I’ve wanted to write this for a really long time now and today seems like as good a time as any.
Reason Magazine has recently waded into these waters.
Also, earlier this year, Robert Stacy McCain wrote this. His most salient point was:
Having been told for so long that “the media” are the enemy, conservatives have become hostile to journalism as a profession
Although most journalists are indeed liberal, all journalists prefer to think of themselves as independent-minded and fair, their primary allegiance being to report the truth.
I’m here to tell you, first off, that Robert is correct. Most journalist do lean to the left in terms of their personal feelings and impressions of the world. Congratulations, you’ve unearthed the great liberal media conspiracy.
Journalists are not liberal. They are skeptical.
As Robert wrote, journalists view their primary allegiance as being to facts, to the truth or at least the search for it. In the course of doing our jobs, our loyalty does not lie with a political party or a candidate or any other interest. It lies with the facts and with interpreting those facts in a way that will help our readers better understand an election, a business, a financial market, a disease, etc.
Does all this mean we don’t still have those loyalties? No, of course not. But we are trained to sublimate them when we write our stories and we are trained to not take anything at face value. There is a longstanding journalistic mantra that goes “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” What this means is that to a journalist, there is no such thing as conventional wisdom. Everything is to be rigorously questioned, investigated, held up to the light and scrutinized.
You can already see where this kind of thinking and approach makes journalists run afoul of many conservatives. For instance, many people on the right (though not all) are religious and their faith is often a big part of their lives. Most religious belief requires, by its very nature, taking some things on faith. The very existence of a higher power is indeed something we cannot prove or disprove. We must simply believe. Religious traditions tend to also impose moral absolutes on their believers. These can have both positive and negative effects in practice, but the point is that they are absolute. There is no such thing as adultery that’s sort of, maybe, kind of okay for instance. There is no gray area. It’s black and white.
The practice of journalism (or good journalism at least) flies in the face of this sort of thinking. There are no absolutes here. There is no inherent good or evil. There is ethical and unethical, but this is already very different. If, as the aphorism tells us, we have to check to make sure our mother loves us, imagine how much higher our skepticism is for anything that is less certain.
If you’re reading this and saying to yourself “Gosh, this sounds like a miserable, tortured existence,” you’re not far off. Why do you think so many reporters drink heavily? It is actually easier to live one’s life without having to question, isn’t it? It’s more mentally soothing to say I know this is true and nothing could change my mind. It affords a sense of peace, a sense of comfort to have that certitude. Most of us have felt this way one time or another. Now imagine fighting this inclination and rejecting it day in and day out, because it’s necessary to do your job. Sounds fun, right? It’s not.
But… but… I thought you were a liberal!
I’d like to pause now and tell you a few stories. Hopefully they’ll help to illustrate my point a bit.
The first story is about a columnist at a major metropolitan daily newspaper. This columnist is generally believed to be liberal and I’m certain he would himself profess it.
There was a time not too long ago that I was much more conservative than I am now. Thus I believed in the conservative mantra that the media is liberal and out to get us poor, hapless conservatives. One day I read a column by this columnist and disagreed with it vociferously. I let him know this via Twitter and we began arguing a bit via direct message. Through our discussion, I came to understand much better where he was coming from. I still didn’t agree with his viewpoint, but I could see that what he wrote was not some partisan screed aimed at magically transforming everyone who read it into a Democrat. It came from a deep well of learning, research, experience and yes, some personal inclinations.
He also quickly shattered my illusions about his perceived liberalism. For instance, he said he had come to believe that most gun control legislation was wrong-headed. If you feel that there is such a thing as liberal dogma, then strict gun control measures have to be pretty high up on the list. This guy didn’t believe in these measures though. Hmmm… the wheels in my head started turning.
The other story is about a journalist friend of mine. She would also most likely “confess” to being a liberal. For a long time she wrote a blog about public housing and urban poverty. She now works for the Chicago Reporter, a publication that focuses on race and poverty. She is also married, teaches dance and does many other things.
One day not too long ago she wanted to meet for coffee. Help! she said. I think I’m becoming a conservative! Before you all get your panties in a bunch, she didn’t mean that being a conservative was bad. What she meant is that any sort of crisis of conscience is difficult. Remember how I said that feeling certain was warm and happy and comforting? When that certainly is put into question though, we feel something that’s the opposite of that warm, cozy feeling.
Over coffee, she told me that she was starting to believe that many of the government programs aimed at the poor were terrible ideas. She said that through her research, she saw that many of them didn’t work. She said they didn’t really help people in many cases and sometimes even made things worse. Conservatives, does this sound familiar?
Did this mean she should start voting differently, she wondered? Did her newfound mistrust of government mean she was a Republican?
I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I think I told her that many of us come to a crossroads like this in our lives. I noted that as she was moving away from the left, I was also moving away from the right. I could see where we were both going: the center. I assured her that this was a place where a huge multitude of Americans found themselves. I said that people of all different political stripes often agree on the problems, but don’t agree on the methods by which to solve them. I said that it seemed to me that no one had yet figured out the perfect method for solving anything. The best we can do is try things and if they fail, try something else.
