Should journalists 'fess up?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 13, 2010; 1:58 PM

It is a clash of ideas about the nature of journalism itself.

The new thinking, among many bloggers and media critics, is that journalists need to stop hiding the fact that they have opinions. It is a farce that no one is buying. Far better, they say, to put your cards on the table, admit your biases and offer your analysis. Readers will appreciate the candor, factor in your ideology and reach their own conclusions.

No way, the traditionalists say. Journalists, except for op-ed types, must preserve their credibility as fair arbiters. They can't be popping off about which politicians and policies they like. In a world awash in opinions, they need to be impartial referees.

The debate has heated up since a string of recent incidents. Helen Thomas resigned after telling the Israelis to get the hell out of Palestine. Dave Weigel gave up his Washington Post blog after leaked e-mails showed him trashing conservatives. CNN fired Octavia Nasr, senior editor for the Middle East, for tweeting about her respect for a just-deceased Hezbollah leader.

Mainstream news organizations can't have their staffers seeming to openly side with a terrorist organization (or unconditionally taking Israel's side, for that matter), or telling Jews to go back to Germany, or telling Matt Drudge to set himself on fire. That's the way they operate. But what about in less tendentious cases?

As anyone who reads this column or my Twitter feed knows, I believe that journalists have to show more of themselves, engage their readers and viewers, and not pretend to be automatons. We are all analysts now, and we need to let our customers in on more of our thinking, without blatantly taking sides on the issues we cover (I feel free to tell you in the wake of the World Cup final, for instance, that it's hard for me to get into a sport with no scoring in regulation). As a media critic, I can tell you that I found ESPN's breathless LeBron special to be pretty crass, but can still be fair in asking the network or Mike Wilbon or Jim Gray to defend it. And if a congressman yells "You lie!" at the president during the State of the Union, that, to me, is not a one-side-said-it's-fine/one-side-said-it's-awful matter.

But I'm old-fashioned enough to think that I shouldn't be sounding off on the guts of political issues, not as long as I'm a reporter. I can pick apart arguments and point out inconsistencies as long as I've done the legwork to back it up. But there are boundaries.

By the way, while I have no doubt that most journalists lean to the left on social issues, newsrooms are generally not hotbeds of seething ideology. People with very strong views about politics and policy tend to become activists, not journalists; most reporters I know are more interested in a good story than in who is helped or hurt by that story.

I'm all for MSM outlets hiring bloggers and other opinionators, as long as we make clear that they're writing with a point of view and are not in the same category as beat reporters. People who consume news are smart. They can figure it out, as long as we're straight with them.

Here are two other takes on the matter. Michael Arrington, the editor of TechCrunch, begins with a prominent journalist who refused to privately describe his views (though Arrington believed he was anti-Bush):

"My point to him was that it was necessary for people to know his political biases in order to understand his content in context. I believe it is quite impossible to not bake your bias into your content. He disagreed and said that the core of his training was to do just that. Of course, his political bias was fairly evident to me, he clearly hated Bush with a passion. But I couldn't make him say it.

"But he's wrong. An added adjective here, an added paragraph there, just the right quote from a source and voil?, you've got yourself an opinion piece masked as a straight up unbiased piece of reporting. . . .

"We take a lot of criticism at TechCrunch for writing stories that are clearly biased. That's despite the fact that we tend to state our bias right up front, sometimes in the damn title.

"That's not journalism, people say. Well, that's fine with me. But what you can't accuse us of is being dishonest to our readers. We call things like we see them. We never fudge facts or make things up. We don't go out and manufacture quotes to support the story we want to write, we just write the story. And other people can write different stories with different opinions. And you, the reader, can go read all of them and then maybe write your own blog post with a whole new opinion. Everyone has a printing press these days, and ink is free. That has changed the world, and journalism needs to change with it."

Slate's Jack Shafer writes in defense of bias:

"That journalists have opinions and express them in private and sometimes (to their frequent regret) in public should come as no shocker. If you prick them, they bleed, too.

