August 3, 2004
Bias Critics: Meet Newsroom Joe, Apolitical Man
Journalists who call themselves "moderates" in surveys are trying to agree with conservatives by declaring: "My political attachments should be irrelevant." And yet this self-report is jeered at, as if it had no significance. I think it does have significance, especially because there's another theory out there: political leanings shoud be transparent. This column ran in Editor & Publisher last week.
Originally published by Editor & Publisher (Aug. 1, 2004 edition) as “Meet ‘Joe Moderate’.” See also E & P editor Greg Mitchell’s column, “Bias Numbers: Less Than Meets the Eye? Editor & Publisher devoted a chunk of resources—reporters time, editors’ columns, space in the magazine—to getting behind the bias debate by taking a hard look at a single question: are newsrooms too dominated by liberals? See “The Bias Wars,” by Joe Strupp with Shawn Moynihan and Charles Geraci. Also see this page of readers reactions.
By Jay Rosen
Editor & Publisher
August 01, 2004
When 54% of national journalists and 61% of local journalists decline the labels “liberal” and “conservative” and identify instead as moderates, according to the Pew Center, what are they really saying? It’s possible, I suppose, that they’re all Joe Lieberman Democrats or Arlen Specter Republicans, which would be the political reporter’s definition of a moderate. But it seems more likely they are making a statement, attempting to refute labels like “liberal” or “conservative.” The Pew survey left no slot for “those terms are not meaningful in my work.”
It’s not so much that all newsroom moderates stand in the middle, ideologically, as that many of them stand to one side of the premise that their personal ideology even matters — or should matter. Their numbers are unknown. These journalists develop a kind of apolitical interest in politics, and sometimes a “pox on all their houses” attitude (also called cynicism) about political parties, activists, issues, and operatives.
“The only way to look at a politician is down” has been called newsroom wisdom over the years, and it expresses a kind of savage neutrality that is not un-journalistic, but very much in the American newsroom’s grain. “Yeah, put me down for ‘moderate,’” can be a statement of disbelief.
On the believing side of journalism, where we also have to look, I have often heard it said with pride by newsroom inhabitants: “Worked with Joe on the city desk for 19 years and have no idea if he’s left, right, middle or upside down.” Pause for effect. “And I couldn’t care less.”
It is ridiculous for movement conservatives to roll their eyes at attitudes like this. The journalist hailing “Newsroom Joe” is actually calling on the right’s own wisdom. It’s like the “colorblind society.” According to many, admissions counselors can recognize color but agree to be “blind” to it, which conservatives certainly think is possible or they would not be recommending it so strongly in forum after forum.
Are judges not supposed to have an ideology? No, they’re not supposed to impose one on us. They are to bracket their own beliefs and judge the case on the law alone, the facts alone. And is this detachment-from-views possible, even though difficult? The Learned Right and the Movement Right, if I am hearing them correctly over many years of contest, say: Yes, possible. Desirable, too. The judges we appoint should all have that discipline.
Well, newsrooms have their version of that discipline. Some (and I am talking about a portion of the moderates in studies like Pew’s) strongly believe their political affiliation is not so much private as irrelevant — because a principle is involved: each case in the news judged on the facts alone.
That kind of statement should be taken more seriously in the bias wars. So many who have decided they don’t believe it also fail to study it. They see “moderate” as concealing the overwhelmingly Democratic cast in newsrooms.
But a lot of those moderates are trying to agree with conservatives in declaring: “My political attachments should play absolutely no role.” And yet this self-report is jeered at, as if it had no significance. I believe it does have significance, but we cannot know what that is without a) subtler studies taking seriously these “moderates,” and b) an interpretation of what “Newsroom Joe,” apolitical man, is saying.
For there is a counter-argument out there, and it’s sometimes journalist vs. journalist. This other view states that Newsroom Joe is wrong to think that where you’re coming from, politically, is irrelevant. On the contrary, it’s a helpful thing to know. If journalists are more up front about their affiliations and leanings, then their reporting and its truthfulness can more easily be judged. From this point of view, disclosure of one’s politics is not a sin. It makes the journalist more human, possibly more believable.
