We have all been here before …

LosAngelesTimesWhile we all watch the Divine Ms. MZ keep jumping into a war zone with her siege of posts defending the American model of the press, please allow me to post a crucial document linked to this debate.

This is a memo from a journalist named John Carroll, who was, on May 22, 2003, the editor of the Los Angeles Times. The letter went to the newspaper’s section editors, but then made its way to the whole staff and — via the L.A. Observed website — out to the wider world of mainstream journalism. I have been using it in classrooms ever since, as an eloquent plea for reporting that is fair and accurate to voices on both sides of tense and complicated public debates.

The contents of the letter speak for themselves. In this case, the topic being discussed was linked to abortion, not to the current hot-button topic, which is same-sex marriage and related. Of course, in media-bias studies, abortion never dies as a hot topic. Just wait for the fall campaign and discussions of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Here is the text of the memo, which, according to its subject line, focused on “Credibility/abortion.”

I’m concerned about the perception — and the occasional reality — that the Times is a liberal, “politically correct” newspaper. Generally speaking, this is an inaccurate view, but occasionally we prove our critics right. We did so today with the front-page story on the bill in Texas that would require abortion doctors to counsel patients that they may be risking breast cancer.

The apparent bias of the writer and/or the desk reveals itself in the third paragraph, which characterizes such bills in Texas and elsewhere as requiring “so-called counseling of patients.” I don’t think people on the anti-abortion side would consider it “so-called,” a phrase that is loaded with derision.

The story makes a strong case that the link between abortion and breast cancer is widely discounted among researchers, but I wondered as I read it whether somewhere there might exist some credible scientist who believes in it. Such a person makes no appearance in the story’s lengthy passage about the scientific issue. We do quote one of the sponsors of the bill, noting that he “has a professional background in property management.” Seldom will you read a cheaper shot than this. Why, if this is germane, wouldn’t we point to legislators on the other side who are similarly bereft of scientific credentials?

It is not until the last three paragraphs of the story that we finally surface a professor of biology and endocrinology who believes the abortion/cancer connection is valid. But do we quote him as to why he believes this? No. We quote his political views.

Apparently the scientific argument for the anti-abortion side is so absurd that we don’t need to waste our readers’ time with it.

The reason I’m sending this note to all section editors is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times.

I’m no expert on abortion, but I know enough to believe that it presents a profound philosophical, religious and scientific question, and I respect people on both sides of the debate. A newspaper that is intelligent and fair-minded will do the same.

Let me know if you’d like to discuss this.

The key is that, while Carroll is responding to criticism from cultural conservatives, he is not calling for “conservative journalism” and, of course, neither is GetReligion. He is calling for solid, basic journalism and so are we. People who love journalism — people on left and right — should cheer.

Now, once again, do not click “comment” to remark on the subject of the Los Angeles Times story to which Carroll is responding (which does not appear to be available online at this time). Focus. Limit your comment to the journalism issue he is raising and how it links to MZ’s ongoing series of posts about current coverage of same-sex marriage debates in the public square.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Memphis Aggie

    So did they, meaning the Editors of the LA Times, follow through? Was there any response to the letter, or a correction?

  • Gerry

    Sure, the day after the Times started writing about “welfare spending” and “defense programs”.

  • Dan

    The political bias in the LA Times coverage is more pronounced for gay marriage than it is for abortion. It seems to me that the reason for this is that the journalists see “gay marriage” as a civil rights issue and that as such they believe, consciously or unconsciously, that an advocacy posture is warranted. This attitude serves to blind the journalists to the opposing viewpoint, which they believe to be as illegitimate as Southern support for Jim Crow laws. This in turn leads them to serve up the extraordinarily biased — and uninformed — coverage that we are seeing.

  • Dan

    Further to what I just posted, note that in the Carroll memo Carroll acknowledges that abortion “presents a profound philosophical, religious and scientific question.” I suspect that few, if any, journalists at the LA Times would make an equivalent acknowledgment concerning the question of whether the essence of marriage is the sexual union of a man and a woman. If what I expect is true, how can one suspect informed and fair reporting on the issue from the LA Times?

  • Thomas

    Dan says:

    I suspect that few, if any, journalists at the LA Times would make an equivalent acknowledgment concerning the question of whether the essence of marriage is the sexual union of a man and a woman. If what I expect is true, how can one suspect informed and fair reporting on the issue from the LA Times

    Only a sexual union? Surely you jest, or your typing hand grew prematurely weary.

    Dan, do you think it is possible that the LA Times reporters who you oh-so-casually make blithe assumptions about actually considered the various elements of the question, made a personal decision about what they believed, and that to them, fair and unbiased means a different thing than you think it does?

  • Stephen A.

    Thomas, reporters shouldn’t be basing their reporting on what kind of “personal decisions” they have made. Period.

    They should be reporting on ALL sides of an issue, regardless of how they feel about it. That’s called unbiased, fair reporting, and no, it has no other meaning.

  • Jay

    The problem — as with all MSM bias problems — is that the journalists are only surrounded by people who think as they do, so they begin to consider their views normal, representative or at least the only “reasonable” views an intelligent person would have.

    I would be shocked if Carroll’s memo did anything more than tone down the most blatant bias. At the LAT, Chronicle, Mercury-News etc. the papers are carrying the water for liberal causes, particularly now on gay rights.

    The one place where liberal orthodoxy gets challenged is on public schools. Sometimes the California newspapers parrot the union line that it’s a matter of money, but other times they side with education reformers (some of whom are liberal business people) who say the system is failing a generation of underprivileged kids.

  • Stoo

    Given how right wing and conservative much of America seems, it’s hard to believe that liberal Journalists could be oblivious of their views not being wholly representitive.

  • Thomas

    Tell it to Fox, boys. Tell it to Fox.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Terrific memo. It is, indeed, an “eloquent plea for reporting that is fair and accurate to voices on both sides of tense and complicated public debates.”

    Of course, most people respond to actions, not words. And if a person of authority makes a plea instead of issuing a directive that is enforced, then the plea is meaningless in terms of its effect on the business. So, what has happened in the five years since the memo? How serious was Carroll about “purging all political bias from our coverage”? What actions did he take? If Carroll is there no longer, what has his successor done?

    The problem — as with all MSM bias problems — is that the journalists are only surrounded by people who think as they do, so they begin to consider their views normal, representative or at least the only “reasonable” views an intelligent person would have.

    Well said.

  • FW Ken

    Too bad he didn’t make direct reference to the side that isn’t “anti-abortion”. Would he have written “pro-abortion” or “pro-choice”.

    I gave up trying to sort it out several years ago and usually refer to the main players by their own preferred terms: “pro-life” and “pro-choice”. Yes, there are times when “anti-abortion” and “pro-abortion” are appropriate, but their use tends to reveal a bias that can throw the fairness of a whole story into question.

  • Chris Bolinger

    The silence is deafening. Apparently, Carroll’s memo was not a directive but a plea, or a PR stunt. It gave the appearance that he was serious about making significant changes at the LA Times when, in reality, he championed business as usual.


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