More on the Alpha and Omega of All Things Factual

conformityNo one is surprised when reporters are found to have certain biases. We all have personal opinions. Some of us handle our biases better than others, of course. Here at GetReligion, we tend to worry about the lack of diversity in newsroom biases. So many reporters have similar educational and economic backgrounds and similar views on the contentious issues of the day. I’m not breaking any news here.

But what bothered me about the recent revelation of the biases of New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse was her defense that her biases didn’t represent her opinions but facts. It’s arrogant and does such a disservice to journalism when reporters think their unimportant little opinions are magically transformed into unquestionable facts.

Feel free to revisit what Linda “I am the Alpha and Omega of All Things Factual” Greenhouse said in her fact-based speech at Harvard.

Paul Horwitz, a law professor who writes on PrawfsBlawg, had an interesting response to Greenhouse. He took her remarks and mirrored them from a different angle:

What startles me, though, is Greenhouse’s curt and dismissive response to [Times public editor Byron] Calame, suggesting that she had merely engaged in “statements of fact,” and Levinson’s view that her comments fell easily — not barely, or reasonably, but easily — within that category.

Do you agree, dear readers? And what if she had made the following remarks:

My tears dried up, however, when I realized the strides that our generation had made. And that became even clearer when I reflected on our President’s signing of a bill that would permit interrogation of terror suspects, potentially saving many lives, while still offering a set of rules addressing and cabining the forms of permissible interrogation. And let’s not forget the renewed respect for unborn lives, the resistance to sexual license, and the belief that Christians are not banned from participation in the public square. … As I look toward the next chapter in my life, I feel a growing sense of obligation to resist the absurd influx of people over a non-existent “border” that some of our policy makers want to erase, and to do what I can to help those jobless American workers whose only offense is that they are willing to respect the immigration and employment laws of their own country.

I’m not asking whether you agree more with the first, actual set of Greenhouse’s remarks than with my fictional version. As it turns out, I’m more sympathetic to the first set of hyperbolic remarks than the second, but that’s beside the point. I’m just curious: Are the second set of remarks also “statements of fact?” Do Greenhouse’s defenders agree that they would be no more objectionable than the first set? And that neither set would raise questions about a reporter’s objectivity?

Much has been made over Greenhouse’s big-name journalism awards. Previous public editor Daniel Okrent said he’d received no complaints about her bias. Whether that proves that conservative readers have given up any hope of getting a fair shake at the Times or that Greenhouse has been transformed into a bias-free reporter is up to you. But I’ll make a similar claim: I don’t know a single reporter who would privately or publicly agree with Horwitz’s imaginary response. And that brings us right round to where we began. Our newsrooms need more diversity of thought.

How do we get there?

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  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    As long as the main newspapers hire from the journalism schools, and those candidates exclusively, then there likely will be no diversity in the newsroom. Or, perhaps, the famous “Roe Effect” will come into play and an influx of multiple viewpoints will spill out of our journalism schools and into the newsroom.

    Of course the “mainstream media (MSM)” is already under assault be new forms of media offering diverse viewpoints. At some point CNN has to ask what makes Fox News popular and emulate it. The big newspapers have to staunch their eroding circulations and find out what makes a growing paper grow (outside of extremost papers found free in many cities).

  • ralphg

    As a technical writer for 20+ years at magazines and of books, I’ve spent time puzzling over how to deal with bias.

    Lately, I’ve had the thought that a better term might be “priorities.” The Canadian Broadcasting Corp, for instance, is more likely to cover a women’s day protest attended by 50 than a pro-life march attended by 10,000.

    … because women’s rights are more important to CBC employees than fetal rights. Seeing this from the perspective of priorities might make it easier to understand. I can list my priorities; it’s hard for me to list my biases.

    Linda Greenhouse listed her priorities; because they are important to her, they become facts to her.

    I’d like to suggest that we reserve the term “bias” for occasions when the bias is deliberate, such as my on-going deliberate bias against convicted-monopolist Microsoft.

  • Dennis Colby

    I think the idea of diverse newsrooms is good in principle, but the notion of making it an achievable goal with quotas and checkpoints make me queasy. Should we start giving prospective hires multiple choice tests on political questions? Should we turn away qualified candidates because the newsroom is already full of pro-choice agnostics?

