If you were the editor, what would you have done? A couple of weeks ago U.S. 1 received a letter to the editor from a reader who had some constructive criticism in reaction to a column that appeared in the previous issue. Along with that criticism, with which you may or may not have agreed, came a paragraph of blanket condemnation:
“Last but not least, the commentary itself falls largely into a category I have never used in many published letters and articles: FAKE NEWS.”
So our reader hoped to augment his specific criticism with a gratuitous broadside that would align him with the Republican White House and dismiss the writer of the original column as a left wing activist. Falling into rabbit hole of fake news would surely turn off more U.S. 1 readers than engage them. At least that was my opinion.
My editorial solution was to delete the “fake news” paragraph and let the columnist and reader debate the facts at hand rather than slide into the cesspool of national politics. By deleting that paragraph I also kept the letter writer from being labeled as an apologist for the Republican administration. In my opinion I did him a favor and furthered the goal of having a non-partisan media.
In case you haven’t heard, the media is hopelessly opinionated. According to an Indiana University poll, 78 percent of journalists identify as either independents or Democrats, and only 7 percent admit to being conservative. Some people think this political pre-disposition leads to an inevitable bias in the way that news is presented.
My friend Robbie George, Princeton University’s token conservative professor, has complained on his Twitter platform (with its nearly 28,000 followers) about the left leaning predilection of the lame stream media. A few weeks ago George retweeted the following Twitter exchange, prompted by reports of the death of Mormon Church president Thomas Monson. Here’s the original New York Times tweet:
“Thomas Monson, the president of the Mormon church who rebuffed demands to ordain women as priests and refused to alter church opposition to same-sex marriage, died Tuesday at 90.”
Here is a “more objective” version posted by one of George’s Twitter correspondents:
“Thomas Monson, president of the LDS church who helped supply disaster relief to people without hope, selflessly served those around him, helped deliver food and clean water to the needy around the world, and exemplified charity, died Tuesday at age 90.”
The complaint was that the New York Times, by focusing on the controversies surrounding the church leader’s life, shortchanged the objective achievements of the man. It was partisan journalism.
I disagree. Any newspaper ought to be concerned about the news, not the statement of obvious facts about any particular subject. In the case of the Mormon church leader, his place in the news was defined by the position he took with respect to various controversial issues. As to the fact that he supplied “disaster relief to people without hope, selflessly served those around him” and all that folderol sounds to me like the job description of a church leader. It’s noble and deserves to be praised but that’s not the newspaper’s job. And doing your job is not normally a news item in a national paper such as the Times.
That’s the kind of argument we in the media find ourselves making more and more these days as the Republican White House — from the man in the Oval Office to the press secretary — spar with reporters over their news reporting.
The easy way to attack the media is to charge them with allowing themselves to have opinions. Now, as a colleague of mine recently said, it’s hard to imagine anyone who doesn’t have a political opinion in this hyper-charged political atmosphere. And it’s also easy to believe that the mainstream media is overwhelmingly liberal.
As one recent study noted, 72 percent of all print and internet reporters are based in counties won by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. And reporters naturally get caught up in the community they cover. If you live in a small town and report on that town, you usually want that town to thrive. If you are a sportswriter covering the hometown team, it’s easy to root for that team to do well — for one reason a team that does well will get into the playoffs and your work will be read by more people.
But that doesn’t mean that reporters should whitewash their reports of their home towns or home teams. The good ones can be very tough on the people they cover. Take, for example, the men “outed” in the recent outing of sexual predators. Some left-leaning journalists got skewered as quickly as anyone else. Sorry about that, Charlie Rose of PBS, Mark Halperin of MSNBC, and the Times’s Glenn Thrush.
In short, there’s a big difference between being subjective and partisan. Journalists — even those few souls who truly have no opinions whatsoever about the subjects they cover — make subjective judgments all the time. An editor of a paper in Princeton, where half the sidewalks in town are shoveled by guys with Spanish-sounding names, knows that immigration is an important issue. An editor in northeastern Pennsylvania might take a special interest in potential cuts to Medicaid in the new budget.
What’s important is that those subjective decisions be based on careful weighing of all available facts. If a journalist is jumping to conclusions at the mere mention of a story idea, then he or she is probably allowing partisanship to rear its ugly head. At that point the journalist would do well to remember the advice my friend Robbie George gave to incoming students this past fall:
“Thinking for yourself means questioning dominant ideas even when others insist on their being treated as unquestionable. It means deciding what one believes not by conforming to fashionable opinions, but by taking the trouble to learn and honestly consider the strongest arguments to be advanced on both or all sides of questions — including arguments for positions that others revile and want to stigmatize and against positions others seek to immunize from critical scrutiny. . . Don’t get trapped in an echo chamber.”
So at this point, I hope I have earned my credentials as a nonpartisan editor. I protected the letter writer mentioned above from losing his point in the quagmire created by the Republican White House. And I lived up to the charge made by my friend Robbie George — I considered all sides.
A postscript: Now that we are behind the scenes of the editing process, let me reveal a few more partisan tricks. The fact is that, in the argument I made above about nonpartisan journalism, I slipped in two totally partisan rhetorical techniques. The first is a little dig I picked up from Bernice A. King, a minister and the youngest child of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. Like her father she is a political firebrand. And one of her strategies to deal with that aforementioned Republican White House is to refer to it as just that, and not as the Trump White House.
“When you post or talk about him,” King says, referring to the 45th president, assign his actions to “the Republican Administration or the Republicans. The Republican legislators will either have to take responsibility for their association with him or stand up for what some of them don’t like; Republican representatives will become very concerned about their re-elections.”
I buried another partisan trick in the column above, as well. That was the recurring references to “my friend” Robbie George. Truth is that Professor Robert George and I have had several civil conversations on the campus and he has replied to some e-mails from me.
But I have never been to his house, he has never been to mine, and I have never broken bread with him. By calling a person on the other side of the political spectrum a friend I can more easily pose as a nonpartisan player in this muddy political landscape.
So take my claim, or anyone else’s claim, of being “nonpartisan” with a grain of salt.
And, while I am offering advice, don’t give up on our “friends” on the other side.
This week Robbie George re-tweeted this from National Review editor Jay Nordlinger: “Once upon a time, there were social conservatives. They worried about the ‘coarsening of the culture.’ They hated vulgarity, porn, lying, adultery, etc. They were square. Where are they? Have they gone extinct? So weird.”
To which George responded, “I’m still here, Brother Jay. Bloodied (very bloodied) but unbowed.”
Amen, Brother Robbie. Amen.