"But such biases shouldn't be thought of as invasive weeds, choking the garden, but as nutrients. The job of a journalist is to gather evidence, test it, and come to conclusions wherever feasible. Such an enterprise is impossible to undertake without biases. Indeed, like scientific inquires, almost every new story always begins with some sort of bias or hunch or leaning. A reporter or an editor thinks this story is more promising or interesting than that story, therefore they agree to pursue it. But without reporting both stories--or every possible story, which is impossible--how can the editor and reporter really know which was the 'right' story to assign? They can't. They can only trust their biases. . . .

"Which brings us back to Weigel and Nasr. To the best of my knowledge, neither journalist has been criticized for producing substandard or otherwise shoddy work for their network or newspaper. Both appear to be committed to the journalism of verification, although I'm more confident about vouching for Weigel's work, which I know well, than Nasr's, which I don't. Weigel's jerkiness on a private listserv doesn't bother me much at all. If you were to purge the Post newsroom of every reporter who had been a jerk sometime in his career, you'd be facing an acre of empty desks. In fact, jerkiness was one of the attributes that I used to look for in a candidate when I was on the management side of the editorial divide.

"That Weigel's bad manners bothered his Post bosses so much that they felt compelled to accept his resignation speaks poorly for the paper. That CNN walked Nasr off the plank because she expressed a smidgeon of 'respect' for a Hezbollah-supporting cleric in a tweet speaks of cowardice."

But Weigel himself said he didn't want to taint the work of other reporters or put the paper in the position of defending his ugly messages.

Celebrity misconduct

I'm stunned that Switzerland has decided against extraditing Roman Polanski for his 1977 crime of having sex with a 13-year-old girl. Does anyone believe this has to do with the U.S. not providing confidential sentencing information? The man already pleaded guilty and then skipped the country.

But I'm equally amazed that Mel Gibson hasn't been drummed out of polite society. Even if you've read his racist rant against his girlfriend, you don't get the full impact unless you listen to the audio obtained by Radar. And the degree of expletive-fueled rage on this new tape -- Oksana Grigorieva says he broke her teeth and he screams, "you need a [blanking] bat in the side of the head" -- is downright scary.

Which, says Tina Brown, makes it a good thing that it came to light:

"The Mel Gibson phone rant at his ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva is a high-water mark in celebrity outing.

"When Mel's threatening truculence and sexually charged disgust with his ex-girlfriend's 'bitch on heat' provocative outfits climbs to a burst of brute fury with 'if you get raped by a pack of [N-word] . . . it will be your fault,' it's not just the demented Mel we hear. It's as if a curtain was pulled back on the window of every house where a frightened woman is living in fear of a man who has all the financial cards.

"And yet this call is also a particularly Hollywood form of degradation. It's a row not about anything real, but about his ex's breast implants . . . that make her look like 'a Vegas whore.' Combine that with Oksana's forlorn defense that she doesn't 'sashay around,' as Gibson accuses, but rather 'stays in the house most of the time,' and another curtain is pulled away. So much for the Us Weekly version of a red-carpet life on the arm of the handsome movie star. . . .

"There is an upside to our leaky, sneaky world. Vile, fraudulent bullies like Mel Gibson or free-range sex addicts like Tiger Woods can be exposed at last to the censure -- and ridicule -- they deserve."

It's not like Gibson is a first offender, either; it was TMZ that exposed his drunken, anti-Semitic rant when pulled over by the cops in Malibu.

"Mel Gibson doesn't have a prayer of resurrecting his career," says the New York Post.

"The 'Passion of the Christ' director's rant at ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva -- in which he all but admits beating her and coldly declares she 'deserved it' -- destroyed any chance of a Hollywood comeback, insiders say."

And the L.A. sheriff's office is on the case: "A tape released Monday in which actor Mel Gibson apparently acknowledges that he hit the mother of his child will be added to evidence being reviewed in a domestic violence investigation involving the actor."

