Comments: Reading

Thanks for the compliment. Nice to meet you. Nice little blog you've got here too. I'll be back to visit again,

Posted by Kim Pearson at June 11, 2004 07:32 PM

Is it possible this is true because of the unusual way we use the word "liberal" in America? In Europe liberal still clearly refers to those doctrines espoused or clearly descended from the Enlightenment, with the emphasis being on the ability of individuals to fashion a working society out of their own efforts (without direction from Church or King).

In America, we've come to use the word "liberal" as a synonym for "favors a large government." Since journalists are often involved in making reports about the government, isn't it possible, maybe even likely, that after awhile they start viewing the world from the viewpoint of the government (not a particular Administration, but the State)? When you study an institution you often get comfortable with its unique way of seeing the world.

I've noticed the same thing you have - "I always think journalism is about paying attention, about what's going on and how it effects people. That's much more a liberal trait" but I would reverse the cause and effect. If you pay attention to government long enough, if you study its ways and read about why the people caught up in it are doing the things they are doing, then I think it's likely that after enough time you'll become a liberal, at least as the word is used here in America - someone who favors large government. You will, unless you've a strong reason for resisting - like overwhelming anger from your own grassroots directed against the State.

I don't mean to exaggerate the link between liberalism and big government, I realize the overlap is not 100% (sometimes they are total opposites, as with the Patriot Act), but the extent to which there is an overlap is also the extent to which liberalism is about seeing like a State. And to that extent, liberalism is about forgetting, and about not paying attention - not paying attention to worldviews created by close study of some other subject. If, for instance, you refuse to read the paper at all for 10 years, and you read no magazines and you watch no news, but instead only study poetry, then at the end of those 10 years I think your politics are likely to be less "liberal" (at least in the corrupted sense that we use the word here in America - personally, I think 10 years spent studying poetry is likely to make one more liberal in the classic 19th century sense). After 10 years studying poetry, the reasons why the government does the things it does will begin to seem strange and bizzare to you, while that which artists and poets do will make more sense. (I recall how radicals of the 60s were disappointed that more of the Beats didn't come out in favor of their radical politics - Tom Hayden, in his memoirs, remarks about being puzzled by the disconnect - many of the Beats argued that getting caught up in politics was the same as getting caught up in any other aspect of the Game, a view the radicals felt was surely wrong - to my mind, this was a classic case of artists seeing things one way while political activists saw it another way).

To give an example of where the people (in many countries) and the State often see differently - a man comes into your house and kills your spouse, then rapes and murders your children - then you track him down and kill him. The State arrests you for murder. Lots of people wonder why the State needs to go after you in this situation. From the point of view of the State, and based on a philisophical tradition that goes back to Hobbes, the legitimacy of the State is based on its monopoly on violence - any challenge to that monopoly needs to be dealt with harshly - yet many people don't see why a person isn't entitled to revenge in such a circumstance. I think you can argue that such people are failing to see the situation from the point of view of the State.

Posted by Lawrence Krubner at June 11, 2004 10:21 PM

You have to go back to how you define "journalist". The traditional definition from the dictionary states -

"the profession or practice of reporting about, photographing, or editing news stories for one of the mass media" AND "news reports presented factually without analysis"

This definition raises the question of why you need to consider political ideology in the first place unless you consider it impossible for your personal political biases to prevent factual and objective reporting and editing of "news." Those who do the analysis either through editorials, op-eds, or punditry through various mediums are not practicing journalism.

You seem to advocate a much larger scope of what defines journalism or at least what makes a journalist.

That may be problematic if you believe the point made in one of the quotes in the blog you referenced:

"I have witnessed enormous efforts by people who are true professionals working at legitimate news organizations to make their stories as fair as possible. "

The key point here is the use of the term "professionals". If you believe journalism is a profession, then there are certain aspects unqiue to professions (a la Samuel Huntington and others), namely that

the profession’s “internal jurisdictions,” those aspects of its professional character which make it a profession and which it largely controls - the adaptation of its expert knowledge and, based on that knowledge, the development of human expertise for practice by those in the profession.

