Liberal bias in the media is written about and discussed regularly by conservatives and libertarians. We hear about news stories or reports that are biased either by presenting news highly saturated with opinion and slanted with a liberal world view or by distorting facts to the point that the reader or audience is misled.
Stories that are under reported or not reported at all are forms of bias. Bias by omission is possibly more disturbing since a viewer or reader has to be actively looking for what might be missing. A news organization that buries a story or ignores a story entirely allowing it to fall through the cracks may be missed and go unrecognized by a large portion of the audience.
Journalists are human and bias might creep into one’s mindset over time. However, it is deliberate if a reporter or a news organization consciously uses its reporting style to shape the public’s opinion. In either case the journalist does a disservice to the public when a story is written in a way that lacks balance and/or fundamental fairness.
I recently had conversations on media bias and the damage inflicted by unfair reporting with two old friends, one liberal and one conservative and both of the baby boomer generation. Both conversations touched on a long forgotten oath that students used to be taught while in Journalism school. With research (thanks to Craig Ladwig) I was able to find the “Journalist’s Creed” written by Walter Williams, founder of the country’s first School of Journalism at the University of Missouri.
Williams (no relation to the present-day economist of the same name) developed the Creed in 1914 and while it may seem quaint and old fashioned there might be a way to dust it off and make use of it today. It is thought that Professor Williams wrote the oath in response to the prevalence of ‘yellow journalism’ around the beginning of the 20th Century.
Professor Williams believed that journalists would earn the public’s trust only if they were trained as professionals and held themselves accountable to the highest professional standards. Here is the Journalist’s Creed:
I believe in the profession of journalism.
I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust.
I believe that clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism.
I believe that a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true.
I believe that suppression of the news, for any consideration other than the welfare of society, is indefensible.
I believe that no one should write as a journalist what he would not say as a gentleman; that bribery by one’s own pocketbook is as much to be avoided as bribery by the pocketbook of another; that individual responsibility may not be escaped by pleading another’s instructions or another’s dividends.
I believe that advertising, news and editorial columns should alike serve the best interests of readers; that a single standard of helpful truth and cleanness should prevail for all; that the supreme test of good journalism is the measure of its public service.
I believe that the journalism which succeeds best — and best deserves success — fears God and honors Man; is stoutly independent, unmoved by pride of opinion or greed of power, constructive, tolerant but never careless, self-controlled, patient, always respectful of its readers but always unafraid, is quickly indignant at injustice; is un-swayed by the appeal of privilege or the clamor of the mob; seeks to give every man a chance and, as far as law and honest wage and recognition of human brotherhood can make it so, an equal chance; is profoundly patriotic while sincerely promoting international good will and cementing world-comradeship; is a journalism of humanity, of and for today’s world.
Williams’ Creed could be viewed as Journalism’s version of the Medical profession’s Hippocratic Oath. For centuries up to the present physicians have sworn to practice medicine honestly and to ‘do no harm’. In this context we should ask ourselves some questions – Do we need such a guidepost for journalists? Is the Creed of any practical use today in the digital, 24×7 age? Is it workable in the country that has become center-left politically?
To attempt to answer to the first question examples listed below are instructive and violate the core principles of Walter Williams’ Creed:
On public trust – the public trust relates to the origins of democratic government and its seminal idea that within the public lies the true power and future of a society; therefore, whatever trust the public places in its officials must be respected.
Example 1: The Romney press conference Sept. 12, 2012 regarding embassy attacks in Cairo and Libya. Several reporters were captured on tape coordinating their questions to make sure that regardless of who Romney called for questions they would be sure that the same question would be asked. The reporters’ focus was all about the tone of Romney’s critical comments on the administration’s handling of the embassy attack and had nothing to do with any substantive questions regarding the attack itself. Six of the seven reporters’ questions asked were nearly identical.