Thunder on the left

Are liberals in despair over the Obama presidency? Salon's Steve Kornacki downplays the notion:

"The grievances are all familiar at this point: the stimulus wasn't big enough, healthcare reform took too long and compromised away too much, we shouldn't be in Afghanistan, and so on. The interesting question, to me at least, is what this all adds up to politically. How serious, in other words, is Obama's problem with the Democratic Party base?

"My sense is that it's not actually that bad. This isn't to diminish the disappointment (or even betrayal) that many of Obama's most ardent 2008 supporters feel, or the legitimacy of their policy gripes. But when you consider other modern presidencies, the frustration that now grips the left is hardly atypical.

"Five of Obama's six immediate predecessors enjoyed at this roughly this point in their presidencies what could fairly be described as serious tension with their party's base. The lone exception was George W. Bush, who was shielded from meaningful intraparty dissent by 9/11, which came not quite eight months into his tenure. It wasn't until Bush's second term that the right became outwardly restive. (Although it should be noted that in the months before 9/11, John McCain rarely missed a chance to poke a stick in Bush's eye.)

"For three recent presidents, this tension ended up having a deleterious long-term impact: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. The good news for Obama is that their examples aren't particularly analogous to his, because Ford, Carter and Bush all faced skeptical and even hostile bases from the start of their presidencies."

The timing doesn't matter that much; you can't win without your base.

Thunder on the right

Fred Barnes sees policy salvation for the GOP:

"For Republicans, the Road Map authored by congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is the most important proposal in domestic policy since Ronald Reagan embraced supply side economics in the 1980 presidential campaign. It's not only the freshest, boldest, and most comprehensive Republican thinking, it's also the most relevant. If Republicans adopt the Road Map as their basic ideological blueprint, it offers them the prospect of a landslide in the midterm election this year, followed by victory in the presidential election in 2012.

"For sure, that's a lot of weight for a policy statement drafted by a 40-year-old House member to bear. But the Road Map is perfectly timed to deal with the crises of the moment: economic stagnation, uncontrolled spending, the deficit and long-term debt, soaring tax rates, health care, the housing problem, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.

"Yet Republican leaders are wary of endorsing it, and for understandable reasons. The Road Map is sweeping and politically risky. It would overhaul popular programs like Medicare, relying on individuals to make decisions now made by government. Democrats are already attacking it."

Sure, because he would turn Medicare into a voucher program and bring private accounts to Social Security, which didn't work out so well for W. Whatever the plan's merits, it's political dynamite.

Plantation politics

Does this strike anyone else as a tad extreme?

"Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) believes that President Barack Obama is turning the United States into a 'nation of slaves.' " She also complained about "tyranny."

And here I thought we were living in a democracy and that duly elected representatives were passing our laws.

Quota question

This Daily Caller piece is based on a conservative economist, but even if no quotas are involved, this language could rouse the opposition:

"The Dodd-Frank financial regulatory bill, ostensibly aimed at reforming Wall Street and preventing a future financial crisis, will impose racial and gender quotas on financial institutions if passed, according to economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth.

"Section 342 of the bill will establish Offices of Minority and Women Inclusion in at least 20 federal financial services agencies. These offices will be tasked with implementing 'standards and procedures to ensure, to the maximum extent possible, the fair inclusion and utilization of minorities, women, and minority-owned and women-owned businesses in all business and activities of the agency at all levels, including in procurement, insurance, and all types of contracts.' "

Say it ain't so, Howie

The Boston Globe reports on one of its rivals:

"Herald columnist Howie Carr, who had Scott Brown on his WRKO radio show several times in the days leading up to January's special election, is now hitting the road on behalf of Republicans. The conservative yakker is the headliner of a $50-a-person fund-raiser for the New Hampshire Republican State Committee. Called 'Hamburgers With Howie'. . . .

"While it's true Carr proudly wears his right-wing politics on his sleeve, it's unusual for a working journalist to lend his name so explicitly to a political event."

Howie Carr is a Boston institution and a funny guy to boot. He should hang on to his independence.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, 'Reliable Sources.'

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