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Threading the Needle
Worry less about news partisanship, a media maven argues, and more about accuracy and verification.

About a month ago I wrote about Wisconsin Reporter, one of the new news organizations that have sprung up in recent years to provide free content to existing news organizations.

Debate over WR’s legitimacy turns mainly on the question of whether it might have a particular ideological agenda, and whether that agenda is at least in part concealed because the operation keeps its funders secret.


 
Bill Lueders
Bill Lueders
of another “free news” organization, Wisconsin Watch (which I also discussed in my column), recently delved into these questions as well. Lueders reported on a panel discussion in which he took part at the Wisconsin Newspaper Association annual convention representing his employer, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, the parent of Wisconsin Watch.

Another panelist was Steven Greenhut, vice president of journalism for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which runs Wisconsin Reporter and similar outfits in several other states.

Also on the panel was Lisa Graves, executive director of the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy. Like both Wisconsin Reporter and Wisconsin Watch, CMD collects and publishes information about topics and organizations in the public eye.

But CMD’s mission is distinctly different from those other two. As Lueders notes, CMD targets “exposing corporate spin and government propaganda.” It critiques the media, but it also works closely with certain media organizations, most notably The Nation, a progressive journal of opinion and reporting. Its stories aren’t offered up for direct publication in the state’s daily newspapers. And it is unabashed about its activism.

In his column on the panel, Lueders drew a distinction between his employers at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and Wisconsin Watch, on the one hand – and on the other, not just CMD, but also Wisconsin Reporter:

We are not just nonpartisan but non-ideological, a distinction worth drawing in this brave new world of nonprofit news.

 
Steven Greenhut
Last week WR published a rebuttal of sorts to Lueders in this column by Greenhut.

Greenhut’s article is worth reading in its entirety as a further window into how our media landscape continues to evolve. In response to Lueders’ claim about partisanship and ideology, he asserted:

Lueders’ operation does great work and is not partisan, but the stories are based on a clear left-of-center perspective. That perspective is so ingrained in newsrooms that reporters often can’t see it. It’s how almost everyone around them thinks, so their thinking must be unbiased.

I had mixed reactions to that comment.

One of the great 20th century studies of journalism is the book Deciding What’s News by Herbert Gans. In that book – based on his close observation, from the inside, of the workings of several print and broadcast news organizations in the 1970s – Gans suggests that the values of journalism, at least as it had come to be practiced by that time, was heavily, if unwittingly,  rooted in values of early 20th century Progressive reformists, including faith in meritocracy, opposition to political machines and to demagogues, and skepticism of bureaucracy.

My own observation, from having worked in five newspapers over the last three decades, is that what Gans observed then remains on target: Those reformist values do animate much of contemporary journalism – at least at its best.

It’s worth noting that while the Progressive movement has been strongly embraced by Wisconsin liberals especially, Gans contends the movement itself occupied a complex ideological position that was neither reflexively left nor right.

And it also must be pointed out that in our supposedly reform-oriented newsrooms, huge blind spots exist – including, but not limited to, reflections of social class and a habitual deference to official voices and authorities.

One small illustration. Back when President Obama spoke at Master Lock, a Politico reporter made an absolutely silly goof, claiming that the “Wisconsin 1848” state flag hanging at the factory was the “local union” flag. From that erroneous assumption the reporter spun a falsely-premised lead that Obama was clearly signaling his backing for state employees’ unions against Gov. Scott Walker in divided Wisconsin.

Sure, Obama has been working to shore up labor support, and I’m sure choosing a unionized manufacturer was no accident. But the rest of that? Completely puffed up.

I thought the best commentary on the whole gaffe came from Mike Elk, of In These Times, who wrote  that “there is a fundamental problem Politico's screw-up exposes: workers not being quoted in stories pertaining to issues that affect them.”

But back to Greenhut. I think he has a point when he says that newsrooms have a certain common well of values that inform what stories they find important and what ones they don’t. On the claim that that’s “a clear left-of-center perspective,” however, he’s on much shakier ground.

I also accept his assertion that:

Franklin and its journalists don’t support or advocate for a particular party, and we can point to many examples of stories that embarrass Republican politicians. A philosophical point of view does not equal partisan activism.

