To the liberal/progressive such a question is evidence of conservative hysteria based on the inferiority of their political convictions. To the conservative, it’s a rhetorical question: of course! Rarely is that question taken seriously by those liberals who dominate what has come to be called the mainstream media. I found a rare example on public radio this weekend.
In case you’re not a fan of public radio, a weekend show called On the Media (OTM) gives a weekly roundup of, strangely enough, media, and from I would argue a decidedly liberal perspective. Of course, for most who work in mainstream media, liberal bias is a charge without merit. The modern liberal has a very difficult time accepting the fact that there are actually other people who see the world differently than them, and major media outlets are filled with them.
Because of this denial, I was kind of amazed when I heard this weekend’s OTM. The title of the show was, “Does NPR Have a Liberal Bias?” And what I found even more amazing was that they actually tried to take the question seriously. Listen for yourself. The hosts of the show are normally somewhat snarky and dismissive of anything not liberal, although I am convinced they are convinced they are trying their best to be objective.
I think what annoys professionals in the media who dismiss the charge of bias is that they think they are being accused of not being professional, that their excellence is being questioned, that they are no better than partisan hacks just toeing the party line. This may be because I’m on the right side of the political/cultural spectrum, but I actually accept that their intentions are mostly pure: I don’t believe there is a grand conspiracy of lefties in media boardrooms trying to figure out on a daily basis how they can make conservatives look bad (I might add that liberals rarely give the benefit of the doubt to the intentions of their conservative opponents).
The idea of dispassionate objective journalism is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of America. All newspapers had a point of view and didn’t hide it, either in their editorial content or their reporting. The beginning of professionalization of journalism probably started with Joseph Pulitzer’s leaving $2 million in 1911 (over $46 million in today’s dollars) to establish a graduate school of journalism at Columbia University. The next year the first of America’s progressive presidents was elected, Woodrow Wilson, an academic who declared the Constitution archaic for modern times. What was needed, he believed, were experts who would use the burgeoning science and technology of the time to ameliorate the people’s suffering and lead them to a better life.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that journalism as a profession of dispassionate fact gatherers rose along with progressivism in American politics and culture. John F. Kennedy filled his administration with the “best and the brightest” who thought they could in effect engineer results with social policy from on high to make American a better place. This perspective still infects every corner of the good progressive’s mind, and post WWII journalists were steeped in this mindset. Edward R. Murrow was their hero, and when Walter Cronkite became the most trusted man in American he would sign off each week day night’s broadcast with “That’s the way it is.” If that’s the way it is, then there is no other way that it can be!
This is the pretension of our modern media; they are only telling us what is, and it’s up to us, the reader, the viewer, to determine what we think about it. Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts. The problem that always seems to get in the progressive’s way, bless their hearts, is human nature. No one can be completely objective no matter how hard they try. The worldview of the reporter will come through not only in how they frame a story, but which stories they choose to frame, the questions they ask, the facts they choose to expose. Everything they do in some way expresses who they are, and who they are is in some way expressed in everything they do. Because journalism is done by human beings, it can be no other way.
I read somewhere that 90% of NPR employees are liberals/progressives. That may be low, but there is no question that almost everyone that works in mainstream media leans left, and whether they like it or not, admit it or not, bias in one way or the other will find it’s way into what they do. And guess what? I’m still a fan.