If you begin to advocate political ideological traits for a profession whose practice by definition is supposed to be free of such bias (again, I don't consider editorials, talk radio, etc. to be journalism), than you can't really claim journalism is a profession. It's something larger whose expertise is then controlled outside the internal jurisdiction of those that practice it.

of course, I couldn't help noticing your own comment on "those dirty little details that don't get printed" implies that the "dirty little details" makes one only move in one direction ideologically..

The more interesting question is why do journalist feel the need to explore the ideological composition of its practicioners - unless they don't consider themselves to be a profession or they believe they've strayed collectively from the professional character that makes journalism a profession.

Posted by Col Steve at June 11, 2004 11:30 PM

It's always gratifying when something that you've written elicits such thoughtful discussion.

Col. Steve, I would submit to you that the attainment of the objectivity that you articulate requires more, not less, attention to unconscious or subconscious bias in news reporting. Psychology tells us that as human beings, we have selective perceptive, attention, and reception. We don't naturally see what we are not conditioned to see.

The first allegiance of professional journalists is, indeed to reporting the truth. Unlike, Col. Steve, columnists, etc. are not exempt: their assertions of fact must show due regard for the truth.

However, more than a century's effort at "objective" journalistic practice has taught us the importance of reaching beyond naive empiricism and professed neutrality in our effort to uphold that allegiance. As the authors of The Elements of Journalism noted, there is no illusion that journalists as individuals, are objective. The effort is to develop and promote objective methods of practice.

Posted by Kim Pearson at June 12, 2004 09:19 AM

Kim -
Thanks for expanding on the original points. I agree with your point that, to understand and develop the expert knowledge of the profession, journalists may find it appropriate to explore the psychological components of those in the profession. I think Anais Nin said something to the effect of we don't see things are they are, we see things as we are. However, another characteristic of professions is a self-policing mechanism. If I may, let me ask you the following:

(1) Who is the "client" of the journalist profession?

(2) What are the mechanisms in place for self-policing given the inherent difficulties you cite in your last paragraph?

You conclude with "The effort is to develop and promote objective methods of practice."

I would think selecting journalists based on professed ideology runs counter to the profession developing objective methods. It would appear more an admission of the impossibility of such methods and thus a sub-optimal solution at a lower standard: balance.

Posted by Col Steve at June 12, 2004 10:41 AM

Col. Steve,
You pose some good questions that a lot of us spend a fair amount of time debating. I'll take one at a time.

To the extent that journalism performs the public service of providing citizens with the information and tools needed to function effectively in a democracy, the "voting public" is the client. That's our ideal, but of course I put that in quotation marks because it's an abstraction. As Jay Rosen, the chair of NYU's Journalism Department points out, there is no monolithic "public" waiting for journalists to inform them.

To the extent that journalistic enterprises are businesses, the "clients" are suscribers and advertisers. News operations attempt to separate advertising and editorial -- the church-state separation, but the separation is often imperfect.

The mechanisms for self-policing can't be as strong for journalism as for other professions, because it's been concluded that formal licensing would probably violate the first amendment. Still, the promulgation of codes of ethics, accreditation standards for journalism programs, hiring standards, peer pressure, etc. are efforts at policing. As a free-lance journalist and journalism teacher, my credibility is at stake when I turn in work or send students to the workforce. Reputation matters a lot.

Finally, libel laws matter a lot too.

If you go to an industry website such as, you'll see that issues such as the public's trust in journalists are a major preoccuppation.

As for ideological litmus tests in hiring, I'm not in favor of that. I do understand the impulse however, which is to ensure that news decisions are informed by a breadth and depth of experience and perspectives.