    I don’t actually know that politics plays a role in hiring decisions. I’ve been fortunate enough to be hired by a number of different operations over the years, and am now in what I consider a reasonably high position in the industry. My political, moral or religious beliefs have never been an issue apart from getting me better stories – editors would put me on religion stories just because they knew I was interested in the subject.

    Ultimately, I think it’s a question of professional performance. I think Greenhouse’s comments were stupid, and her defense of them as “facts” is offensive. But the key question to me is whether she has genuinely been an unbiased reporter. If Okrent is right about the low volume of complaints about her work, I’m content to leave it there, although I think the Times should have a stronger policy on the public political activities of its employees. My current employer, for example, all but forces us to register as independents, and to refrain from all marching, demonstrating, and petition signing – a policy with which I whole-heartedly agree.

    So, I suppose this is a long-winded way of saying that when it comes to diversity of thought, by their fruits we shall know them.

  • Larry Rasczak

    How do we get there?

    Mollie, I love you, but why do you assume that the MSM is even trying?

    Never underestimate the desire of people to stay on a comfortable sinking ship. The first lifeboat off the TITANIC left with only 28 people on board out of a maximum capacity of 65. It was cold and dark out and nobody wanted to leave an “unsinkable” ship for a tiny little lifeboat.

    Then extend that analogy to two things I saw on Pajamas Media today…

    One, that there are rumors of massive impending layoffs at NBC, the notorious perpitratiors of Veggie/Madonna-Gate, The Book of Daniel fiasco,and who built their fall lineup around “Studio 60 from the place where we laugh at Christians”.

    and two

    “Expect another bloodbath for many papers when the Audit Bureau of Circulations releases the fall newspaper circulation FAS-FAX report on Oct. 30. Industry sources who have seen the numbers tell E&P they anticipate that for the six months ending September 2006, top-line daily circulation will fall roughly 2.5% while Sunday will drop approximately 3%.”

    Both John and Dennis are right. “…by their fruits we shall know them.”

    Those fine folks who supply the greater New York Area with fishwrap and birdcage linings (not to mention the folks at “God-free NBC”) COULD have opened up their newsrooms decades ago. They COULD have picked up some of the pieces P.J. O’Rourke or David Horrowitz to wrote about the Sandinistas and the Contras. They COULD have hired John Allen Jr. and Michael Medved given them a “This week in God” segment (appologies to Mr. Steven Colbert). They could have done any number of things.

    If they didn’t do them then, why assume they want to do them now?

  • http://carelesshand.net Jinzang

    The last time I checked the New York City area had several conservative as well as several liberal papers. So a liberal paper hires a liberal reporter. The problem is exactly what? So another person confuses their opinions with facts. I’m supposed to be alarmed?

    Better that you should worry about the fact that most metropolitan areas in this great nation are served by only one paper.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    How’s this for a goal: Newspaper newsrooms need to seek enough diversity to accurately cover the communities they serve? They need a staff that is diverse enough to prevent screw-ups that drive off readers and warp the news.

    How about that as a goal?

    How do you know when you reach this goal? The number of complaints from readers go down, complaints about ACCURACY.

  • Michael

    The question is what are conservatives doing to increase the number of applicants and journalists. Given the size of the elite intellectual world, what is it doing to increase the number of conseravtive journalists who don’t go into the conservative ideological media. There are a lot more conservative journalism fellowships than liberal ones, so what are the fellowhip organizations doing.

    Elite mainstream media is not diverse in any way. Too many white, straight male Ivy Leaguers and not enough people of color, women, or gays. The same allegedly applies to conservatives. We see minority journalism groups actively advocating and encouraging journalists, offering opportunities for professional development and recruiting. So what are conservative journalists doing?

  • Larry Rasczak

    AH,

    There is the problem. Readrship is self selecting.

    At one time in the dim past I watched PBS. I even gave them money on occasion. However I stopped respecting them back when Frontline did a hit piece on the Contras. (Not Iran-Contra, the Contras… this was most likely 83 or 84.)

    Gradually I stopped watching them. Not so much out of anger (though there was some at the time) but because they had lost credibility with me. Frontline had lied to me and as I saw more and more biased stuff from Frontline
    (and the NewsHour) I discovered I have better things to watch. (Thank you cable TV!)