Example 2: The Washington Post and the Obama campaign appear to coordinate attacks on Romney regarding Bain Capital and outsourcing. Although collusion can’t be proven, there were two events that occurred in June 2012, a day apart, that all should be look at with a critical eye. June 20 – Obama launches an attack ad on Romney on outsourcing practices while at Bain. June 21 – the Post publishes detailed report on outsourcing jobs at the expense of American workers. Campaign ads especially at the presidential level take time to create and rollout. In depth news stories like the Bain story take a long time to research, interview, fact-check and write. The timing of these two events, occurring back-to-back in the heat of a campaign, cannot strengthen the public trust. http://cdn.breitbart.com/Big-Journalism/2012/06/23/Wapo-Obama-Coordinate-outsourcing-attack Subsequent, the Obama ad and its incendiary allegations were tagged with 4 Pinocchios as inaccurate according to Glenn Kessler, the Post’s own fact-checker. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/4-pinocchios-for-obamas-newest-anti-romney-ad/2012/06/20/gJQAGux6qV_blog.html
On accuracy and fairness – Example: Reporting on the causes and the responsibility of the financial meltdown of 2008. The actual origins go back close to two decades with policies that were put in place by multiple administrations and enabled by the actions of Congress and governmental agencies including the Fed and HUD. Yet main stream media (MSM) reporting and commentary during the 2008 campaign placed the blame almost entirely with George W. Bush. Even to this day the notion still exists. In reality, there are detailed factual accounts that chronicle a far more accurate pathway to the crisis. However, these analyses are rarely seen or understood by the larger population. Balanced reports describe how policies of the Clinton administration and the work of Barney Frank in the Congress contributed to the crisis in significant ways. Unfortunately, these facts are invariably absent in any MSM reporting. http://news.investors.com/ibd-editorials/091613-671300-washington-not-wall-street-created-the-housing-meltdown.htm
On writing (or reporting) what the journalist holds in his heart to be true – Example: The media’s treatment of the rape allegation against members of the Duke University Lacrosse team. Much of the reporting of the incident was short on facts and long on politically correct sensationalism. The New York Times carried dozens of stories during the period many of which pushed a racial angle that a group of privileged, drunken white college students did in fact rape a poor black woman. Over time, even as more evidence regularly emerged that disputed the charges (flawed statements, medical examinations, DNA evidence, etc.), the NY Times proceeded to publish stories in follow up to the alleged incident that continued to imply the guilt of the accused. Later all charges were dropped when it was determined that the alleged victim had lied about the entire incident. One could speculate that the story line emanated more from what the newspaper reporters wished to be true rather than what was factual. Lawsuits were filed on behalf of the individuals targeted in the probe and some have cases have settled some are still pending. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/hey_wait_a_minute/2006/08/witness_for_the_prosecution.single.html
On suppression of the news – Example: The lack of coverage by major news outlets of the trial of abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell and procedures at his Philadelphia abortion clinic. Weeks after the trial began, Kirsten Powers slammed her colleagues in a USA Today article for being MIA and not reporting on this gruesome story. The facts of the case – horrific procedures performed on babies, exploited women and numerous government failures should have been front page news and on evening broadcasts across the country. Disturbing accounts on abortion horrors are not the media’s strong suit. Power’s story, although a liberal herself, made a difference and reporters scrambled to get to Philadelphia. She should be lauded for calling out her colleagues. http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2013/04/10/philadelphia-abortion-clinic-horror-column/2072577/
On individual responsibility may not be escaped by pleading another’s instructions or another’s dividend – Example: Presidential debate moderator Candy Crowley inserted her opinion and participated in the October 16, 2012 Foreign Policy debate. During the debate Obama claimed he said in the press conference the day after the Benghazi consulate attack, which left the Libyan Ambassador and three others dead, that the attack was a planned coordinated attack carried out by terrorists. Romney quickly disputed this and at once countered that it actually took President Obama 14 days to characterize the attack as conducted by terrorists. Crowley interrupted immediately and stated that Governor Romney was wrong and thus backing up Obama’s position. It seems fair to conclude that at that point she ceased being the moderator and had taken the side of Obama in an unprecedented way. She later admitted that Romney was, in fact, mostly correct. By then the damage was done. She is still employed by CNN. http://newsbusters.org/blogs/rich-noyes/2012/10/17/candy-crowley-aids-obama-2-1-liberal-agenda-validation-libya-falsehood
On a single standard of helpful truth and cleanness should prevail for all – Example: The Main Stream Media applies a double standard when reporting on matters of race – one for liberals and one for conservatives. The clearest example is demonstrated in how the Travon Martin story was covered and sensationalized for over a year. Contrast this with the media’s treatment recently of three recent murders in Oklahoma, Georgia and Washington where the victims were white and the alleged murders are black. Almost nothing is heard of these 3 tragic cases since their initial reports.