Several months ago, Dan Okrent, public editor at The New York Times, practiced disclosure in his inaugural column: “Draw a line from the Times’ editorials on the left side to William Safire’s column over on the right: you could place me just about at the halfway point. But on some issues I veer from the noncommittal middle. I’m an absolutist on free trade and free speech, and a supporter of gay rights and abortion rights who thinks that the late Cardinal John O’Connor was a great man. I believe it’s unbecoming for the well-off to whine about high taxes, and inconsistent for those who advocate human rights to oppose all American military action.”
Newsroom Dan reveals his political views (however “moderate”) but this lessens not at all his duty to be fair, honest, accurate, open to persuasion, and unreflexive in his thinking. Between Newsroom Dan and Newsroom Joe there is bound to be a debate worth watching. When are bias critics going to get interested in that?
After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…
See also PressThink: Editor and Publisher Wants Answers: Are Newsrooms Too Liberal? Very Tricky Question. (June 17, 2004)
Posted by Jay Rosen at August 3, 2004 11:13 AM
"For there is a counter-argument out there, and it's sometimes journalist vs. journalist. This other view states that Newsroom Joe is wrong to think that where you're coming from, politically, is irrelevant. On the contrary, it's a helpful thing to know."
I'm not sure how to say this without being too overly disrespectful...;-D
...A TOTALLY AND COMPLETELY BIASED WRITER can, in actual fact, report a fact which is factual.
The writing-off of a fact as biased-opinion, or slanted opinion, or un-truth.. Well, that is the primary cause of the echo-chamber effect.
The determination of the difference between fact and opinion...? Knowing personal things about the author doesn't make that question any easier. What knowing personal things about the author does is make it easier for the author to sell snake-oil. That's the PR value of blogging, and you just hafta ask The Scobleizer how to do this, as if you don't already know.
It's like in school, you tell people private things that you don't tell "your non-best friends", and that is one special aspect of a "best-friendship". Bloggers manipulate those instincts, some intentionally and some instinctually and some in spite of their best efforts to be "non-biased".
Journalists do to, if they're not capital-J journalists and/or yellow journalists. Bloggers.. with so few exceptions you could essentially say "without exception" "truthfully".. see that in the media, but can't look at another blogger with the same non-bias, for some "funny" reason...;-D
"If journalists are more up front about their affiliations and leanings, then their reporting and its truthfulness can more easily be judged. From this point of view, disclosure of one's politics is not a sin. It makes the journalist more human, possibly more believable."
That goes to my point above.
That's the primary skill of a snake-oil salesperson, making a lie seem believable. Like Dan Bricklin's supposed "article" on the DNC blogging.
Give ya a couple examples:
Go back and note the press on Dean, and you'll see those "journalists" who referred to him as "Dr. Dean", which leads one to believe that Dr. Dean isn't like the OTHER LAME-ASS POLITICIANS, but a DOCTOR fighting AGAINST THE POLITICIANS. (Which is why Gore's recommendation, imo/o, put the end to the facade.) Sure, you can point to a journalist that you know would NEVER vote for Dean, referring to him as "Dr. Dean".
That's either one pretty stupid journalist, or one trying to cover-up their anti-Dean bias, or one who is just imitating what other journalists have written.
The fact is Mr. Dean WAS a doctor, of course... Thaz a fact.
The interpretation of the fact...??? ??? What was your all's interpretation, at the time? Knowing the politics of the various and numerous writers effect that interpretation...??
Still the readers' call, afaik.
Another example, right from this article:
"Newsroom Joe" is a fictitious person, and "Newsroom Dan" is a real person. "Newsroom Dan" is not in quotes.
Which are we being led (or, rather, attempting to be led if notice the subtlety) to believe is the proper model?
Purely objective writing is mathematically impossible, I gather in my experience.
Beats crap outta lies and subtle "truths", but it takes effort to attempt to discern these things so why bother?
As a "Bias Critic" - an interesting expression itself - I will note some of the issues are repeating themselves in this blog.
There is a view that bias does not matter, that facts are facts and when reported, the discerning reader does not need to care about the politics or belief system of the writer.
There is a view that bias does not exist, with few exceptions, because most of the writers are "moderates."
There is a view that bias and passionate reporting, slanting the story as desired in an activist style, is fine.
Each of these views is true - and are denial of the problems inherent in bias.
In a way, the subject is no longer relevant. Those that cannot see the problem will lose their readership - down to the core of people who have the same worldview - and market share will dictate the winners of the bias wars.
