April 16, 2009


Attytood's Will Bunch brings two telling pieces of journalism news to our attention - first, that Andrew Rosenthal, the New York Times editorial page editor, admits that it's easier to get a slot on its letters-to-the-editor page if you are a conservative:

I’ll be honest: Because of the nature of our readers, letter writers who defend Republican, conservative or right-wing positions on many topics have a higher shot at being published.

And second, that Cynthia Tucker -- the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution -- is being moved up and out of her slot in an apparent move to woo back conservative suburban readers. Will says:

[...] For the first time in generations, the state’s leading editorial page finally will have abandoned its mission as a progressive voice in favor of a carefully constructed mirage of “balance” — designed not to tell the truth, whether it’s unpopular or not, as much as to mollify conservative readers.

He lays out the case for why journalists have become far too accommodating to conservatives:

What's the one liberal value that journalists retain as we grow long in the tooth and rise up the salary ladder? Liberal guilt. Politicians have played on this successfully for 40 years, ever since too many newsrooms cowered from Spiro Agnew calling us "nattering nabobs of negativism." As I wrote about in my recent book "Tear Down This Myth," Ronald Reagan's "teflon presidency" was in good measure due to journalists fearful they'd be accused of liberal bias with a too aggressive posture.

At every newspaper, big and small, the short-term social and economic incentives are far too often weighted in favor of "mushy middle" journalism. Even if your editor backs you (and that's not a given), there's still the publisher - and he doesn't want to hear complaints about his paper's "liberal bias" at the next Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

Will points out something I've been saying for years about the so-called "liberal" media: They're usually social liberals, but policy conservatives. While it's rare that a journalist gives a damn about your skin color, who you sleep with or what you smoke, they're still mostly establishment types who don't want to rock the boat - or their 401(k)s. They believe far too fervently in the judgment of an elite class, because they see themselves as part of that elite.

That explains what he describes here:

Did you ever watch the Sunday political talk shows, and the regular cavalcade of aggressively conservative pols and pundits, who usually outnumber and outtalk the handful of passive "liberals," many of whom aren't even that liberal? The Beltway journalists who book those shows tend to book "liberals" who are a reflection of themselves -- low-key, just-a-tad-to-the-left-of-centrists -- while bringing on more rabid conservatives a) to show that they're open minded and not "biased liberals" and b) because they find wild-eyed conservative entertaining. Real DFH liberals scare the heck out of them, and God only knows what they might blurt out about something like NBC/MSNBC/CNBC parent General Electric, also a major defense contractor.

Remember the debate on President Obama's stimulus package a few months back? Every time I flipped on cable TV, there was a 30-second factual (usually) description of the proposal, followed by five minutes of loud conservative criticism. That's how the "liberal media" shows that it's really fair and balanced.

Even so, I'm still a little stunned and slightly confused by Rosenthal's comment about over-accommodating conservative letter writers because of "the nature of our readers." Does that mean that the majority of the letters-to-the-editor in the New York Times take center-left to liberal positions on most issues? If so, that may not be the nature of the Times' readers but the nature of America, since most surveys show that most Americans hold center-left views on most issues. But instead a reader of the letters page, seeing an unfair weighting to conservative writers, will be getting a false impression of what people out there are thinking.

It's true that the Times' takes liberal positions on many issues, but not all. For example, its editorial page did not aggressively question the rush to war in Iraq, nor did some of the hyperbolic "news" coverage of the run-up by Judy Miller -- and like everyone else the Times ignored or undercovered massive protests before the invasion. But presumably the editorial page also overweighted conservative pro-war letters and underweighted the DFHs who couldn't understand why America was invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. That's balance?

A year later, the Philadelphia Inquirer made a bold decision (and correct, in my opinion) that the Bush presidency was such a danger to America that it ran a series of 21 editorials calling for the election of John Kerry. Yet every day it gave equal space to someone arguing that Bush should be re-elected, so was it really that bold of a move after all? That's balance, but what's the point? Check out this great riff from Jay Rosen on the bogusness of "he said, she said" journalism for a broader perspective.

Ironically, as the Atlanta piece notes, none of this contorting to accommodate right-wing critics has brought in any right-wing support or, more importantly, news readership -- conservatives still hate us, and no amount of sucking up will change that. That said, what's the harm in bending over backwards to overly represent or kowtow to conservative viewpoints? Well, when pundits still believe that America is a center-right nation on the morning after the election of a center-left president and large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, that might offer a window into how the greater political debate gets warped by this odd charade.

Journalists should only have one great mission in our career. It is not the quest for something called balance. It is the search for the truth. Period. No matter how uncomfortable that makes some people. Cynthia Tucker knows that, and now she's paying a price.

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