June 25, 2007

Symptoms, Not The Illness Itself

Howard Kurtz looks at the NBC report on political donations by journalists with a rather withering critique of his colleagues in the media. He called the rationalizations offered in the story "lame-sounding excuses" and defended the policies at most media outlets forbidding political activities by employees:

Some of these folks remain in denial. When you become a journalist, you give up the right to back political candidates or parties with your checkbook. And in this age of federal disclosures, it always comes out.

The news outlets that don't ban donations seem to regard them as a matter of personal preference, like joining the PTA. But they seriously underestimate the public distrust of journalists, which is only fueled by such practices. Those who work for opinion magazines or are employed as commentators have a stronger case that their views are no secret. But there is still an important distinction between rhetorically supporting a candidate and helping bankroll one.

The scorecard -- 125 of 144 donations to Democrats -- provides fresh ammunition to those who say the press has a liberal tilt. It's hard to argue you don't favor one party when you've just coughed up cash for that party.

When the story first came out, I wondered what Kurtz would write about it. I find his column a daily must-read regarding the state of both traditional journalism and the New Media, and I expected an intriguing argument from his column. He delivered on that expectation, but I believe he's wrong, and wrong in two significant ways.

Contrary to media management's belief, political contributions do not create political bias. Donations reveal political bias, as Kurtz himself notes. It's hard to argue that one doesn't favor one side or the other when Open Secrets can tell readers where the reporter's money goes -- and it seems that the ability to argue for objectivity transcends the need for truth. Rather than argue for openness, Kurtz and the industry argues for maintaining a secrecy that seems both hypocritical and a denial in and of itself, the same condition that Kurtz accuses journalists of having.

More importantly, I have to take issue with Kurtz' admonition that journalists have to accept a ban on political activity as a condition of working in the media. Journalists, just like any other Americans, should have no restrictions on their political activity imposed on them by their employment. It's a right that defines us as a nation, and the demand that journalists must forego it as a condition of employment again does nothing to address the real issues of bias, but imposes a cover-up that masks truth. A truly voluntary abstention from political activity would have a sense of nobility, but not an enforced ban.

From campus speech codes to the BCRA to forcing journalists into political darkness, it seems that America has fallen in love with top-down solutions to hide political differences. Wouldn't sunlight be easier, more effective, and far less costly?


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Comments (31)

Posted by Tom Shipley | June 25, 2007 9:25 AM

Any person is going to have politic bias, except for a few that are truly on the fence... it's human nature and reporters are not immune from this.

Difference is, with journalism, you're trained to go out and report, most importantly on the goings-on in Washington, with an un-biased approach.

No one was yelling political bias when Clinton was getting hammered by the Lewisnky affair. That was pretty much non-stop coverage for 2 years. There were even stories that he may have attacked bin Laden (some dude living in a cave half-way around the world) to distract from the scandal.

As I said before, if there's any bias in journalism it's a natural default to keep government open. You'll notice that all this media bias talk really took off after Bush and the republicans took office in 2000, then held power for the next 6 years. Yes, the press is going to focus on them more. that's how it works. Especially when Bush and Co. do some highly controversial things.

A news reporter can go out and cover government fairly, then come to a decision in his personal life to support one candidate over another. But a good reporter (and most of them at major papers are) will treat that politician with the same scrutiny if elected.

Posted by RBMN | June 25, 2007 9:29 AM

To a full-time political reporter, I'd say, if investigating the inner workings of politics leaves you enthused enough to make a campaign contribution to any side, then you're maybe not investigating hard enough.

Posted by vet66 | June 25, 2007 9:38 AM

With the knowlege that Libby is going to jail for a faulty memory of conversations with these media jackals years in the past, they are closing doors rapidly.

Knowing of their bias, which one would assume would affect their recollection in court years hence, I would not talk to them at all if I were in a position of power.
On the rare occasion when I did have to discuss matters of import, I would do it on the record with a written trancscript to follow.

