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 ___________.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    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.

    I am unconvinced. Rosen’s thinking is a step n the right direction but doesn’t go far enough.
    The truth, you see… yeah, the press was supsoed to be helping us determine what the truth is… The truth is seldom “fair” and NEVER is it “neutral”. Any claims by the press to either, makes them liars. Either one assumes an uninterested party.

  2. Sandra Prew says:

    In today’s political climate, it strikes me that linking the words media and journalists with words like fair, unbiased, and objective are as close to an oxymoron as one can get.

    Olbermann is one of the worst offenders of biased reporting with his phony “unbiased wrapped indignation.” Witness his latest rant against Hillary.

    Olbermann just had to insert himself into the Geraldine Ferraro/Obama dust up which he termed a “disaster” for Hillary Clinton, her campaign, and half of western world, (sound of deep sigh here, used to emphasize just how important he thought his points were.)

    BTW, has anyone noticed that when Hillary used to word “shame” to admonish Obama recently that Chris Matthews said Hillary sounded like a “school marm?” Tisk,tisk,no,no,no . . . can’t use that old-fashioned word shame to define Obama’s actions.

    However, when Olbermann uses “shame” in his “Special Comments” (ad naueum, IMHO)that Matthews finds Olbermann’s usage perfectly acceptable!


  3. jpe says:

    I’ve never understood the fuss over objectivity. What good does it do if journalists say they’re biased? The on-the-one-hand on-the-other style of journalism has to go, but that’s logically distinct from the claim to objectivity.

    Journalists do a fine job, though. Like anyone else, sometimes they misfire, but it seems pathological to me to confuse the occasional error for a fatal flaw.

  4. yetanotherjohn says:

    I think we are moving to a low trust environment for the media anyway. Certainly for conservatives this has been gaining traction for some time. Independents less so, but more than liberals.

    The success for Fox is less that they are far right than they are more neutral and thus further to the right than their competitors. Any marketer will tell you that when you have a market distribution (geographic or otherwise) that bunches towards one place, the ideal market position to take is just beyond the bunch with the largest group available. Think of a beach with a refreshment stand at the 1/4 point along the beach. The ideal market position is not at the 3/4 point which would provide equal access to any beach goer, but at the 1/3 slot which lets you contend for those in the 1/4 to 1/3 point and garner just about all the customers beyond the 1/3 point.

    As such, I suspect that over time market forces will start to correct this bias. Bright people will start taking the advantages of MSM branding with a more truly neutral reporting position and start positioning closer to the center (or maybe beyond). I can make a good argument that Instapundit is an example of that with the content reached through links.

  5. Bithead says:

    I think not, as regards Fox, YAJ. It’s just tat the field has tilted so far left that Fox stands out.