    So I simply got into the habit of not watching PBS at all, or even checking to see what is on. I don’t think we have ever even watched Sesamie Street with the kids… some Telletubbies, but nothing else I can think of. Moslty we watch Nick Toons now… we used to watch Cartoon Network when Genndy Tartakovsky, and Craig McCracken ruled the roost over there, butless so now…. though The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy are always a family favorite.

    In any case PBS won’t get a complaint from me because I simply don’t watch them. The same for the NYT, or the L.A. Times, or Time or Newsweek, or that grumpy old senile coot who is on CNN in the mornings ranting and pushing the bounaries of human stupidity. I did complain to NBC about the Book of Daniel, because I’m Anglican it was pretty egregious; but I haven’t complained to NBC about Veggie Tales; even though we own every Veggie Tales ever made (with the exception of Sumo of the Opera and the Easter Carol). We watched the bowlderized veggies once, just out of morbid curiosity. Now we watch The Legion of Super Heros on Kids WB and get our Veggies on tape. (The Legion of Superheros has Superman, and he’s big at our house.)

    Complaining to a network about liberal bias is like complaining to a skunk about having black fur and a bad smell. As somebody said once “Never try to teach a pig to sing, it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.”

    So Tmatt you are only 1/2 right. You say that in order to survive “newspaper newsrooms need to seek enough diversity to accurately cover the communities they serve” and “They need a staff that is diverse enough to prevent screw-ups that drive off readers and warp the news.”

    This is ABSOLUTEY true.

    But you pre-suppose facts not in evidence.

    1) Liberal Bias has been driving off readers for DECADES…why do you assume all the “driving off of readers” is going on in the present tense?

    2) Why do you assume that newspaper newrooms are going to survive at all?

  • Larry Rasczak

    Michael asks “So what are conservative journalists doing?”

    Answer: Running Fox News, Wall Street Journal, Weekly Standard, National Review, Human Events, National Review on-line, Pajama’s Media, TownHall.com, Captian’s Quarters, Little Green Footballs, American Rifleman, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Jerry Doyle, Michael Medved, and virtually every single Talk Radio show that isn’t subsidized by the government or in bankruptcy proceedings.

  • Dennis Colby

    tmatt,

    Okay, you’ve set a goal. But how do you go about achieving that? All that vague language about being diverse enough to cover the communities they serve sounds like quota-speak to me. Should we set conservative quotas for newsrooms? If not, how do you plan to reach your goal?

    I think the question is hiring people who are knowledgeable about specific fields rather than hiring people with certain religious, ethnic, or political backgrounds. You don’t have to believe in God to adequately cover religion, just like you don’t have to belong to a political party to cover politics. But you should be knowledgeable about whatever you’re covering – that’s what’s going to cut down on inaccurate or one-sided reporting, not hiring a pro-lifer to cover abortion just because she’s pro-life.

    I would love to see J-schools focus more on getting people to specialize in specific subjects, although I think Columbia’s graduate program has started doing this (there’s not a religion component, though, sadly). Journalists have to start letting go of the notion of being generalists and open to the idea of specializing in a beat the way academics specialize in their subjects.

    And Larry:
    Out of all those outlets, precisely one is a respectable organ doing unbiased reporting: the Wall Street Journal. And the Journal reporters I know aren’t “conservative” by any stretch of the imagination – they’re just good reporters. Your other examples are all opinion journalism – that’s fine, particularly for Europe, but it’s not the same thing the unbiased press is trying to do. Creating an alternative conservative media is not the answer, because that’s admitting objectivity shouldn’t even be a goal.

  • Larry Rasczak

    “Creating an alternative conservative media is not the answer, because that’s admitting objectivity shouldn’t even be a goal.”

    But that’s what HAS happened. Notice the past tense. It’s not Fox that is laying off 700 staffers and consolidating their news operations.

    “Objective Journalisim” died about the same time Walter Cronkite took it upon himself to decide what our national Vietnam policy should be. If I were Greenhouse I’d say “that’s a fact”.

    What is a fact is that every J-school in America became filled with Woodward and Bernstien wannabes right afterwards, and that certianly didn’t help the bias situation any.

    I remember the calls about liberal bias in the media back in the 70s and 80s. Because the left had a solid lock on the networks and the dead tree media those calls were ignored. National Review and George Will being on David Brinkely’s show was pretty much it. If you study economics it was a classic case of monopoly power.