Today I would also say that such an ideological “crisis” means you’re doing something right. It means you have moved beyond a strict ideological framework. It means you are willing to admit that your views might not apply to every situation. It means you are aware that there is little use for labels like “liberal” and “conservative” except to signal to those in the other group that you don’t like them very much. It means you’re realizing that we’re all on a path to greater understanding; along that path we might sometimes take a road that goes left or a road that goes right.
So does this mean there’s nothing wrong with the media?
The short answer is, no, that’s not what this means.
There are quite a few problems with the American press. Some of them are big, systemic problems. Some are smaller, but also important. I write about them here often. Other people do as well.
There is a problem called the Internet, which is not really a problem but which is an ecosystem with an ethos many news organizations still don’t understand.
There is a problem called not knowing your audience and not understanding that they are now active participants in the national conversation.
There are all these problems and many others. Some have to do with business models. Some have to do with technology woes. Some have to do with just plain shitty content and years upon years of unchallenged mediocrity.
These are problems we need to work together to solve if we want to have a vibrant, useful media in the future. But we have to first agree on what those problems are. A so-called “liberal bias” is just not one of them.
How much do you really understand us?
A lot of the criticism directed at the media comes from people who have never worked in a media organization, have never written for a media organization and have never been personally acquainted with anyone who has.
None of this means that you are not free to criticize. But what it does mean is that your criticism comes from a place of partial and admittedly inescapable ignorance. This, by the way, is one of the areas I think we are failing you. We are failing to tell you about our newsrooms, our editorial meetings and so many other things about our businesses. We are failing to pull back the curtain on the whole process and showing you how it works. It is that lack of transparency that breeds resentment and suspicion. You would think we would understand that since we are also suspicious of that which we cannot readily see… but this is a topic for another day.
What I’m getting at is that if you are unhappy with your media, demand better. How can you do this?
It means demanding more transparency into their processes, if that is what you would like. It means encouraging them to present more facts, more background, more explanation of the story, if that’s what interests you. It means asking them to write on certain topics that you feel may have been overlooked. It means asking them to compile information that you think would be useful to your community, like all the votes of a city council. It means pointing out errors you believe have been made. It means saying, I don’t think you told us the full story here. It means communicating with reporters and editors frequently to voice your concerns.
There are many more examples and we could even argue about which requests are reasonable. But what is certainly not reasonable is asking for your ideological viewpoint to be reflected in every story that you see in a newspaper, on TV or hear on the radio. Again, just because your desire to question and probe ends at a certain point, it doesn’t mean ours ends at exactly the same place.
Demanding better also doesn’t mean writing a scathing blog post every day where you take apart, from an ideological viewpoint, every article or broadcast from [insert your most hated “liberal” media institution here]. Do you see how this is not productive?
It’s also important to direct your complaints to people who can actually do something about them. Many conservatives have stopped complaining and just started making their own media from their political viewpoint. That’s ok too, but it’s not ok to demand the same of everyone else. If you move out of a house, do you come back and criticize the decor choices of the family that now lives there?
As far as the right and wrong way to complain, let’s do an example. Let’s say that your local paper has endorsed the Democratic candidate in a legislative content for the umpteenth time. You are upset, because you are conservative and many of your friends and neighbors are conservative. You feel that your views are never represented in this paper and you’re sick of it. Let’s say you decide to voice your concerns by writing a letter to the newspaper’s ombudsman or op-ed editor:
Your letter could say:
I’m so sick and tired of this paper endorsing Democrats during every election cycle. Why are you so biased? It’s as if us conservatives don’t even exist in this town. Every single story I read is obviously written by liberals and I can’t take it anymore! I’m cancelling my subscription tomorrow.
Or it could go more like this:
I have been a subscriber for 15 years and would like to know why the editorial endorsements have always been for Democrats. I see you explain why you endorse these candidates, but could you also explain why you’re never endorsing the Republicans or third party candidates? I think this is important information for us, your readers, to know. I’ve also felt for a while now that many stories are badly reported. The sources I see you quoting most frequently are very one-sided. I think this robs readers of the breadth of opinion that exists on many issues. Perhaps some reporters are, through no fault of their own at times, not able to discern who is and isn’t a good source. Surely you realize that not everyone is considered by each community to be a credible voice to speak on their behalf. Thus when you quoted Conservative A in Story 235, you might not have realized that Conservative A is not well regarded in our community. He does not speak for a large group of people and I wish you had quoted some other folks as well. I see this kind of thing happen a lot and I think it erodes your authority and your brand. If people in the community feel that you are repeatedly ignoring their issues and viewpoints, they will not want to patronize you much longer. I hope you take steps to remedy these problems. If you’d like to talk further or if I can be of help, here’s my e-mail address and phone number.
I hope you see what I’m getting at here. Which letter would you be more likely to respond to, think about and even act on?
Have I characterized anything or anyone very poorly here? Do you disagree? Tell me why in the comments.