A specter haunts mainstream news organizations. Publications once prided for their accuracy and objectivity ―The New York Times, CNN, The Wall Street Journal — have lost much of the public’s readership and have been forced to lay off some of their most senior editors and writers. This has paved the way for an entirely new breed of journalism: grassroots independent media.
Just like their predecessors, these modern news outlets are guaranteed the same lack of government restrictions, and the same responsibility that comes with such freedom.
As readers withdrew from mainstream journalism for its cronyism and ignorance of the trials of its readers, they also grew skeptical of the mainstream politics of their parties. At the onset of the internet age, blogging and independent online magazines gladly filled this intellectual power vacuum.
This new era of journalism adopted many of the cardinal sins that would have gotten a journalist fired in Walter Cronkite’s heyday, namely explicit political affiliations and biases.
This phenomenon applies for both ends of the political spectrum. The right’s Tea Party faction, who rejected mainstream conservatism, abandoned The National Review and embraced Breitbart News. Breitbart’s Senior Editor Steve Bannon would go on to be the strategic mind behind Donald Trump’s campaign, the standard for anti-establishment political fanfare. On the left, the “Occupy Wall Street” crowd rejected CNN and The New York Times in favor of “The Young Turks” and Democracy Now!.
These new independent news outlets can often claim to report the facts, however distorted, and only the ones that support their political narrative. Breitbart News will both cover how free trade negatively impacts the American laborer but never the same about repealing the Affordable Care Act. That will be covered by a far-left outlet like Daily Kos.
In his book, The News: A User’s Manual, Alain De Bottom defends bias by saying it is a judicious requirement to which journalists should adhere.
“It is a pair of lens that slide over reality and aim to bring it more clearly into focus,” De Bottom wrote. “Bias strives to explain what events mean and introduces a scale of values by which to judge ideas and events.”
For a generation of young voters, just coming of an age of political consciousness, whose “scales of values” should they adopt? The Drudge Report’s or Huffington Post’s? Either one would provide a skewed and close-minded view of the world’s issues. However, it is a race between the two to colonize these young voters’ minds.
This does not sound like the free-thinking electorate our free-press was meant to instill. This is the manifestation of a deep culture war in our country, for which these news outlets are both symptoms and causes.
One of the most commonly referenced defenses of journalistic bias was proposed by Paul Krugman, an avidly liberal columnist with The New York Times. Krugman imagined a debate between two candidates running for public office. One candidate says the earth is flat while the other says the earth is round. For a journalist to report this debate objectively, including the first candidate’s proposition that the world is flat, is to spread misinformation. Therefore, it is the journalist’s duty to affirm the second candidate’s side.
It is very dangerous for a journalist to assume that the truth behind the subject of any political debate is as obvious to them as the roundness of the earth. Subjects like health care, tax codes and militaristic interventions are rarely so reductionist as to affirm our political predispositions.
Krugman’s thought experiment likely referenced global warming and refusals by many Republican candidates to acknowledge it as an imminent threat. In any story that requires some kind of specialized qualifications, it is in the nature of the journalist’s duty to solicit professional insight when it is relevant to the story, like that of a climate scientist. However, this is a far cry from a journalist assuming either side of an issue.
It is the duty of a journalist to portray any issue in a way that is faithful to its complexity and nuances, but with the skill that would make it instantly comprehensible to any reader. The truth behind any issue worth reporting is indifferent to the politics of both a journalist and their readers.
Even for the most objective news article, to highlight a topic or fact primes a certain narrative. But the impossibility of impartiality does not mean it is not a noble ideal for which a journalist should strive.
The integrity of a journalist lies in their allegiance to facts and reasoned analysis rather than political names and labels. Accountability to this credo comes from the communities they serve, the people who demand the highest and most noble of a journalist’s ethics.