    Then came cable with CBN and the 700 Club. Then came talk radio, then came Fox News, then came the blogs. The market responded to the monopoly the way it always responds to a monopoly; substitute goods (opinons) were found.

    So I ask again, if this has been going on since the Ford administration, why do you suddenly assume someone is going to actually do something about it now?

    You aren’t talking about locking the barn door after the horse has gone; you are talking about locking the barn door after the horse has moved away, joined the Cavalry, served three tours overseas, gone to college on the G.I. Bill, gotten married, bought a nice house in the suburbs, had kids, founded his own accounting firm, married off the kids, retired, moved to Florida, and taken the grandkids to DisneyWorld.

  • Dennis Colby

    Larry,

    I actually don’t think the problem with bias in newsrooms is acute as some people; I’m not the one proposing goals for getting more conservatives in newsrooms. When you start making sweeping generalizations about the makeup of “every J-School in America,” you’re doing yourself a disservice. The press is actually a lot less monolithic than you think.

    The problem with creating pseudo-news organizations – on the Right and Left – is that it essentially violates the classic American understanding of what the news media is supposed to do: give people as much information as they need to be informed citizens. Admittedly, this has always been more of a goal than a reality, but as long as it’s a goal you can still call bad reporters to account, and you can still rely on the press 90 percent of the time to give you the straight story.

    Things like Fox News are harbingers of the Europeanization of the American press – not surprising, since Rupert Murdoch became a world power through the British press. But in Europe, it’s expected that different news organs will be biased – left wing people read left wing papers, and right wing people read right wing papers. That might be okay for Europe, but their understanding of citizenship is different than the one prevalent in America. And, incidentally, the European press is almost uniformly terrible, in my estimation.

    The goal should be unbiased reporting, not slanted coverage designed to suit a particular worldview. As that errant Christian Friedrich Nietzsche once observed, convictions are deadlier enemies of truth than lies. If we give into the European model represented by Fox News, Americans are no longer going to have much of a “common life” to speak of.

  • http://terrenceberres.com Terrence Berres

    “The problem with creating pseudo-news organizations – on the Right and Left – is that it essentially violates the classic American understanding of what the news media is supposed to do: give people as much information as they need to be informed citizens.”

    Is that the classic understanding? I thought it used to be common for newspapers to be partisan.

  • JOHN WICKEY

    What we are witnessing in the political domain, which includes the major media, is a civil war, at this point without the use of arms. I believe that it can be characterized in this way and that it has made the noram polictical process of governing largely impossible. The legislature if dysfunctional.

  • Larry Rasczak

    Terrance you are right, which is why you still see papers like “The Arkansas Democrat.”

    Dennis,

    My point is that diversity of opinion in newsrooms may be a nice idea, but I don’t believe it is ever going to happen in the real world. As I said, this has been a problem since the Tet Offensive. Excuse me if I don’t hold my breath waiting for the journalists of the world to come up with a solution.

    Murdoch is just like Colonel Sanders. Both became rich by seeing that there was an unserved market niche out there (non-Liberal news or fried Chicken as the case may be) and satisfying it. I’m not a Fox fan (anymore) but, lets face facts, Fox isn’t laying off 700 people today.

    My point is that we HAVE, real world, today, is a diversity of opinion in the marketplace of ideas. It just doesn’t come through the “newsrooms” of the world.

    Newsrooms (i.e. the “big 3 networks” and the “dead tree media”) are no longer the whole market, only a part of it marketplace… and a shrinking part of the market judging by the latest news.

    So if “newsrooms” have diversity of opinion or not really doesn’t matter a whole lot at this point. What matters is that the average American now has access to a wide range of diverse information and opinion. Wether the dozens of people who will watch CBS Evening News tonight get an unbiased newscast from Ms. Couric or not really isn’t terribly important at this point. Unlike 1968 those folks now have other places they can turn for news and information, if they so desire.

    So diversity of opinion has been achieved, albeit despite the newsrooms not because of them, but it has been achieved none the less.

  • Dennis Colby

    Larry,

    To put things in perspective, CBS Evening News last week averaged 6.1 million viewers a night – the lowest ratings since 1987. On the other hand, the highest rated show on Fox News in primetime managed just 1.5 million viewers (this is according to Variety). In other words, even on its best night, Fox can’t manage half of what CBS does on its worst night. There are more of those “dozens” than you think.