We could call it the "rogue prosecutor rule" or the "I'm not going to risk being scootered rule!"

Posted by Tom | June 25, 2007 9:42 AM

Top-down "political solutions" ( Ed's words) are more than solutions. Campus speech/behavior codes, McCain-Feingold (and I can go on, but won't) are totalitarian in effect and intent. Freedom of ideas and truth are evaporating before our eyes.

Posted by Lew | June 25, 2007 9:57 AM


You memory of history is slipping very badly. Conservatives have been screaming about media bias since at least 1965 when the Vietnam War was the bette Noir of the so-called "new left". And excuse me, "nobody was screaming media bias during the Lewinsky scam."??? Where do you suppose the much-quoted phrase "vast right-wing conspiracy" came from? The Clinton machine was screaming its head off and so were conservatives and both were absolutely sure that the newsies were against them.

But even if all that weren't the case, why would I even think of giving a journalist a "benefit of the doubt" based on his self-serving assertions of professional detachment, when that same journalist makes his career out of accusations of "conflict of interest" in every other sphere of daily life? Why isn't journalism subject to the same cynical skepticism that the journalist urges upon the rest of us?

The answer is "Its not!" If its a dangerous conflict for us to take the drug company's advice about drug efficacy, and the oil company's advice on environmental impact, then its equally dangerous for us to take the journalist's self-serving opinion of his own "professional" detachment.

Insofar as journalism has encouraged me to be skeptical of such blatantly self-serving assertions, I will take them at their word.

Posted by SDN | June 25, 2007 9:59 AM

Clinton got hammered over Lewinsky by the press? News to me. I seem to remember the press burying stories about Juanita Broderick et al. Any stories like the ones you cite that I remember involved a quote like that from a "government official" and then 30 column inches on how this represented all Republicans and their crazy ideas.

Posted by Jason | June 25, 2007 9:59 AM

125/144 is "ammunition" eh? Sounds like Q.E.D. to me.

Posted by Tom Shipley | June 25, 2007 10:20 AM

Where do you suppose the much-quoted phrase "vast right-wing conspiracy" came from?

Well, I was referring to the claim that the MSM had a liberal bias. And I don't think Hillary Clinton was referring to media bias here, though her vast conspiracy probably did involve some members of the media.

But you do bring up a good point that the Clinton administration did raise questions about the reporting of the scandal, though I don't know if they ever went into accusations of bias. Here's an interested article in regards to that:


And I'll take your word that claims of media bias have been around since the hippie days, but I think (and this may have as much to do with the take off of the Internet) it really has hit full stride since Bush took office.

Posted by TomB | June 25, 2007 10:54 AM

You still miss the point. The problem is not political donations, or bias of the journalists, the problem is with the endemic leftist selection in the journalistic profession. Our MSM apparently use formula “Conservatives do not need to apply”. Obviously MSM deny, deny, deny (“What, us biased?!”), but it shows clearly in unexpected places, as structure of political donations for example.
By the way, the same situation clearly exists at most of the nation’s Universities.

Posted by Paul A'Barge | June 25, 2007 11:00 AM

...solutions to hide political differences. Wouldn't sunlight be easier, more effective...

Look, we're all about the sunlight, that's fine and dandy.

What galls are the rationalizations, and the extremeness inherent in donations to organizations like Moveon.org along with the blatant dishonesty in the justifications made by the contributors.

The supreme example is the NYT's ethicist. Talk about a lying piece of crap. You just can't make up this kind of thing ... the ethicist from what was once this nation's premiere news outlet gives money to one of the most extreme leftist/socialist organizations and then lies about it ... as though folks couldn't see directly through to his dishonest soul.

It just beggars the imagination.

OK, it probably would be better if folks like this would say things like "Yes, I am a dishonest hypocrite and an America-hating Socialist, but given that, here's my opinion on ... blah ... blah ... blah".

