Little Agreement at ASNE Panel on Bias

By: Joe Strupp Ask journalists about bias in news coverage, alleged or real, and you're not likely to get much agreement. This reality made for a lively panel discussion, "The Bias Question: The News of Affirmation vs. Verification," at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference this morning.

A wide-ranging group including former New York Times managing editor Gerald Boyd, liberal columnist Eric Alterman, conservative columnist Kathleen Parker, and Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, took on the issue. Dave Zeeck, editor of The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., moderated.

There was little agreement, though all acknowledged that public perception of news coverage has had a greater impact on how it is presented than in years past.

?The traditional model of journalism is not bad and it is not going away,? Alterman said when asked about how journalists can satisfy accusations of bias. ?Journalists have allowed the right to define this model as ?liberal bias.? In a quite understandable panic that newspaper editors are feeling about the rapid decline of readership, the core mission is getting lost in a lot of places, and pandering is replacing it.?

Alterman, who is also a fellow at the Center for American Progress, went on to criticize the effort to provide ?objective? journalism, which he contends can push newspapers to give opposing viewpoints more credit than they deserve.

?I?m not so crazy about objectivity, or what is defined as objectivity,? he told a crowd of hundreds of editors. ?It seems to me that blue-state journalism tries to be objective. There is very little liberal journalism.?

That started a mini-argument. ?There is a liberal bias in the media, and we know it,? Parker said. Alterman?s quick response: ?How can you say it as fact? It is not a fact.?

Boyd chimed in, ?Most journalists are socially liberal, most publishers are conservative. We have got to find a way to better explain ourselves.?

But Rosenstiel said, ?The percentage of people who self-identify themselves as liberal is small, most identify themselves as moderate.?

Parker said she was often labelled a conservative, which she added was "fine."

She noted that newsroom had changed in many ways over the years, not just in partisanship, but in social habits--workers used to swear more, smoke more, and drink more.

By and large, however, the other panelists dominated the discussion.

One problem with objectivity, Alterman claimed, was that it ?doesn?t have any bias toward the truth.? He cited the way Colin Powell?s Feb. 2003 speech to the United Nations was reported, without skepticism. ?When an American official says something, puts his name on it and deems it to be true, we accept it.? He compared the Powell speech to coverage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized the Vietnam war in response to a non-existent North Vietnamese attack on a U.S. warship.

Rosenstiel admitted that there are some cases in which people are trusting newspapers less, and partisan outlets more. ?What I would call partisan journalism is not taking over, it is not eliminating what we consider traditional, but it is a bigger part of people?s news consumption,? he said, pointing out that such a viewpoint is driving some people away from newspapers. ?What is vanishing is not the newspaper reader, per se, but the seven-day newspaper reader. We become a smaller, smaller part of that mix.?

Boyd said the bias issue is not just political but also cultural. ?We should give the public a little credit. If you present both sides of an issue and do it with analysis, the public could figure it out,? he said about the goal of unbiased reporting. ?The problem we?re facing is threefold. It begins with the fact that journalism today as we know it is guilty of the sin of sameness. We go to the same schools, live in the same neighborhood, send our children to the same schools. How do we get to know what people are facing??

He also said news editors and reporters need to accept calls for change more readily. ?We have got to be honest with ourselves. We are very defensive. We go around saying, ?Who are you to question me?'? He then slammed the growing ?celebrity journalist? boom. ?More and more now, journalists are becoming celebrities and as celebrities, we have opinions, and we don?t hesitate to offer them. That is a radical change.?

Boyd said newspapers need to be relevant and make themselves as necessary as they were right after Sept. 11, when readership boomed because readers knew the paper would give them vital information. ?It has got to write about issues that people talk about around the family dinner table,? he said about papers. ?It has got to find ways to navigate this world we are living in.?

Rosenstiel agreed. ?Newspapers and broadcasters behaved differently after 9/11. They demonstrated, for a brief period of time, an act of civic selflessness,? he said. ?They did things not in their short-term self-interest but in the public interest. The public believes we operate in our own economic self-interest.?

When questions of diversity?s effect on bias crept in to the conversation, Boyd offered an anecdote. ?I remember how a group of white editors [at The New York Times] sat around and talked about whether the death of [Latino singer] Selena warranted a front page story,? he told the audience. ?They decided it wasn?t. Then Latino and Hispanic reporters came up to the white editors and said, you guys are nuts for not putting it on Page One. The decision was changed, and as a result these editors were complimented the next day for being so smart.?

One laugh came after Alterman criticized New York Times columnist John Tierney for a piece he wrote during last summer?s Republican National Convention in which he made fun of Upper West Side shoppers and questioned whether they had examined their consciences. ?I took this seriously," Alterman said. "It is an attack on people like us. It is OK all of a sudden to malign West Side elitist liberals like me."

Boyd, quick to support Tierney, said: ?Eric, you?ve really got to cut down on the caffeine. I don?t think it is the end of civilization.?


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here