However, for those that care, there are real effects of bias, and each of the above views seek in one way or another to rationalize or deny those effects - to the detriment of the reader - and the writer.
There are rapidly changing worldviews. The writing from a comfortable antiquated somewhat aloof view has been tolerable for years. The "Grey Lady" is more than a moniker. The name denotes a wise, comfortable grand-dame interpreting the facts for us.
Well, now the grand-dame does not have all of her marbles. She is somewhat less than connected to reality. Moreover, her interpretations do not fit. The explanations are dissonant. The strain to match observable reality to the stories from the grand-dame becomes great enough evoke puzzled "huh?" in the reading.
Facts are facts. There are so many of them. Pick some. Report on them. Your choice reflects your worldview. The reader's worldview will see the words you choose, and interpret them into their worldview.
Moderates self-describe as moderates because they see themselves as centrist. I am sure Lenin thought himself centrist. As did Attila.
The terms left-right, liberal-conservative, Dem-Repub, do in fact mean things, but are frequently put up as straw horses in the bias discussion. "I'm not biased because the term liberal doesn't mean anything."
The bias war is about having worldviews that change with the times, change with the realities, and pursue - never achieving - objective truths.
I will argue that this is the war, and that mainstream journalists are losing the war, busy denying that it is even occurring.
But first, this message from the non-sponsor:
'Scuse please, but either I'm blind.. you are hallucinating, or the Thought Police (and why is Blogaria SO AGAINST the Thought Police and SO FOR being the Thought Police themselves I've not yet managed to reason myself around...;-)..
Well, Mark's post (apparently) illucidated a FASCINATING (to me) response:
I didn't say anything about not liking the facts. I like them so much that I want to see all of them.
A strict definition of "all" would imply you are looking for Pure Objectivity, which is a faux-pas in Blogaria. Many have written on this (but incorrectly, because they use this as justification for why there bloggin' opinion is more important than any facts, and "there is no 'truth' in facts" and all that mumbo-jumbo.
Not just those filtered through a belief system that is monotone.
Oooops. Bias came out, and if you find news a monotone then you are tone deaf due to reading too many blogs. The LOUD BOMBASTIC VOLUME of blogs will do that, I've noticed. That's why I'll lay off entirely for periods, besides not having the LEISURE TIME some-a you all apparently have.
(Funny it hasn't been realized that blogging is an interesting use of leisure time, posing as education.. or, rather, not by many. Not all baaaad.. and not ALL just killing leisure time.. but it's called leisure time nonetheless, for a reason.)
A reporter with an agile mind, able to see the realities from as many viable worldviews that have currency. That would be a reporter worth following! Know any?"
The need for the mixing of viable worldviews is an interesting impossibility. I say "impossibility" because all worldviews are mixed (and mixed up to an extent, as you pointed out), regardless of whether they are viable or not.
What is personally revealing and interesting, to me, is that you are subsetting who you would possibly follow down to writers.
I wouldn't do that, but given a list of bloggers and a list of journalists solely to select from, and that'd be what-the-Great-'They'-call a non-brainer.
Notice the one essential ingredient of a blogger (besides having the leisure time) is wanting to be a thought-leader (in writing).
To lead the clerisy.
This following stuff is a novel idea, in Blogaria, but don't see much chance of it spreading around tho'.
That'd mess up the (supposed) non-hierarchical, wiki-like potential that all Net-citizens contractually signed up for when they started using a computer, according to a comment I recall from the World of Ends debacle, year ago.
You see, we are all identical and that rules out any possiblity that anybody would lead or follow, according to the mavens of these havens...
Literary...? Never been called that, so I take that as something of a back-handed compliment...;-) As I've noted, it was impossible for me to see the context in which your reply was made to one "Mark". So it turns out we agree more-or-less on point 1. I use blogs as news sources, however. VERY selectively. I treat them, generally, with MUCH MORE skepticism because they mix fact and opinion SO casually. And they psych the reader out with all the personal stuff. But there are occasional useful facts to be found.
Problem is the time, which is why the Technorati Police and "Social Network Software" pseudo-gurus are trying to build a perfect ranking system, so the best is forced to the top. Naturally, best would be bloggers to these fellow-bloggers, and the rankings are adjusted to skew the results in the WRONG direction, from everything I've read on Google, Technorati and such ranking "algorithms".