But what would be even better would be for these folks to be out of work and forced to do an honest day's work for an honest dollar, and I'm for letting the market place put them in their place.

Posted by Rob | June 25, 2007 11:02 AM

This post wants it both ways. It wants journalists to be able to make political contributions and it wants to be able to label those making them biased in favor of the party receiving the contribution.

A contribution is not a symptom of bias. Either a journalist is honestly trying to be unbiased or she is not (insert Fox News joke here). However, if the journalist is trying to be unbiased and reveals a political affiliation through a campaign donation, then the journalist will be perceived as biased with respect to her affiliation. I submit that it is IMPOSSIBLE for a journalist to exclude all bias from her writing. Accordingly, any perceived bias will be used as fodder to claim that the journalist writes with an intentional or unintentional bias. Thus, it makes sense for news organizations to attempt to eliminate the perception of bias by making rules that limit or eliminate actions that create the perception of bias.

I submit that this situation is analogous to that of our judiciary, especially on the state level. When judges are elected it is very important for them to attempt to eliminate any perceived bias. Because it is inherently impossible for them to actually eliminate all biases within themselves while working on a case, it is important for them not to give the public the perception of a bias. The public latches on to any perceived bias and immediately accuses the judges of improperly tipping the scales of justice in the favor of a particular litigant. Just as the media has latched onto this story as an example of how biased the MSM really is.

You cannot have it both ways. Either the press should be allowed to exercise their free speech rights--by contributing to whomever they want--without being accused of failing in their efforts to write an unbiased story because of their contributions, or they should not be allowed to make any contributions whatsoever because any contribution draws an accusation of bias.

It is fair to argue that a particular story or a series of stories are biased, but it is not fair to argue that an individual with a political conviction is incapable of writing an unbiased story.

Furthermore, why are we so concerned with media bias? The republicans have gained control of this country several times in recent years--in spite of the claimed liberal bias in the media. Clearly, any bias that has existed for the past 40 years has not been that influential on our political landscape. I would argue that people read and listen to the stories that they want to hear. Politically biased rags have been around since the times of our founding fathers. If they do have a major influence, the influence has been present for so many years that I would argue that it doesn’t matter anymore.

Just a few thoughts,


Posted by Lew | June 25, 2007 11:42 AM

Interesting article Tom. I appreciated its exhaustive thoroughness, but the problem with it is that it fails to even address the fundamental point at issue. There is a fundamental and profound difference between the way Liberals and Conservatives define normal human behavior and therefore the range of behavior one defines as "normal and reasonable". Liberals find it very easy to attribute credibility to the paranoid suspicions of all manner of evil things when it comes to Conservatives and vice versa, because each side profoundly disagrees about what "normal" human behavior is.

And the problem is that these notions are more operative at the level of basic assumptions than as ideas easily seen and questioned. They function as a background array of assumed expectations that screens events and facts in their own light, and heavily influence what questions get asked in response. And as you undoubtedly know, if you can influence the range of questions that get asked, you can control the range of answers that get considered.

I don't believe a real Conservative could look at the world through Liberal eyes any more than I could look at the moon through the eyes of a Martian. The difference is that basic!

So if we want to have "unbiased" news, we're going to need an ideologically balanced newsroom. Eighty-seven percent Liberal isn't going to get us there, no matter how "professional" they assure us that they try to be.

Posted by TomB | June 25, 2007 12:39 PM

Another problem of our MSM is declining quality of journalism, typical when ideology dictates outcome. Check out the http://allafrica.com/stories/200706251365.html from Nigeria to see an example of good journalism. Isn't it time to send at least a few of our finest to Nigeria to learn?

Posted by Tom Shipley | June 25, 2007 12:57 PM

TomB, you think that's a good example of reporting?

Posted by exDemo | June 25, 2007 1:16 PM

Journalsits ought to be able to donate to causes that they support. And conversely they should be forthright and open about their pootential bias.

