The current cause célèbre is the CIA claim of Russian hacking to influence the U.S. election last fall. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange says it’s all codswallop. Donald Trump says whatever comes into his head.
At the crux of the fake news furor is a fundamental misunderstanding about bias in journalism. Large segments of the population (who should know better) insist that somewhere there’s a perfect world where bias doesn’t exist in reporting.
Every form of journalism is biased. Simply choosing what stories a paper or network deems important betrays bias. Which story leads the newscast or goes above the fold on the front page tells the public much about the slant of that organization. Whether a high-profile reporter is assigned the story instead of a journeyman scribbler illuminates. Cropping pictures or editing interview clips can also betray an agenda.
What’s important – and what’s been lost – is the notion of fairness; the pursuit of both sides in a story, however challenging that might be; a clear attempt to present as much information as can be assembled.
As U.S. Sen. Daniel Moynihan famously observed, “You’re entitled to your own opinion. You’re not entitled to your own facts.” Yet fairness is being obliterated on both sides.
Donald Trump treats facts like stocks to be traded and bartered. Exaggeration in the pursuit of his goals seems to be no vice to him.
Barack Obama pursued a different course: the big lie wrapped in virtue.
Most consumers of news will tell you that you’re always wise to take a jaundiced view of politicians’ words and motives. But this disdain for a fair balancing of the facts has migrated to the press. The line between editorial and opinion has disappeared, carried away by crusaders who see reporting as a calling to advance causes, not facts.
In its zeal to defeat Trump, even the venerable New York Times began printing editorials on its front page, mixing fact with opinion in a fashion never seen before at the paper. That – and the surprise election of Trump – caused the Times public editor Liz Spayd to chide, “I found myself wishing someone from the newsroom was on the line with me, especially to hear how many of the more liberal voters wanted more balanced coverage. Not an echo chamber of liberal intellectualism, but an honest reflection of reality.”
As former Times editor and correspondent Michael Cieply told me: “I think the paper is being nudged into a place where it is now the official voice of Blue (Democratic) America. That may be healthy for the paper. … It does need to be honest on its own positions. If it starts to self-identify as a paper that is more about a point of view than ‘all the news that fits’ – that may be where they belong as we go forward.”
The blurring of objectivity is exacerbated by the homogeneity of the people reporting the news. With the great organs of journalism in North America rooted in New York City and Washington, D.C., and Toronto and Ottawa, the tendency is to assume that the people in your orbit represent all the people who consume your product. So news has become the reflection of urban liberal opinion.
It’s a malaise that Spayd has observed at the Times. “The newsroom’s blinding whiteness hit me when I walked in the door six months ago … two of the 20-plus reporters who covered the presidential campaign for the New York Times were black. None were Latino or Asian. … Of the Times’s newly-named White House team, all six are white, as is most everyone in the Washington bureau. … Metro has only three Latinos among its 42 reporters, in a city with the second largest Hispanic population in the country. Sports has one Asian man, two Hispanics and no African-Americans among its 21 reporters, yet blacks are plentiful among the teams they cover and the audience they serve. In the Styles section, every writer is white. …”
In the stripped-down newsrooms of today, the Times is hardly unique. The hypocrisy on diversity is not flattering, says Cieply. “This would be less puzzling if the Times weren’t so preachy about diversity to others.”
You’d think that having missed the Trump phenomenon, the Times and its fellow liberal outlets would be pausing to reflect on where they went wrong. On how to restore fairness to their coverage.
But you’d be wrong. The new year brings more of the same.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.