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How Journalism Plays Twister...To the Right

It's so true that freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose -- and so our brush here with terminal illness is occasionally truly liberating for America's newsrooms.
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It's so true that freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose -- and so our brush here with terminal illness is occasionally truly liberating for America's newsrooms. This week, in fact, it seems that journalists are rushing to admit something -- openly in one case, tacitly in another -- something that's been true ever since the Nixon-Agnew era, but was rarely talked about.

This uncomfortable truth? That to accommodate the perceived notion that the news media warps things so far to the left, journalists have been playing Twister to bend over backwards to accommodate conservatives -- and tying ourselves in knots.

Exhibit A: The New York Times admits that it's easier to get on one of the most coveted pieces of real estate in American journalism, a slot on its letters-to-the-editor page, if you are a conservative. Here is what Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor, said in a recent online chat:

The best kind of letter is relatively short (under 150 words), clearly written, strongly opinionated and direct. It doesn't contain personal invective aimed at the writer or subject of an article. And it's well written. I'll be honest: Because of the nature of our readers, letter writers who defend Republican, conservative or right-wing positions on many topics have a higher shot at being published.

Exhibit B: Cynthia Tucker -- the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has long been the kind of contrarian voice that we journalists allegedly worship -- is being moved up and out of her slot in what local observers say is part of a seemingly futile bid to woo back conservative suburban readers:

It's safe to say, however, that for the first time in generations, the state's leading editorial page finally will have abandoned its mission as a progressive voice in favor of a carefully constructed mirage of "balance" -- designed not to tell the truth, whether it's unpopular or not, as much as to mollify conservative readers.

This article about Tucker's move to Washington and away from her key local post at the Atlanta paper does a good job of laying out the broader issues, of why journalists are so self-conscious about their alleged liberalism -- some of it real but a lot of it perceived -- and why we become so accommodating to conservatives that it quickly becomes a case of being too accommodating.

That could be because efforts at balance come across as what they are -- a bit patronizing. But it's also because the practice of journalism is an essentially liberal exercise in the classical sense of the word: It places faith in the ability of people to form their opinions based on facts and reasoning rather than on preconceptions and prejudice. Meanwhile, the South's brand of conservatism -- the brand that has taken over much of the Republican Party -- is essentially reactionary: Any narrative, no matter how factual, that challenges a set worldview is seen as a threat from outsiders to be battled, no matter how high the cost.

It's not surprising that there's an overlap between liberal values and journalistic values -- at least as journalists and progressives like to perceive themselves, as rational thinkers and as questioners of authority. But the reality is that at the more visible levels of the media -- inside the Beltway. on cable TV and in the national papers and newsweeklies -- the practitioners of journalism are not so much questioners of authority, that they have a lot on common with the other elites they're supposedly practicing on.

There are social ties, sometimes college ties, shared world views that over the years grow less and less liberal. Many higher-earning journalists share the liberal social values of the blue-state suburbs -- on issues like abortion or the environment -- but also some conservative economic views, and a comfort level with conformity. A good number aren't keen on labor unions (even though a few actually belong to them), aren't familiar with working-class concerns, and were freaked out by the "dirty freakin' hippies" who just happened to be right on Iraq.

What's the one liberal value that journalists retain as we grow long in the tooth and rise up the salary ladder? Liberal guilt. Politicians have played on this successfully for 40 years, ever since too many newsrooms cowered from Spiro Agnew calling us "nattering nabobs of negativism." As I wrote about in my recent book Tear Down This Myth, Ronald Reagan's "teflon presidency" was in good measure due to journalists fearful they'd be accused of liberal bias with a too aggressive posture.

Did you ever watch the Sunday political talk shows, and the regular cavalcade of aggressively conservative pols and pundits, who usually outnumber and outtalk the handful of passive "liberals," many of whom aren't even that liberal? The Beltway journalists who book those shows tend to book "liberals" who are a reflection of themselves -- low-key, just-a-tad-to-the-left-of-centrists -- while bringing on more rabid conservatives a) to show that they're open minded and not "biased liberals" and b) because they find wild-eyed conservative entertaining. Real DFH liberals scare the heck out of them, and God only knows what they might blurt out about something like NBC/MSNBC/CNBC parent General Electric, also a major defense contractor.

Remember the debate on President Obama's stimulus package a few months back? Everytime I flipped on cable TV, there was a 30-second factual (usually) description of the proposal, followed by five minutes of loud conservative criticism. That's how the "liberal media" shows that it's really fair and balanced.

Even so, I'm still a little stunned and slightly confused by Rosenthal's comment about over-accommodating conservative letter writers because of "the nature of our readers." Does that mean that the majority of the letters-to-the-editor in the New York Times take center-left to liberal positions on most issues? If so, that may not be the nature of the Times' readers but the nature of America, since most surveys show that most Americans hold center-left views on most issues. But instead a reader of the letters page, seeing an unfair weighting to conservative writers, will be getting a false impression of what people out there are thinking.

It's true that the Times' takes liberal positions on many issues, but not all. For example, its editorial page did not aggressively question the rush to war in Iraq, nor did some of the hyperbolic "news" coverage of the run-up by Judy Miller -- and like everyone else the Times ignored or undercovered massive protests before the invasion. But presumably the editorial page also overweighted conservative pro-war letters and underweighted the DFHs who couldn't understand why America was invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. That's balance?

A year later, the Philadelphia Inquirer made a bold decision (and correct, in my opinion) that the Bush presidency was such a danger to America that it ran a series of 21 editorials calling for the election of John Kerry. Yet every day it gave equal space to someone arguing that Bush should be re-elected, so was it really that bold of a move after all? That's balance, but what's the point? Check out this great riff from Jay Rosen on the bogusness of "he said, she said" journalism for a broader perspective.

Ironically, as the Atlanta piece notes, none of this contorting to accommodate right-wing critics has brought in any right-wing support or, more importantly, news readership -- conservatives still hate us, and no amount of sucking up will change that. That said, what's the harm in bending over backwards to overly represent or kowtow to conservative viewpoints? Well, when pundits still believe that America is a center-right nation on the morning after the election of a center-left president and large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, that might offer a window into how the greater political debate gets warped by this odd charade.

Journalists should only have one great mission in our career. It is not the quest for something called balance. It is the search for the truth. Period. No matter how uncomfortable that makes some people. Cynthia Tucker knows that, and now she's paying a price.

Ironically, the arrival of the Internet should have been a liberating effect. The unlimited electrons of cyberspace gives plenty of room for the naysayers to have their naysay, in a comments section or on a competing blog.

Instead, it looks like the chaos caused by the implosion of the business model for news has had the opposite effect -- a futile search to give Americans what we think they want to hear and maybe what they think they want to hear, and not what they need to hear. That's not serving balance. That's not serving anybody.

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