Posted by Kim Pearson at June 12, 2004 01:15 PM

Kim - Thanks for the answers. I suppose it's a case of buyer beware if the client is the paying customer. I noticed you did not mention ombudsmen, although I've found in my primary print paper of choice, the Wash Post, that the ombudsmen program is rather weak - at least from challenging the non-editorial pages content.

As Nat Hentoff wrote:

Among the nation's more than 1,400 newspapers, there are approximately only 40 ombudsmen. National Public Radio has one, Jeffrey Dvorkin, and he recently explained why his species is so rare. Unsure that he should take that job at NPR, he had asked the advice of someone at The New York Times whom he'd met at journalism conferences. Sure, take the job, Dvorkin was told. But then Dvorkin asked why the Times doesn't have one.

"We have editors," was the self-satisfied answer he received.

That would seem like the foxes guarding the hen house.

And as he wrote later in the column:

An essential part of an ombudsman's function is not only to listen to readers' concerns, but also to ask questions of reporters and editors, thereby creating a culture of openness so that critics in the newsroom who have been ignored elsewhere in the paper will have an appellate court, as it were, to go to (sometimes not for attribution).

I can't speak for the veracity of his fact on the number of ombudsmen, but if true, that seems a rather telling statistic about the journalist profession.

Posted by Col Steve at June 12, 2004 06:48 PM

I had great hope for ombudsmen when I first started out, but as you note, the movement didn't spread.

I think the reason goes beyond newsrook arrogance (as real as that is). I don't think ombudspeople have had the impact on readers that had been hoped. I don't have research to back this up -- I'm just speculating, so I could be completely off-base. However, I think that if a Wasington Post ombudsperson can be shown to have helped improve readers' belief in the paper's credibility (thereby, in marketing terms, increasing brand loyalty) more news organizations would have them. I do think that WaPo and NPR have made a good faith effort, because the people who have served in the ombudsman position are some of the best -known and respected reporters in the country. People in the industry really do pay attention to what they say.

One unusual thing that we do at the college newspaper that I advise is that we have factcheckers. That's a practice borrowed from magazines. Most newspapers depend on editors' judgments about accuracy and libel because of the shortness of the news cycle. But we, too, think of it as the editors' job to respond to readers' questions and complaints. Even at the college level, it's not something to be taken lightly. My editors and I have even been subjected to threats of violence at times.

If you want to understand the way journalists think, understand that reality. Most of what we're talking about isn't on your mind on a daily basis -- you're too busy chasing the story, working a 10-14 hour day. In addition, you should understand that at most newspapers, the pay for even experienced reporters is often just in the $30,000 range, means that the people who do this job are often young and inexperienced. (The elite papers pay much better, but pay and job security at most of them is not what it used to be.) Turnover is extremely high.

There are a lot of concerns about whether this industry even has a future, and what that future will look like. That's why people like me are playing with media such as this, so we can understand where the industry is going and prepare our students to play a useful role.

Posted by Kim Pearson at June 13, 2004 04:37 AM

If you can get past the absurd right-wing bias in this article, and the pathetic pot-shots it takes at the New York Times, I thought this article made an interesting comparison between British and American journalistic cultures:

Short version: in Britain journalists are poorly paid, disrespected, often have no college degree, and Britain has 11 vibrant and interesting national newspapers. In America journalists are part of the establishment, reasonably paid, as respected as any other white collar professional, and America has only 3 very formal, some might say dull, national newspapers.

Posted by Lawrence Krubner at June 13, 2004 11:45 AM

Wow. Interesting discussion.

Just a couple of comments I want to respond to while I have a moment.

Col Steve

of course, I couldn't help noticing your own comment on "those dirty little details that don't get printed" implies that the "dirty little details" makes one only move in one direction ideologically..

What did you expect? I'm liberal, after all. I have a belief in government transparency and an equal belief that knowing the "dirty little secrets" of government would incline most people to believe that government transparency, and a lot of it, could help eliminate a lot of unsavory behavior.

The more interesting question is why do journalist feel the need to explore the ideological composition of its practicioners - unless they don't consider themselves to be a profession or they believe they've strayed collectively from the professional character that makes journalism a profession.