I think the liberals should be hoist on thier own petard.. The Medai 'fairness people should be invoking Title IX diversity rights.

Solution: Enjoin any national media from employing any more left wing Democrats until their staffs approach the numbers as evoked by the American Populace's voting patterns. If you can use Title IX against private clubs, you can certainly employ them against a public organization, or you can kill Title IX.

Either way America wins.

How long were we treated to courts require having to hire only blacks, women, muslims hispanics, homosexuals, yada yada reached their quotas? As if that was a measure of a business that was based on making observations and reports on the political moves of the government.

Posted by DW | June 25, 2007 1:26 PM

I realize that on the surface it seems like sour grapes to complain about a liberal media bias.

At least until one asks oneself why the dozens of swift boat veterans who had served honorably in Viet Nam were ignored by the national media for months, yet a highly questionable document from a clearly questionable and biased source was rushed onto the airwaves by Rather, Mapes and others.

Posted by NoDonkey | June 25, 2007 1:28 PM

How many times have we heard reporters say they got into journalism to "make a difference".

Thank Woodward and Bernstein and that stupid movie that was made about them.

Reporting shouldn't be about "making a difference". A good umpire doesn't try to "make a difference", he tries to call the game properly.

"Journalists" today are the anointed and will not stop at reporting the facts - not when they can change hearts and minds.

Fortunately, less and less people are listening to the most biased. Maybe if enough people leave the audience, more outlets will find out there is an audience for fair and balanced reporting.

Posted by Mike M. | June 25, 2007 1:29 PM

Bias in journalism is certainly nothing new. There was the famous "yellow journalism" of the Hearst era, and the rather shameful tacit support of Stalinism from the New York Times in the Walter Duranty period.

The biggest difference between today and the old days though is that in the old days, the press by and large still consisted of patriots and loyal Americans. When America went to war against the enemies of civilization, openly criticizing the country and the President was unthinkable, even for the left-leaners in the press who might have been uncomfortable with some of the tactics used. They realized what was at stake and that for the good of everyone, we needed to win.

Obviously, this all changed during the Vietnam era with the ascension of the New Left, who would eventually come to dominate the modern press. The attitude of most of them to their own country today at best can be described as ambivalent, and at times is even downright hostile and willing to serve as propagadandists for the enemy.

Posted by TomB | June 25, 2007 1:30 PM

Tom Shipley,
I think it is better, than most of what we can get from our MSM. At least I can understand what they are talking about.

Posted by Tom Shipley | June 25, 2007 1:42 PM

Tom B,

The link you posted is for an editorial. The reason you like it is because is aspouses a point of view you agree with. It's not news reporting.

People who yell media bias don't know what good journalism is. They read a good news story and attack it as biased because it doesn't state truth as the they see it. It's fitting that someone who yells media bias cites an editorial as an example of good journalism.

Posted by TomB | June 25, 2007 2:05 PM

Tom Shipley,
In such a case most of our MSM reporting pretend to be some kind of editorials, trying to give me their kind of an opinion, usually based on custom tailored and incomplete data. Linked "editorial" at least gives me better background. And no, I don’t agree with some of the presented opinions, but at least most of the key facts are not omitted to lead me in the "right" direction.
And trust me, most people, yelling and quiet types alike know quite well what a good journalism is, even if it is hard to get these days...

Posted by Tom Shipley | June 25, 2007 2:15 PM

And trust me, most people, yelling and quiet types alike know quite well what a good journalism is

Why should I trust you? You don't know the difference between reporting and ediorializing. I knew at the second sentence (with the use of the words "it is clear") it was editorial.

The problem is, many people who claim media bias want editorialization that's not found in news stories. That's why I'm not surprised in the least that you confused an editorial with a news story.

Some people want reporters to denounce al qaeda as savages. they want reporters to pick sides between israel and palestine. When they report in an even-handed manner, they take that as an edorsement of al-qaeda or palestine. People read bias into news stories.

