Has Mainstream Media Forgotten How to Report?

In my talks to conservative bloggers and activists who want to understand and influence the media, I downplay the "liberal bias" meme. Sure, most reporters I've encountered in my years working for newspapers have a liberal worldview that influences their story selection and coverage. But most are reasonably fair and professional, so I encourage conservatives to try engagement before vilification as they pitch their story lines to reporters.

But my recent experience on the receiving end of a series of supposed exposes has left me rethinking my tendency to cut fellow journalists some slack. I've been appalled by the shoddy reporting techniques used to try to embarrass the organization where I work -- frustrated by reporters who don't get the other side of the story and who seem uninterested in investigating anything, but merely want to play a game of "gotcha."

I've been saddened to watch notable publications -- the Guardian and Columbia Journalism Review, in particular -- republish the hyperbolic reports of left-wing activist groups without bothering to interview the subject of the investigation before publication or doing basic fact-checking or even allowing a rebuttal.

My beef isn't with these publications' ideology or biases -- bias is an inescapable part of being human -- but with their lack of standards and ethics.

Please indulge me the details of an inside story, one that illustrates broader problems in the media.

I'm vice president of journalism for the non-profit Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Started in 2009, the group was designed to provide watchdog journalism and state-capitol news coverage that suffered as newspapers cut back their staffing. We have close to 40 editors and reporters, and supported others through grants to independent news services and to reporters based in free-market think tanks.

Like many non-profits, we don't publicize our donors. We do publicize our approach to journalism: We approach stories from a free-market, pro-liberty perspective, just as other publications have their own take. We state ours upfront and let the readers make their own decisions about the veracity of our pieces. The Franklin Center also runs a Citizen Journalism program that is completely separate from our professional journalism operation.

For some reason, journalism enterprises that are funded in much the same way that we are seem bothered by this. We've been so open with them that even the reporter for the left-wing Media Matters praised me for our openness. Not that it seeped into his reporting: His final piece on us last year could have been written without the months of research and interviews given that it ignored our best arguments, made connections that didn't exist and, basically, concluded that conservatives fund and work for conservative-oriented groups. No big deal.

But in mid-February, the game started again. Another left-wing, foundation-funded journalism group, the Center for Public Integrity, released a report about our funding. Media Matters wrote about us yet again, and its headline captured the gist of all these stories: "Franklin Center Top Donor Is Right-Wing's 'Dark Money ATM.'"

We expect these groups to target us. That's their mission. Here's where it gets disturbing. Their circular hype -- I write about you and then you write about me writing about you -- caused enough of a stir to prompt some prominent journalism enterprises to bite at the story. First, the London-based Guardian newspaper published a piece headlined, "Media campaign against wind farms funded by anonymous conservatives."

My editors and I couldn't immediately recall even running any articles about wind farms, let alone leading a campaign against them. But there we were in a major news publication described as the cat's paw for "conservative billionaires who are funding the anti-climate cause."

The author, Suzanne Goldenberg, never contacted us. She regurgitated the CPI "findings." We tried to respond. Nearly two weeks after the story ran, we finally heard back from the Guardian's readers' editor. He wouldn't print a rebuttal, but agreed to include my letter in the comments section and link from the story to the comment. He edited the letter significantly, removing the key fact that Goldenberg never contacted us while she reported the story. His explanation: Our criticism of the reporter was "ad hominem."

These elite journalists can say what they want about us, but any of my reporters who did such shoddy work would now be unemployed.

Shortly after the Guardian piece ran, Columbia Journalism Review ran a report based on the Guardian's report of the CPI report. CJR's reporter never contacted us, either. After CJR's piece about us last year, we submitted a short rebuttal and they wouldn't print it, suggesting instead that we place our response in the "comments" section reserved for readers. In that piece, CJR interviewed only one of our young interns.

Apparently, the arbiters of high-end journalism do not believe that the basic J-School lesson -- contact all sides in a story -- applies. And if you don't like it, post a comment!

Then Democracy Now!, syndicated on the estimable National Public Radio, produced a news segment on the pieces, and no one from that radio network called us, either. Much easier to simply repeat what you've read elsewhere.

I can regale you with the details of why these reports are so wrong, but then it becomes just a spitting contest. But it is ironic that in the single example CPI offers of a Franklin Center story that has been "called into question," it's CPI that is wrong. The reporter claims that Associated Press disputed our 2009 piece about phantom congressional districts, but the AP story reported that the "original report was correct."

I don't blame Media Matters and CPI for pushing an ideological agenda, but I do blame the media for getting played. Nor is this journalistic failure limited to the mainstream media and the Left. Erick Erickson, editor of the prominent conservative blog RedState, recently questioned the integrity of some conservative reporters who are so ideologically driven and angry that they "have forgotten the basics of reporting."

I stand by my view that most reporters are fair and decent, but I'll be more sympathetic next time someone complains about the biased media.

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Write to him at steven.greenhut@franklincenterhq.org.