Ending the Pretense of Media Neutrality
Jay Rosen argues, persuasively, that the only way out of the “media bias” trap is for journalists to stop pretending to be neutral and simply endeavor to be fair.
Professional journalists do not improve the situation when they double down on their neutrality and present objectivity as a truth claim about their own work. It is this kind of claim that compels people to furnish—furiously—more chapter and verse in the very bad and very long book of media bias. Which in turns causes Hoyt to return lines like, “Bias is a tricky thing to measure, because we all bring our biases to the task.”
The only exit from this system is for people in the press to start recognizing: there is a politics to what they do. They have to get that part right. They have to be more transparent about it. But this recognition is circuit-frying for the press we inherited from the Watergate era, and the long arc of professionalization before that. For it means that political argument isn’t really “separate” from news at all, even though the priesthood wants it to be, and still preaches that.
He cites Josh Marshall and others in the blogosphere as examples of being able to square this circle. When biases are stated up front but reporting and analysis is pursued with integrity, it can stand on its own merits. Further, it can generate something much better than the standard “get a quote from both sides” nonsense that passes as “objectivity” in the mainstream press.
Unfortunately, he also cites “Keith Olbermann anchoring political coverage for MSNBC while also engaging in ‘special commentaries’ that denounce Bush for world class denial and criticize Hillary Clinton for fratricide.” Does anyone outside the hard left take Olbermann seriously as a journalist? Sure, he’s a talented broadcaster and he can dish it out to those on the left, like Clinton, who earn his ire. But agenda trumps fairness every time.
I’m not sure, incidentally, that there’s a crisis afoot. Even under the current Illusion of Objectivity model, the reporting is fair most of the time. I have my clock radio wake me to NPR every morning even though they’ve clearly got a progressive social agenda on a handful of issues. Even the dreaded NYT produces superb reportage on a day in, day out basis with only the occasional lulu thrown in.
But, ultimately, Rosen’s ideal type is better than the current one. The thing that makes the best bloggers better than the best reporters is that the former operate in a low trust environment while the latter operate under the mantle of automatic respectability. That forces the blogs to lay out the facts, link to sources, and anticipate the responses of those who will disagree. Terrific reporters for major outlets, by contrast, often trip up because they begin from the premise “Trust me, I work for ___________.”