    In a way, when you talk about the diversity of opinion and information available in the “marketplace of ideas,” you’re essentially arguing the same corner as Linda Greenhouse. This is because the product offered by the networks isn’t the same as the product offered by Fox – one aspires to unbiased reportage, the other aspires to presenting an ideological viewpoint. Equating the two is like saying it doesn’t matter if you can’t buy milk, because you can buy root beer instead; yeah, you can drink both of them, but one will rot your teeth and the other will protect against osteoperosis.

    To put CBS and Fox in the same category – or the New York Times and, say, Daily Kos – is to say that there’s no such thing as news and one hand and opinion on the other, just “information.” Which is to say there are no more facts, and in the absence of consensus reality, therefore everything can be a fact – my opinion, your opinion, Linda Greenhouse’s opinion. There’s no way to appeal to an unbiased source and say to Linda Greenhouse that her controversial comments aren’t facts, because she can always respond by pointing to The Nation or the Daily Show, other outlets in the marketplace of ideas where such opinions are indeed taken as fact.

    See, we can’t have it both ways. Either there’s an objective reality we all have to acknowledge and abide by, or there isn’t. I’ll be the first to admit the American press can screw things up (as I’ve certainly screwed things up in my career), and that there are serious blind spots that have to be addressed – the most glaringly obvious, to my mind, being religion. But the vast majority of journalists are people who are trying to get it right despite their human failings and trying to live up to the ideal of objective, unbiased reporting. To my mind, that’s a lot better than people who try to fix the fight from the first bell.

  • Larry Rasczak

    “This is because the product offered by the networks isn’t the same as the product offered by Fox – one aspires to unbiased reportage, the other aspires to presenting an ideological viewpoint”

    DennisI agree with you, though to be honest I don’t think Fox is nearly as unbiased as they used to be. Their coverage has gone downhill since they hired Giraldo. I mean I do appreciate that they don’t deliberately publish classified information that gives aid and comfort to the enemy in a time of war, but I think you are giving them to much credit. Fox is a wee bit biased.

    Still, despite having a definite yellow tinge to their journalisim (aparently only pretty young blonde girls go missing in America…)at least they don’t make things up, like Jason Blair, or the Dan Rather/George Bush National Guard letters, or when CNN kicked off their new investigative news show with Peter Arnett’s “Operation Tailwind” story where they made up the stories about the US using nerve gas in Vietnam, or when NBC used explosives to flip the S.U.V. for their story on Dateline, and there was that story about Food Lion, not to mention the “Fauxtography” problem Reuters has…

    So I think you are right, with the exception of John Stossel the “newsrooms” DO aspire to presenting an ideological viewpoint. They have been for as long as I can remember.

    Which in my opinion is why, out of 300,000,000 Americans only 6,100,000 watched CBS last night.

    What’s that, one out of 49?

  • Dennis Colby

    Larry,

    For every Jayson Blair, I can give you dozens of Times staffers who labor in relative obscurity, producing metro reports, campaign profiles, and write-ups of dull speeches. The point is that you’ve assembled a handful of examples of sloppy or bad journalism from over the last 15 years – care to imagine how many examples can be cited in the same period of good, unglamorous journalism? Try the vast majority of every paper in the country – that’s somewhere around 1,500 dailies, not to mention all the local newscasts, the networks, the newsweeklies, and even the dreaded New York Times.

    My point? It’s easy to name one or two failures, throw up your hands, and say “Forget it! The news is hopelessly broken. We’ll never fix it, so we shouldn’t even try.” That’s the attitude the critic Greil Marcus calls “proclaims-the-failure-ism,” as in people who are eager to write off every attempt at improvement as a doomed vanity project.

    But you’re still ducking the central question: Is it better to try and establish an objectively true set of facts that everyone can agree on, or is it better for you to have your news service and Linda Greenhouse to have her news service, and ne’er the twain shall meet?

    The ideal of American journalism for at least the last 130 years has been the former; right now, it looks like we’re moving toward the latter. Personally, I find that deeply dispiriting. But maybe I’m wrong: maybe the only thing to do in America is to give up, after all.


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