Public media journalists lean left: Admit it and relax

Journalist Adam Ragusea acknowledges a poorly-kept secret: public media journalists — and journalists in general — lean left. Why pretend?

Writing on — the public broadcasting news site — Ragusea defends talk-show host Diane Rehm, who advocates for assisted suicide in her off hours, drawing the concern of NPR, which distributes her show.

Ragusea acknowledges journalists have a responsibility to “reflect the views and values of everybody in the country,” but that isn’t best achieved through impartiality, he writes. To do so suggests journalism without values.

Everyone knows what’s under the fig leaf, but we hide behind it all the same. In part, that’s because we tell ourselves that it doesn’t matter what we’ve got under there.

Mohn’s response to Rehm — “we all have our own biases,” but we try “to put them aside to cover the news” — reflects what I consider to be a fatal flaw in the logic of impartial journalism.

That reasoning goes, “Yeah, we may be a bunch of left-leaners in the newsroom, but it doesn’t matter, because we only report facts. We apply the journalistic method, which like the scientific method, nullifies bias, if properly applied.”

But I don’t think it’s possible to do journalism without projecting your own values. Even if you stick to the “who, what, when, where and why,” your social and political values will influence what stories you do and which perspectives you deem worthy of inclusion. No mainstream news outlet feels obligated to include overt segregationists in stories about race anymore, even though such people still exist.

It doesn’t engender trust, he says, to pretend that coverage on public radio is morally neutral.

“Everyone wants the media to have a moral center; they just argue over where it should be.”

One day in 2012 when I was producing for Radio Boston, WBUR’s local midday show, I wrote a script for our hosts to read that characterized the same-sex marriage issue as one of “marriage equality.” In our post-show wrap-up meeting that day, a colleague argued that we shouldn’t say “marriage equality” since it’s a term that’s only used by the proponents of same-sex marriage.

That’s true — “marriage equality” is not the most neutral available language, and therefore conventional journalistic wisdom states that it should be avoided.

But then again, what was Martin Luther King, Jr.? What was his job description? “Civil rights leader,” right? Do you think any segregationist would have consented to that description of MLK back in the 1960s? Do you think they called him a civil rights leader? No. They called him an agitator, and that’s when they were being nice.

“Civil rights leader” was not a neutral description at the time, and yet, King was a civil rights leader. That is the accurate description of the man.

Likewise, I think that Mary Bonauto, the lawyer who led the charge on legalizing same-sex marriage in Massachusetts (and our interview subject that day in 2012), is a marriage-equality leader.

You might argue that even though the idea that black people deserve equal rights isn’t controversial anymore, it was controversial in the ’60s, and so maybe it’s OK for reporters to call King a civil-rights leader now, but it wasn’t back then. That logic would suggest that as long as same-sex marriage remains somewhat controversial, I shouldn’t call Bonauto a marriage-equality leader.

“I maintain that journalists telling you what they really think doesn’t have to be predictable, nor does that opinion have to be the focus of the story,” he says. “It just happens to have been the focus of this one.”

Feel free to discuss below. But read the entire piece first.

  • lindblomeagles

    I really wish we’d stop labeling journalist left or right. The whole “labeling” thing is a right wing scheme to stop coverage of stories that actually matter while the right wing part of the country reinstitutes segregationist, discriminatory, and fascist laws. Americans NEED TO KNOW white supremacists like Dan Roof are trying to gun down innocent, law abiding, American citizens so that more innocent victims are not killed again. WE NEED TO KNOW the Christian Right wants Biblical Law to become national law because they are the Christian Right no longer wants people to pray in the manner each individual privately does now. WE NEED TO KNOW the Republican Party wants every individual American to pay for K-12 education, which threatens to reduce education for all public school students, especially Black and Hispanic students. The right wing’s desire to shield their purposes and plans from view should be on trial here, not the media.

