Why public media journalists should drop the fig leaf of impartiality

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This commentary is adapted from a series of segments on The Pub, Current’s weekly podcast about public media.

When Diane Rehm and NPR CEO Jarl Mohn met eye-to-eye on The Diane Rehm Show March 5, they were both on the defensive.

Rehm had revealed in a Valentine’s Day Washington Post article that she’d been speaking at fundraisers for an organization that advocates for legal assisted suicide. This possibly violated NPR’s ethics handbook, which requires its journalists, though not necessarily talk-show hosts such as Rehm, to remain publicly impartial on controversial issues.

Even though Rehm doesn’t work for NPR — her show is produced by WAMU in Washington — The Diane Rehm Show is distributed to nearly 200 radio stations under NPR’s banner. Her disclosure in the Post called that arrangement into question.

Mohn was on the defensive because, well, NPR’s CEO is always on the defensive on matters of bias, both real and imagined.

You could hear the tension in the studio, pent up over decades in which public media people have studiously ignored or denied the elephant in the room: that public media is, broadly speaking, by and for liberals.

But as a longtime public radio journalist myself, I argue that this tension is unnecessary. Everybody should just relax.

It’s time for most, perhaps even all, public media journalists to abandon both the practice and the pretense of conventional impartiality. Counterintuitive as it may seem, I think doing so will result in smarter, fairer news coverage that more people — on both ends of the political spectrum — will want to consume and support.

Not surprisingly, a 2014 Pew survey found that only 3 percent of Americans with “consistently conservative” views trust NPR.

That wouldn’t be a problem were it not for the fact that taxpayer funding is one leg of the stool that keeps the public radio system upright. The other legs are donations of various stripes and the constrained form of advertising known euphemistically as “underwriting.”

Prior to that March 5 show, NPR execs had met with Rehm to discuss the problem of her advocating for a liberal — and libertarian — cause in her off hours. On her program, Rehm asked Mohn a question that was, to some degree, about herself.

“How about the charge that public radio is really leftist public radio?” she asked.

Mohn responded with a chuckle and dismissed part of that perception as being a holdover from “say, two decades ago,” when NPR considered itself more of an alternative news source and had not yet broken into the mainstream. Those were the good ol’ days, if you ask contemporary liberal critics of public radio, and there are many.

“We at NPR are a journalist organization. It’s fact-based,” Mohn said. “We try to do as much as we can, as much as any human being can, to — you know, we all have our own biases, we all have our own points of view — to put them aside to cover the news.”

Four days later, Rehm announced that she would stop doing the fundraisers. But she would not stop talking openly about her support for so-called “right to die” legislation, a position that is informed by a recent, life-altering personal experience.

Last year, Rehm’s husband John asked his doctor to help him end his life and his suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Barred from doing so by Maryland law, the doctor said the only option was for John Rehm to refuse food and water, which he did. He died 10 days later.

I’m glad that Rehm is stopping the fundraisers. I think that was a bridge too far for someone in her position. But I’m also glad that Rehm will continue being honest and open about where she stands on one of the most pressing medical-ethics issues of our time, something with which she’s built up real-world expertise and that is a perennial topic on her show. That level of honesty and openness is as valuable as it is rare in public media journalism.

Of course, much of the media has long since given up on impartiality, but public broadcasting has clung harder than most to the old-school standard for a reason: We have a special obligation to reflect the views and values of everybody in the country, since we do take a little of everybody’s tax money. But that ideal is not best achieved through impartiality. It is best achieved through balance, and I don’t think we’ll get better about the latter until we give up on the former.

Value-free journalism?

As a public radio insider, I will now tell you what you already know: Most of the people who work in public radio lean left in their personal political views. This is not unusual for any media organization.

According to a 2006 study from Indiana University, 40 percent of all American journalists put themselves on the left side of the political spectrum, in contrast to just 17 percent of people in the general public, the latter figure coming from a 2002 Gallup survey. The largest segment of journalists self-identifies as centrist, but I think that’s a self-serving self-description for a group of people who are supposed to be fair-minded for a living, and I am skeptical about its truthfulness.

While much of the media has moved away from old-school impartiality in recent years, public broadcasting has clung harder than most to the traditional standard. There are many reasons for that, but I think the most compelling one is that public media journalists know that if they were to let all their opinions hang out, they would be revealed to be what everybody already assumes they are: overwhelmingly left-leaning. Which they’re not supposed to be, considering their public funding.

Everyone knows what’s under the fig leaf, but we hide behind it all the same. In part, that’s because we tell ourselves that it doesn’t matter what we’ve got under there.

Mohn’s response to Rehm — “we all have our own biases,” but we try “to put them aside to cover the news” — reflects what I consider to be a fatal flaw in the logic of impartial journalism.

That reasoning goes, “Yeah, we may be a bunch of left-leaners in the newsroom, but it doesn’t matter, because we only report facts. We apply the journalistic method, which like the scientific method, nullifies bias, if properly applied.”

But I don’t think it’s possible to do journalism without projecting your own values. Even if you stick to the “who, what, when, where and why,” your social and political values will influence what stories you do and which perspectives you deem worthy of inclusion. No mainstream news outlet feels obligated to include overt segregationists in stories about race anymore, even though such people still exist.