The simple answer is that the Right has been so successful in its advertising campaign to convince the public that the media is overwhelmingly and unfairly "liberal" that journalists themselves have started to wonder if its true.

Posted by Anne at June 15, 2004 10:15 AM

Anne -
I really value your thoughts and admire your willingness to "get out the foxhole and expose yourself to fire." But, I have to wonder about your response here.

You write in the original post (and forgive me I just don't know how to put a text box around pasted sections)

"I always think journalism is about paying attention, about what's going on and how it effects people. That's much more a liberal trait than a conservative one (in my definitions) so it doesn't surprise me to read that few "conservatives" choose journalism for a career. And, until someone proves that "conservatives" are being kept out of journalism deliberately, that's how I'm seeing it, that "conservatives" don't choose to go into journalism in the same numbers that "liberals" or "moderates" do."

So, you are saying liberals are more inclined to become journalist. Kim was stating that as much as we would want people to set their biases aside when the report "the news," the fact is that "there is no illusion that journalists as individuals, are objective."

But now you are telling me it is NOT the fact that liberals are more likely to be journalists and they (because they are human, not liberals) naturally bring some of their bias into their reporting is the reason people believe there is some liberal bias in the media, but instead it is some vast right-wing advertising campaign?

"The simple answer is that the Right has been so successful in its advertising campaign to convince the public that the media is overwhelmingly and unfairly "liberal" that journalists themselves have started to wonder if its true."

What exactly does that comment say about journalists?

I wouldn't limit the "dirty little secrets" to government..the scope includes private sector, non-profits, lobbyists, etc..Just do not believe sure either side has a monopoly on keeping secrets..

Posted by Col Steve at June 15, 2004 02:33 PM

Well, let's take these in order.

I use the blockquote command to make a text box, but copying and using quotes or whatever works just as well.

Yes, I believe believe that someone with liberal views is more likely to become a journalist or that someone drawn to journalism will grow more liberal as they see hows individuals fare in "the system." (Please understand, I'm not saying "the system" is necessarily evil. Any human endeavor is likely to have flaws. Another function I think journalists could serve is to point out those who "get caught" in bureaucracy, helping us identify and remedy problems.)

What I don't believe is that (most) professional journalists, liberal or otherwise, deliberately set out to present biased coverage. (Let's leave the wingnuts out and just discuss serious, professionals, okay?)

Journalists are always asking awkward questions about how something will affect "the people" or searching for the "human interest" angle to a story, so it's possible to interpret their coverage as biased to someone more interested, for example, in the well-being of the Nabisco company than in the well-being of the floor cleaners who work at Nabisco.

That's where I think the "advertising campaign" comes in.

Those protective of corporate interests decided that public mistrust of the media, journalists, would be a good protection against revelations of corporate wrongdoing.

If they just dismiss stories about malfeasance in high places, excess corporate profits at the expense of labor, outrageous executive payment and perks, etc., if they can just convince the public to discount these stories, attributing some of the most critical coverage as a left-wing "liberal conspiracy" then they can use that to cover up wrong-doing.

Ask yourself...if some major national media outlet had covered Enron before the crash, warning people that it was a house of cards being run by profiteering criminals taking advantage of Republican political connections to rewrite the laws to suit themselves, maximize their own profits, and let them put the screws to an entire state purely for short-term monetary gain, how many people would have believed it?

Most people would have seen the word "Republican" and dismissed the stories as, at best, gross exaggerations from a liberal media.

In retrospect, the story would have been proven to be quite true, but no one would have believed it at that time because it was a criticism, even if an oblique one, of the Right by the infamously "liberal" media.

Not only has a large part of the public become aware of the so-called liberal media (SCLM) myth, but journalists are now finding it necessary to investigate and clear themselves of the charge.

I'd call that a massively successful advertising campaign.

Posted by Anne at June 15, 2004 03:21 PM