More broadly on the topic of race, Republicans or Tea Party members are often portrayed, subtly or not so subtly, as being anti-civil rights or even racist by the MSM. The facts tell a different story – the Republican Party and its members had an important role in getting civil rights legislations passed in the 50’s and 60’s. It is forgotten history but Democrats were not on the right side of the issue during the time period. There were notable obstructionists in the party who played a key roles in blocking legislation early on in the struggle. This goes hard against conventional wisdom and is rarely, if ever, referenced by the MSM. John Adams famously said: “Facts are stubborn things” – Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials. http://nationalreview.com/articles/300432/party-civil-rights-kevin-d-williamson
On (journalism) as always respectful of its readers (or audience) but always unafraid – Example: Steve Croft’s interview with Obama and Hillary Clinton on 60 minutes in January 2013. The interview was conducted in a manner that provided no new information about important issues. Nor did it add to a greater public understanding of presidential policies and actions. Hard hitting questions from Croft to the President were scarce at a particular time when there was no shortage of critical topics. Compare this to Scott Pelly’s interview with George W. Bush on the same program some years earlier and the difference is apparent. Why would Croft in a 1-on-1 interview or in the case of the White House press corps at a Presidential press conference pull their punches? Are journalists fearful of losing their access to one of the most powerful positions in the world? To serve the public’s benefit journalists have a duty to speak truth to power and to be the public’s representatives when holding powerful people accountable for their actions. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/01/steve-krofts-softball-obama-interviews-diminish-60-minutes/272611/
There are dozens of examples that could fit under each one of the categories but where does this lead? First we have to start with the premise that as a free and democratic society we require agenda-free journalism to protect our liberties. If this premise is accepted then maybe what is needed is to use the Journalist’s Creed as a measuring stick. In other words let’s use the Creed as the foundation for developing a set of metrics with which to evaluate news stories, reporters and news organizations.
This would not be unlike the efforts of the Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post who routinely conducts fact-checking efforts on statements made by politicians or spokespersons for politician. Kessler rates statements and awards anywhere from 1 to 4 Pinocchios based on the factual accuracy of a politician’s statements. The twist here is to focus on news reporting and not politician’s statements.
Why not provide a rating structure in the context of the Journalist’s Creed for news stories where reporters and news rooms are held accountable by the public? Articles, columns and broadcasts would be scored against a set of objective criteria based on the Journalist’s Creed and published. The bottom line: The public deserves to know if, how and when distortions occur in our reporting. In the interests of liberty and freedom we deserve a fair account of the facts from those entrusted with providing the truth.
Of course, there are practical issues to address and steps to be taken. To name a few: 1) Determine the degree that there is even recognition and acceptance of the Journalist’s Creed by the profession, 2) Evaluate the Creed, written 100 years ago, against the realities of the modern digital age and update if necessary, 3) Develop a balanced, simple set of metrics to score news stories, 4) Determine the resources and means to monitor the services provided by our journalistic community.
The case presented here would suggest that journalism has gone off the tracks in a meaningful way and that the profession is in need of a course correction. Is this too idealistic? Has the culture and politics gone too far leftward for a suggestion like this to work? Is the initiative described above just a fool’s errand? I don’t think so … It’s a workable solution and it’s time.