in the old journalism.