    • Yeah, let’s not have a debate about the right wing. That has nothing to do with the post above. And it really is not a theme of anything that the gentleman wrote in his article.

  • Nick K

    The problem with this suggestion is that moving from “impartiality” to “objectivity” is only likely to make the problem of hidden agendas worse. I think journalists would start to stand behind their ideological openness as a way to hoodwink people into thinking they are providing fair coverage, when in fact, they are not (Fox News is a prime example of this). This issue even crept into Ragusea’s article. While talking about the bias NPR, he then implies that conservators are perhaps being overly sensitive on the subject: “When you watch or listen to a news show, I think you can always tell who is talking to whom. Conservative voices may be well-represented on NPR — actually over-represented, according to a 2004 analysis by the liberal media-watchdog FAIR — but I think you can always tell that their views are being presented to what is essentially a center-left audience within a center-left mode of inquiry.” The thing is, when you go and look at the FAIR analysis you’ll find that its justification for its finding is that G. W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell were interviewed or used as sources a lot. That’s hardly a surprise considering the “study” period occurred during major military operations in Iraq. This is a problem because, in this case, Ragusea comes across as being objective, but the reality is that, he really isn’t; however, the fact that he has a bias, in my opinion, becomes more obscured because abandoning the vale of impartiality creates an undeserved aura of objectivity.

    • There’s no such thing as objectivity; that’s part of the problem. I’ve written and talked about this a lot in the past so won’t repeat it here. But I’ve always considered this notion to be fraudulent.

      • I think, by the way, my boss made an interesting point in the discussion (the salient part of which is around 30:40). “Unfettered transparency begins really to compromise an institution.”

  • Brandon C. Toner

    Just because impartiality maybe impossible to achieve doesn’t mean journalist shouldn’t strive for it.

    • Can you be impartial yet still have a moral center?

      • Jim G

        Intellectual honesty is an important factor in any attempt at impartially. Having a moral center should preclude an overt manipulation of the facts. This is a main reason Fox News is the antithesis of impartiality. Public Media at least asks the question: Are we impartial?

  • MrE85

    I though he did a good job explaining the whole objectivity/impartial thing.

  • MrE85

    I’m not sure I agree with the “hire a high profile conservative” advise, though. When I want to know what a conservative thinks (and even when I don’t), I have no trouble finding them.

  • Jim G

    I never could be a journalist as it is practiced in most modern newsrooms. It asks a practitioner to set aside their upbringing, education, and life experience for faux balance. Being a full person with writings informed by a moral center makes so much more sense to me than a pretend objectivity. That’s why I can read and listen to conservatives like David Brooks, because he is up front with his upbringing and background.

  • Mitch Berg

    Well, I did it. I read the whole thing. Good article. I’ll be talking about on my show tomorrow. It was, by the way, refreshing after years of hearing Ira Glass and Bob Garfield strenuously repeating “I’m shocked, shocked that anyone could think us biased…”, a la Captain Renault.

    I’ve read European media for years, because their tradition is to embrace a point of view, while striving (the better sources, anyway) for honesty. You read the Frankfurter Allgemeine (and I do), you know you’re getting honest reporting with a center-right editorial slant, confirmation bias and point of view. And if you want, you can go and read Die Zeit to get the same thing from the center-left, or Süddeutsche Zeitung (think a German “Guardian”) for the hard left. Then, you can focus on whether you believe they are objective about the facts.

    As to Ragusea’s idea that public media should hire an “out” conservative? A trip through MPR’s various comment sections shows how direly *some* cognitive dissonance is needed. More seriously? I think both the left and the right would get more from a rational engagement than what we currently have – broadsides of smugness and anger signifying not much.

    (And yes, conservatives can be partial and objective; I’ll put my interviews up against anyone on public radio on both counts).

    • FYI, Mitch’s show is on 1-3p on AM1570

      • Mitch Berg

        Thanks for the plug, Bob!

        (Although it’s AM1280. Right building, wrong frequency 🙂