Posted by Sashland | June 25, 2007 2:34 PM

Bias is human. Containable, but ultimately unavoidable.
Exposed bias is information.

Financial pundits now are required by resposible media outlets to list conflicts of interest in reports - disclose if they own the stock in question. A reader can then analyse the information in light of the disclosed bias.

Why not have political reporters and pudits do the same - "Bob Rhino has contributed to the Dem. party and Dennis Kucinich" might give a reader additional insight if Bob pretends to be neutral.

Posted by TomB | June 25, 2007 2:37 PM

Tom Shipley,
You do a lot of assumptions and generalisations (..."People who yell media bias don't know what good journalism is."...). Really, all of them? How do you know this?
And no, you don't have to trust me at all, just look around and maybe listen and...

Posted by Bostonian | June 25, 2007 2:53 PM

Rob: "This post wants it both ways. It wants journalists to be able to make political contributions and it wants to be able to label those making them biased in favor of the party receiving the contribution."

You're not really getting it.

Journalists ARE biased. Our problem is not that they're biased, but that they ridiculously keep pretending that they are impartial.

It is insulting to the intelligence.

Posted by Tom Shipley | June 25, 2007 3:04 PM

(..."People who yell media bias don't know what good journalism is."...)

OK, you got me. Replace "people who yell media bias" with "You".

Posted by Rob | June 25, 2007 3:30 PM

Bostonian -

I agree that journalists are biased but I also believe that they can and should be attempting objectivity when they write.

It appears that most people on this blog simply accept the notion that a campaign contribution establishes that a journalist writes with a particular bias. I am asserting something very different. I submit that all journalists carry with them bias, as do all people, however that does not outright establish that they attempt to write with bias. However, if you know about a particular journalist’s political contribution you will assume the latter.

Journalism is one of the few professions that requires serious practitioners to eschew their personal views. Accordingly, the public immediately picks up on the slightest perception of bias and uses it against the journalist. Therefore, I submit that journalists should vigorously attempt to avoid even the slightest perception of bias.

To put it simply, it’s just that kind of a job

Posted by docjim505 | June 25, 2007 7:08 PM

OK, let's try this...

I have NEVER voted for a f***ing democrat. I will NEVER vote for a f***ing democrat. As far as I am concerned, democrats are nothing but cheats, liars, traitors and scum who deserve to be in prison.

But I promise - cross my heart! - that if I work for a major news organization as a reporter, I will be totally free of bias. C'mon! You can trust ME.


Trusting that news reporters who overwhelmingly contribute to one party because they're PROFESSIONALS who know how to put aside their biases is about as smart as trusting a judge who is also a klan member to give a black man a fair trial.

Posted by Bostonian | June 25, 2007 7:27 PM

What doc said.

These people overwhelmingly think and ACT like cheerleaders for the Democrats. And (no link handy but I've seen this several times) the majority of the US recognizes that fact.

To anyone who believes the press is somehow objective, please ask yourself what would happen if a large group of men who had served in the military alongside a *Republican* presidential candidate came forward publicly to denounce him as unfit for command? Which would happen:

A) The press immediately covers the story, with Dan Rather breathlessly reporting the details. There are top-of-fold stories for weeks. Editorials demand explanations.

B) The press ignores the story ENTIRELY for nearly two months until the same men write a best-seller book.

If you answer B, you really have not been paying attention the last several years.

Posted by CK | June 25, 2007 10:03 PM

Again, another non-scientific and non-thorough piece of crap study that will allow you guys to continue the B.S. idea that journalists are against republicans.

144 out of 122,000 "journalists" (including sports journalists), are found to have given maybe a 250 donation to a particular political organization. And that somehow proves something?

Give me a break.

I know you guys really want to believe this, but you have to admit it isn't scientific, and it isn't telling of the whole--- considering the minuscule sample size.

Posted by MarkW | June 26, 2007 9:52 AM

According to liberals, good journalism is any story that supports their viewpoint.