And I think he gets one point in particular very right:

Reporters believe they are professionally trained to be unbiased. They analyze an issue, speak to the interested parties, and produce a report that impartially presents the facts. That people on both sides of the political spectrum often criticize the final work only reinforces to journalists that they are doing their job fairly. But is it true that journalists can be free of bias and that those who admit theirs are not really part of the club?

All this left me with a couple of thoughts.

First, Greenhut’s description of the Franklin Center’s philosophical grounding seemed to me to be a far more candid description of its agenda than what I have seen in the past.

Now, maybe that agenda has always been more straightforwardly presented than I give it credit for. Yet what I’ve seen on the WR website and in past articles and interviews with its founders has always sounded slippery on this point. Whether that’s fair or not, Greenhut is anything but slippery, and that’s to his credit.

And I still contend that if such an operation wants to claim the moral high ground of being an impartial news organization and not merely a source of pure opinion journalism, its interests and those of readers are better served by full disclosure of its funding sources. Greenhut again takes exception to that position, but I find his argument unconvincing.

Second, Greenhut’s basic argument seemed to me to resonate with what one leading contemporary media thinker has telling us for some time.

New York University’s Jay Rosen – whose work I frequently link to here and on Twitter – has been urging the media business to rethink the whole traditional definition of “objectivity.”

Rosen has dubbed that stance derisively as “The View from Nowhere.” Of course journalists are coming from a philosophical frame of reference, he says. So, he argues, they should be more candid about acknowledging that and how it informs their work. And they can do so without sacrificing journalistic integrity or professionalism.

I thought Rosen might have some interesting things to say about Greenhut’s commentary. So last Saturday morning I sent him a link to it and asked him about it. He did not disappoint, writing back:

I think it's a complex issue that everyone has some incentive to simplify.

The View from Nowhere journalists – “we're non-partisan and non-ideological” – have a weaker and weaker hand to play every year. But the change is so gradual, so drip-drip-drip that it's likely they don't know what's going on.

I think the combination of a point of view, fully disclosed, with high standards (of) verification and professionalism, which is the formula Greenhut defends as his organization's own, has much more validity than View from Nowhere journalists think. And it is on the rise. When he says, for example, that the bias comes in story selection and the basic premises of the reporting, that's dead on.

But it’s not that simple, he continues: being “scrupulous and serious” remains critical.

It's not enough to have a valid rhetorical claim. You have to actually execute on it. The point of view should be fully described and disclosed. This is getting there, but I would like to see more on the political vision underlying the journalistic work. Also, high standards of verification must be maintained everywhere.

On that latter point, Rosen pointed to a quote from the Greenhut column. Greenhut wrote:

I knew many reporters where I worked and they almost always strived to be fair, but they often reminded me of that New York reporter who famously declared that Richard Nixon could not possibly have won the election. She didn’t know a single person who voted for him. Groupthink is common in all professions, including newspapers.

Says Rosen, in his note to me:

The "New York reporter" he refers to? That's actually Pauline Kael, famous film critic for the New Yorker magazine, and the anecdote that he's using there, which is a standard story in the right wing blogosphere, is almost completely fictional.

(Here’s what the Wikipedia article about Kael, which Rosen points me to, says about the Nixon story.)

Rosen also dings Greenhut’s misattribution to H.L. Mencken the notion that “freedom of the press belongs only to those who own one.” The actual author of that aphorism was New Yorker press critic A.J. Liebling.

Rosen concludes:

It's one of the most famous quotes in American journalism history. These things are not difficult to check. The use of the Kael anecdote in precisely the way that the right wing-blogosphere uses it does not give me confidence.

*

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2 Comments
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Jay_Warner Posted: 3/22/2012 9:39:23 PM
 0   0    

Excellent discussion. difficult to follow with all the characters, but you led me through it! Clearly, those who claim a high road of 'impartiality' and 'non-partisan' need to get their terms down carefully, before they claim to be holier than anyone else. this piece is getting much closer to explaining what I would like to see in news, _and_ in opinions.
Geoff D Posted: 3/22/2012 7:02:32 PM
 0   1    

Excellent, intelligent, thoughtful and serious piece. Nice job, Mr. Gunn.
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