Is journalism too biased? And is it too late to change?

Lou Carlozo July 22, 2020

Chicago Tribune editor Clayton Kirkpatrick stands atop a desk in 1974 to share some true headline news: The staunchly Republican paper will publish transcripts of Richard Nixon’s Watergate tapes. Is such non-partisan pursuit of the truth a thing of journalism’s past? Or an editor standing on a desk, for that matter?

Sitting on a sun-drenched coffeehouse deck in Chicago, my morning iced mocha drained to the last, I’ve just finished reading a new subscription-only article in The Economist, “How objectivity in journalism became a matter of opinion.

Humphf. That’s what they say.

Seriously, here’s what I say, non-objectively: It’s an outstanding, poised opinion piece. We’d be mistaken to think opinion has no place in journalism; of course, that’s what op-ed pages are for. Or were for. Trouble is, determined forces and societal tides have rammed a breach into the wall, which leaves us where we are today: editorializing, often stridently so, in the realm of everyday reporting.

The Economist piece cites a July 2019 Huffington Post headline, “A Trump Fascist Rally In Greeneville.” Really? True or false, that oozes the kind of tone I might’ve expected from Molly Ivins or Charles Krauthammer back in the day, notoriously contentious columnists of the Left and Right respectively.

Speaking of opinion, there’s so much to agree with in the Economist analysis—and yet, places I believe it lacks necessary nuance. Let’s start with the undeniable and even shocking.

First, traditional news organizations now indeed lean towards judgement-tainted reporting. Yes, outing a politician’s lie is necessary when it flies in the face of verifiable truth. But from there, it’s only a short hop-step-punch to editorializing—and that in essence either tricks readers, or appeals to their caveman brains. People on the Left love it when the Washington Post, CNN or Times dish it right back to Donald Trump. And when those outlets refrain from doing so, readers hungry for chum will swim to wherever they can devour it. And vice-Right-versa.

That the Economist nails; yet they fail to pinpoint how all this started in our current era. By way of simple fact, Fox News was not the product of any noble journalistic model. All the way back in 1996—a quarter century ago—a Republican consultant to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan named Roger Ailes took over as Fox News CEO. He was hired by Rupert Murdoch, another staunch conservative. And together they honed sensationalist “Orchestra Pit Journalism,” where the guy falling off stage at a political debate gets all the headlines, not the well-versed statesman.

It wasn’t long before the orchestra pit turned into a mosh pit.

While Fox began to provoke the ire of Lefties, many news organizations stayed out of the fray until Trump took office. With Fox and Friends riding shotgun, he attacked and attacked and attacked and still attacks the Post, Times and CNN as “fake news!” (If Trump doesn’t kill the exclamation point, I don’t know who will.)

Anyone or any institution attacked relentlessly enough—and no one does it quite like The Donald—will eventually feel cornered. And so all those outlets have since come out with their teeth bared. No reporter likes it when their faithful employer is put down; some will hold their fire. Others, including their editors, won’t.

But while viscerally satisfying to some, is attack mode a good thing? Two wrongs don’t make the Right right. It means everyone has stooped to the same level. Add social media toxicity to the mix—Facebook can’t tell real news from a manatee, or a Russian bot for that matter—and the picture gets further muddled. I don’t tell Mark Zuckerberg how to, say, steal a social media platform idea from Harvard classmates; I don’t want him telling me which news I should read by way of advertising algorithm.

Yet we’d be mistaken to think that an earlier era of journalism was pure or even better. Anything but. Even as Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz warned the public about journalistic objectivity in the 1920s—a wonderful Economist citation—the self-dubbed “Colonel” Robert McCormick filled the pages of his Chicago Tribune with propaganda disguised as real journalism. He was Fox News a good three generations before, to the point where FDR questioned whether Tribune coverage tipped the hands of the Japanese in World War II. Roosevelt was a hair’s breadth away from sending federal troops to occupy Tribune Tower. Does any of this sound sorta familiar?

The challenges facing journalism’s objectivity are numerous, from the economic incentive to win eyeballs to the outspokenness of new newsroom mavericks. Indeed, there’s at least one good side to this: It’s finishing off the “bothsidesism” that plagued newsrooms the day some ivory-tower, white-male, thumb-sucking editor set it in motion.  I put it this way in a recent interview with Authority magazine:

Give up on “false equivalency.” If you are interviewing a college professor who has won awards and dedicated her life to studying a topic, don’t interview an opinionated head of a fringe movement for the counterpoint, just to provide “balance.” Eggheads invented this approach in the ’70s, the same time lime-green shag carpet and the AMC Pacer became popular.

The Economist also quotes 30-year-old Pulitzer winner Wesley Lowery thus: “American view-from-nowhere, ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment.” Yet I wonder whether Lowery should take the self-righteousness down a notch. Because that’s hardly a new idea.

In 1989, the great George Anastasia, an organized crime reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, taught me this: “Lou, you can’t be objective. Objectivity is bullshit. But you can be fair.” Bulls-freaking-eye.

All the newsroom policy in the world can’t enforce that. But all the pressure from the bosses to slant the truth can’t kill it.

Here, individual reporters have a five-fold call, to:

  • recognize and rise above their biases;
  • resist the temptation to sell out their platform to become a loudmouthed “marketing brand”;
  • ignore the haters;
  • ditch the agenda; and
  • summon facts, quotes, statistics and examples in the service of outstanding writing.

You’ll never stop a president or even your mother from taking you to task. Left? Right? Center? Center on excellence. Learn from the best, then teach those next. Until the next deadline. And the next iced mocha.

Lou Carlozo is the Editor of Chief of Qwoted: lou@qwoted.com

This week on Lou Carlozo’s Bankadelic: Live from the Silicon Valley, Brad Sivert of Tavant explains how artificial intelligence is helping people achieve the American Dream of homeownership.