While 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.