All Reporting Is Biased: What It Really Needs To Be Is Fair
Anno domini 2017 has begun in much the same way 2016 expired: In a debate about news and “fake” news. The current cause célèbre is the CIA claim of alleged Russian hacking in the U.S. electoral system last year. The spooks say they have evidence, Julian Assange says it’s all codswallop. Donald Trump says whatever has come into his head that morning on the issue.
At the crux of this “fake” news furore is a fundamental misunderstanding about bias in journalism. Large segments of the population (who should know better) insist that somewhere there exists a perfect world where bias does not exist in reporting. This fantasy, of course, is like the unicorn census.
Every form of journalism is biased. The simple act of choosing what stories a paper or network deems important betrays bias. Which story leads the newscast or goes above the fold on A 1 tells the public much about the editorial slant of that organization. Whether a high-profile reporter is assigned the story instead of a journeyman scribbler illuminates the assignment editors. Cropping pictures or editing interview clips can also betray an agenda.
So when CBC Radio leads its national newscast with a story about a single whale apparently killed by collision with a ship in the waters off the B.C. coast— where debate rages about extending oil pipelines to the area— the placement and telling of the story tells us much about the editorial priorities of the national broadcaster.
What is important— and what has been lost in recent times— is the quaint notion of fairness. The pursuit of both sides in a story, however challenging that might be. A clear attempt to expose as much information as can be assembled in the making of a story. (The CBC story presented no other possible causes for the whale’s death nor challenges to the implication that shipping in the those waters will be unsafe.)
As U.S. senator Daniel Moynihan famously observed, “You’re entitled to your own opinion. You’re not entitled to your own facts.” Yet fairness is being obliterated on both sides. Donald Trump treats facts like stocks to be traded and bartered. Exaggeration in the pursuit of liberty seems to be no vice to him. Thousands become millions, all Muslims become a few Muslims. Never becomes a fungible term.
Barack Obama pursued a different course: The big lie wrapped in virtue. If you have to break a few fact-eggs to make a progressive omelette then your motives must be pure. You can keep your doctor. The science is setlled. There are thousand of shovel-ready projects just waiting. This administration has been Israel’s best friend. Blacks are being targeted by police.
Most consumers of news will tell you that these are the utterance of politicians, and one is always wise to take a jaundiced view of their motives. But in recent times, this disdain for a fair balancing of the facts has migrated to the fourth estate. The line between editorial and opinion has disappeared, carried away by crusaders who see reporting as a calling to advance causes, not facts.
In its zeal to defeat Trump, even the venerable New York Times— the yardstick by which so many news organizations measure themselves— began printing editorials on its front page, mixing fact with opinion in a fashion never seen before at the paper. That— and the surprise election of Trump— caused the Times public editor Liz Spayd to chide, “I found myself wishing someone from the newsroom was on the line with me, especially to hear how many of the more liberal voters wanted more balanced coverage. Not an echo chamber of liberal intellectualism, but an honest reflection of reality.”
As former Times editor/ correspondent Michael Cieply observed on my podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin, partisanship is changing even the Times. “I think the paper is being nudged into a place where it is now the official voice of Blue America. That may be healthy for the paper… It does need to be honest on its own positions. If it starts to self-identify as a paper that is more about a point of view than ‘all the news that fits’— that may be where they belong as we go forward.”
The blurring of objectivity is exacerbated by the homogeneity of the people reporting the news. With the great organs of journalism rooted in New York City/ Washington DC and Toronto/ Ottawa, the tendency is to assume that the people in your orbit represent the totality of the people who consume your product. So news has become the reflection of urban liberal opinion.
It’s a malaise Spayd has observed at the Times. “The newsroom’s blinding whiteness hit me when I walked in the door six months ago… two of the 20-plus reporters who covered the presidential campaign for The New York Times were black. None were Latino or Asian… Of The Times’s newly named White House team, all six are white, as is most everyone in the Washington bureau… Metro has only three Latinos among its 42 reporters, in a city with the second largest Hispanic population in the country. “Sports has one Asian man, two Hispanics and no African-Americans among its 21 reporters, yet blacks are plentiful among the teams they cover and the audience they serve. In the Styles section, every writer is white…”
In the stripped-down newsrooms of today, the Times is hardly unique. The do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do hypocrisy on diversity is not flattering, says Cieply. “This would be less puzzling if the Times weren’t so preachy about diversity to others. I wrote through this on the ‘Oscars So White’ campaign. They crucified Hollywood for two years of white Oscar nominations following ten years in which the Oscar nominations for actors had exactly the same percentage of nominees and winners as the population did.
“There was no disparity. (But) the Times turned this into a running campaign for more than a year.”
This bubble contains more than just Times reporters. Here’s a story on what happens when Beltway types were asked if they knew anyone who owned a pickup, America’s most popular vehicle style. Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale, who was mystified by Rob Ford nation, gives an answer too precious even for him. “(W)hy are you bringing this argument to more people's attention”. To which the writer adds, “This person is paid to tell Canadians what Americans think about stuff”.
You’d think that having missed the Trump phenomenon the Times and its fellow liberal outlets would be pausing to reflect on where they went wrong. On how to restore fairness to their coverage. But you’d be wrong.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy. Bruce is the host of podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. His career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.