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 newsroom 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 happens all too often in today’s news media. For example, back in March, Attorney General Barr told President Trump in the Oval Office that his national emergency declaration was clearly lawful, and exactly what Congress intended when it passed the National Emergencies Act,  which gave presidents broad discretionary authority to identify and respond to emergent circumstances like the humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border.

What? You didn’t see it on TV or read it in your newspaper? That’s because the big three networks—ABC, NBC, and CBS—buried the story, preventing millions of viewers from learning about the Justice Department’s legal advice to the President. So did all cable networks, except for FOX.

They preferred to push the anti-Trump narrative that the emergency declaration was somehow unlawful or beyond the parameters of the National Emergency Act—which it clearly was not.

Then there is the Joe Biden/Hunter Biden scandal, which the mainstream media has decided doesn’t warrant any reporting beyond one or two cursory and superficial stories that a couple of news outlets did three years ago. Never mind that new evidence has surfaced and continues to surface every day.

But hey, today’s big thing is impeaching the president and overturning an election in which 61 million Americans put Donald Trump in the White House.

Have any of the mainstream media reported on how much and how often House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff has lied about everything from having “proof” of Trump’s collusion with Russia to the President’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky?

Adam Schiff: 4 Pinocchios from Washington Post for lying

So far, only the Washington Post has done so—giving Schiff the maximum of four Pinocchios for his fabrications and deceits concerning the “dreadful” phone call. Kudos to the Post!

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. When they did opine, they did so by alerting their viewers that they were about to do so.

I have heard journalists today insist that stories need interpretation and that reporters need to adapt 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 advocating for some cause or viewpoint is equivalent to interpreting the news. It is not. 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 Brzezinski, Kirsten Powers, and Chris Matthews journalists? No, they are not. Perhaps they were at one time, but they have abandoned whatever journalistic principles they may have had to become provocative pundits or commentators. Yet we see them anchoring shows that purport to be “news” shows.

This is prima facie fraud. But 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, Tucker Carlson, or Laura Ingraham are paid by the Fox Network to share their conservative opinions with their audiences.

I have never heard Hannity, Carlson, or Ingraham 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 biased in its news coverage. 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 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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