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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