Journalism’s Dangerous Shift from Impartiality to Advocacy

Those of us who have been in the news business for more than a few years (for me it’s more than 30 years) have learned a hard truth in the past decade or so: There has been a palpable shifting of the lines between what we learned journalism ideally should be and what it has become.

Coming as I did as a neophyte into the cavernous news room of the Chicago Tribune back in 1969 right out of college, I had editors who made sure that I didn’t stray from accurate, evenhanded and unbiased reporting into opinion and rumor. When I did, I heard about it from some crabby City Editor.

An even worse sin at the Tribune was the sin of omission. That occurred if you took it upon yourself NOT to report something because doing so might not coincide with YOUR interpretation of the event or your political predilection.

“The only thing worse than writing a story filled with mistakes and lies is to ignore and bury a story because it violates your viewpoints,” a Tribune editor once chided a fellow reporter. “That’s like a doctor withholding life-saving medicine from a patient he may not like.”

That’s what happened last week when most of the media decided to ignore the story about Imran Awan, a Pakistani IT staffer who worked for several House Democrats including Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Awan is allegedly at the center of a scheme that involved double-charging the House for IT equipment, and may also have exposed secret House information online.

The Daily Caller reported for months that Awan and his family provided I.T. services to not just Wasserman Schultz but 80 prominent congressional Democrats across key committees such as the House Intelligence Committee. It also found that Awan and his brother secretly took $100,000 of Iraqi money, owed money to an Iraqi politician who’s been linked to Hezbollah, and possibly kept their stepmother “in ‘capivity’” for better access to offshore money.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Last Monday, The Daily Caller reported that the FBI had “seized smashed computer hard drives” from Awan’s home in addition to the Capitol Police’s seizure of “computer equipment tied to [Wasserman Schultz].”

Imran was arrested last Monday at Dulles airport as he tried to leave the country. His wife and children have already fled to Pakistan carrying a suitcase containing some $12,000 in cash. Ideally, this should be raw meat for hungry journalists.

Not surprisingly, however, the big three networks—ABC, NBC, and CBS—have virtually buried the story, preventing millions of viewers from learning about the scandal. So have most cable networks, except for FOX. And this weekend it was barely mentioned, if at all, by the Sunday news/commentary shows such as Face the Nation and Meet the Press. Newspapers, for the most part, have also ignored the story.

When I was learning how to be a reporter we were exhorted to strive for objectivity in our reporting. Of course, we knew there was no such thing as a purely objective reporter. All of us have biases and are more than likely predisposed to have prejudices one way or the other in dealing with events, sources, issues, etc.

What dismays me today is that with the enormous influence of social media and cable news shows that purport to report stories unbiasedly, the viewing public has trouble discerning between news and opinion. The strict separation between news and opinion is simply vanishing. News anchors today feel it is their duty and prerogative to sprinkle their opinions throughout every story—especially those dealing with President Trump.

Legendary newsmen that I grew up with, such as Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, Harry Reasoner, etc. worked assiduously to keep their sentiments out of news stories. Why? Because doing otherwise would have undermined their credibility as professional journalists. And once journalists lose their credibility, they have lost everything.

I have heard journalists today insist that stories need interpretation and that journalism needs to be adapted to the “realities of 21st Century journalism.”

I beg to differ. The realities of 21st Century journalism should mirror those of 20th Century journalism. Superior journalism needs to be a watchdog on government and elected officials, and it needs to be as objective and impartial as possible.

There is nothing wrong with explanatory journalism, but there should be no doubt where news ends and opinion begins.

 

Too many reporters today believe that interpreting the news, is equivalent to advocacy. Journalists are not advocates and they should never fall into that trap.

One of the first rules I learned after joining the Chicago Tribune was that I was not allowed to engage in any kind of local politics–including joining the local school board. While reporters were allowed to belong to political parties, we were not allowed to work for any candidates or to express any open support for them. We were supposed to be independent observers, otherwise how could our reporting be trusted?

We weren’t even allowed to go on television to express our opinions about a story or issue if we were reporting or covering it.

Here’s a question for you. Are MSNBC talking heads like Rachel Madow, Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinksi, Kirsten Powers, and Chris Matthews journalists? I think not. They are paid to be provocative pundits/commentators, yet we see them anchoring shows that purport to be “news” shows.

However, they couldn’t care less about journalistic credibility because they simply are NOT journalists. They don’t pretend to be impartial. Many are committed left wingers and they make no apologies about it. They are paid to share their left-wing biases with their like-minded audiences, in much the same way that Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson are paid by the Fox Network to share their conservative notions with their audiences.

I have never heard Hannity or Carlson claim to be impartial journalists. They are paid commentators, not reporters. One watches those shows knowing that the emphasis is not on impartiality, but on opinion.

Yet, Fox News gets slammed again and again for being “unfair.” Frankly, I think Fox’s news coverage is as fair as any of the other cable networks (certainly MSNBC’s or CNN’s).

The challenge for the viewing public is to learn to discern between opinion programs and news shows. That goes for all cable and broadcast networks.

Unfortunately, with the blurring of the lines between news and opinion in the reporting process, that continues to be a near impossible task for most viewers and readers.

On the other hand, it may be that the viewing and reading public really doesn’t care if stories are slanted and biased as long as they are slanted and biased in the direction they themselves lean, left or right.

I hope that is not the case. If professional journalists and news organizations cannot or will not provide unbiased news that helps a citizenry to make informed choices and decisions then I fear our democracy is in grave danger.

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