"Heard" that CNN interviewed the Technorati folks at the DNC, well-meaning that they both are attempting to be. This would be, to me, a major gripe. I didn't hear any of that interview, but somehow just doubt any of this was given any scrutiny by anyone, or it wouldn't continue as long as it has.
Points 2 and 3 however, are not in fact the case.
I spend more time reading reputable news than blogs, and it is hardly consistent. In fact, in my reading, it's often the case that right in the same article there are many conflicting views expressed. And between Reuters and AP and NYT and Washington Post and BBC (and I used to have time to read more international sources, but haven't lately)..
..well, you can say I'm getting one news source and a monotone. I observe otherwise. Give me a topic, and I'll get you entirely different versions of facts-as-they-exist, from these supposedly one-dimensional sources. The variation in pro-War and anti-War sentiments, pro-activist anti-activist on each individual case.. etc.
(Give me just about any complex issue, and I can get a diversity of opinion/facts from these sources, but it won't likely be all that exciting, and it won't all be the opinions that bloggers wanna hear, which is primarily their own and those that agree with them. So give me a topic if ya wanna, but not today...;-)
Reporters are people. I think you pointed that out earlier. Of course, they carry their biases, Points-of-View, and prejudices with them.
On most subjects - who cares? If there is not a collective groupthink happening, then one article will be biased in one way, another in another. No net effect, just "noise" that can be safely ignored.
If there is groupthink happening, and like-mindedness to the presentation of stories in some sort of meta-narrative, then the random static of bias actually moves the needle on the reception.
Certainly, bias must be both present in the written word, and perceived by the reader in order for it to be bias.
Certainly if the reader is in agreement with the POV, then there is no bias.
If however, a significant portion of the mainstream media sees things, filters things, and are self-referentially rewarded by their peers to support a meta-narrative, and there is a significant population that does not buy the narrative, then there will be cries of bias.
This comes back to my earlier points. There are many worldviews. Some of them are valid and current worldviews. The mainstream media have self-selected worldviews. The public is at the least divided, and do not buy the worldview that the press have.
This is not simply left-right, liberal-conservative, Dem-Repub. There is also pro/anti war, internationalist-and less so, military critical or supportive, ...
Some of it is superheated due to the partisan times, but this has been happening for over a decade, and is growing year-by-year according to the surveys.
"If however, a significant portion of the mainstream media sees things, filters things, and are self-referentially rewarded by their peers to support a meta-narrative, and there is a significant population that does not buy the narrative, then there will be cries of bias."
Btw, I'm not here to change your views on whether "most of the major U.S. outlets have consistent meta-narratives that they put their stories on given subjects within."
I read news and I see a very INconsistent presentation of "the facts". I frequently see this within the same article, which I presume is normally just a blundered attempt at "balanced reporting".
But when you're talking a blind, consistent meta-narrative and you're talking journalism and blogs, then you're talking about jumping from the fire into the pan.
How about the meta-narrative that blogs are a totally new and totally unique form of journalism??
Now you can obviously point to a variety of political opinion in all the blogs, but it's opinion based in the same fundamentally ungrounded assumptions.
Among them, that people that read the most know the most, and should be running the world. (I recall Joi Ito (featured in AP or Newsweek or somebody's write-up on blogs, btw) blogging that "12 people (ie bloggers) organized properly could run the world" (approx) a couple years back or so. And it didn't raise even an eyebrow, at the time. Nor did Joi Ito's $3500 cell-phone bill he got one month, iirc, for some reason. But I digress.)
"If there is not a collective groupthink happening, then one article will be biased in one way, another in another. No net effect, just "noise" that can be safely ignored."
I'm afraid that IS what is happening, but the effect of blogs does not, in actual fact, net out.
Or the Trippi-D Crusade wouldn'a netted $50 MILLION from poor grandmother's (according to Trippi himself) amongst others. (We'll probably never find out WHO all contributed to the Dean Campaign, from what country, nor whether "insurgents" around the world funneled money into the campaign or not, btw.)
"If there is groupthink happening, and like-mindedness to the presentation of stories in some sort of meta-narrative, then the random static of bias actually moves the needle on the reception."
You would think so, but there's no better example of groupthink than Blogaria.
And, unfortunately, you WAY underestimate the efficacy of bloggers as PR instruments, John. They may be amatuers in all respects, but that doesn't mean they aren't good at what they do, just that it isn't journalism.