On a Feb. 17 hour of The Diane Rehm Show about assisted suicide (in which Rehm notably tried to play the role of neutral moderator, despite her fundraising activities having been in the paper three days prior), the opposition chair was filled by Dr. Ira Byock, chief medical officer for the Catholic-affiliated Providence Institute for Human Caring. He argued that the assisted-suicide debate is a distraction from what should be a conversation about improving end-of-life care. He went as far as to compare modern “right to die” legislation with Nazi eugenics policies.

Two guests represented different aspects of the pro camp: a medical ethicist and the president of Compassion & Choices, the nonprofit for which Rehm had been helping to raise money.

However, no guest argued that assisted suicide is wrong because Scripture forbids it, nor was anyone arguing that liberals want to kill off terminally ill patients to reduce the cost of universal health insurance. These are views that are held by many, perhaps even most, of the minority of Americans who oppose all forms of assisted suicide.

And yet theses perspectives were absent, I suspect, because Diane Rehm and her producers don’t regard them as being any more valid in a policy discussion than those of a segregationist. That is The Diane Rehm Show’s worldview — one that I happen to share.

Another, perhaps more subtle (or insidious, depending on your perspective) example of liberal bias occurred after NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday ran an interview Jan. 4 with Allen Edwards, a pastor at a Presbyterian church outside Pittsburgh. Edwards is sexually attracted to men but has chosen to live a heterosexual lifestyle because he believes his faith demands it.

“I don’t personally find it helpful to use my experience of [same-sex] sexual attraction to define myself as a person,” he told host Rachel Martin.

The interview provoked many angry responses from people who believed NPR provided a platform for views approaching the level of hate speech and did not sufficiently scrutinize or balance them. One of those complaints came from Edwards’ brother, Dexter Edwards, who identifies and lives as gay. The following Sunday, NPR ran a brief follow-up piece with Dexter.

“I was kind of frustrated that NPR made this a news story, because I feel how detrimental it can be to other people,” he told NPR.

Commenting on that follow-up story at NPR.org, someone posting as “Anton Karidian” (likely a pseudonym, considering that Anton Karidian was itself the pseudonym of the fictional war criminal Kodos the Executioner on Star Trek) posed what I think is a valid question.

“So when NPR runs a story about a gay activist, does NPR typically run a follow-up article that features religious friends or family members who object to that activist’s lifestyle on moral grounds?” the commenter asked. “Probably not. So why was it done here?”

Indeed, while NPR does typically balance perspectives on questions of policy concerning gay rights, it does not balance every interview with an out homosexual with someone arguing against the validity of that identity or lifestyle, the way NPR did with the inverse case of the Edwards interview.

While I don’t work for NPR and do not speak for them, I will attempt to answer the commenter’s question. The reason is that most journalists at NPR — perhaps even all of them — believe that there’s nothing wrong with homosexuality, and that is the moral frame of reference for their coverage. According to NPR’s worldview, only views to the contrary need to be balanced, just the way that the views of a segregationist would need to be balanced but those of a black person who expects equal rights would not.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I happen to share that moral frame. But I don’t think it engenders trust with the audience to pretend that public radio coverage is morally neutral, considering that total neutrality is no more possible than it is desirable. Everyone wants the media to have a moral center; they just argue over where it should be.

Our sensitive bits are showing from behind the fig leaf. It’s time to drop it and deal openly and honestly about what’s underneath.

The sphere of consensus

Of course, few journalists claim total, mathematical neutrality. They just try to take only the sides that they believe their audience is on.

For example, most American news consumers agree that it’s bad when 26-year-old aid workers are taken captive by ISIS, which is why CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley felt perfectly comfortable starting his February 10 broadcast thusly:

“Good evening. In just a few short days, America came to know Kayla Mueller and her too-short life that was dedicated to helping people in need,” Pelley intoned with gravity and dignified sadness. “So today, when her family confirmed that she had died as a captive of ISIS, the entire country shared their pain.”

That copy was not value-neutral, but that didn’t bother Pelley because most people would agree that Mueller’s life was indeed “too-short.” At least, most people in Pelley’s target demo (more on that in a moment).

Journalists in the nonpartisan media try to achieve a kind of impartiality by aligning their moral frame of reference not with their own values, but with those of their audience. This concept was described in 1986 by University of California, San Diego communications professor Daniel Hallin, whose system of concentric “Hallin’s spheres” remains highly influential.

Those views that are shared by virtually everyone, like “child murder is bad,” are in the “sphere of consensus.” Impartial reporters feel free to present those views or voice them directly (either explicitly or implicitly) without balancing them with views to the contrary.

Beyond consensus lies the sphere of legitimate controversy. “Any adult who commits a serious act of violence against a child should be imprisoned for life.” There are a lot of people who would agree with that sentiment, but plenty who would disagree. Therefore it belongs in the conversation, but it has to be balanced.

Beyond the controversy sphere is the sphere of deviance. “Child murder is good.” There may be people who believe that, but they are so few and far between that their point of view doesn’t even merit inclusion in the discourse.

It’s important to remember that Hallin is a political scientist and communications scholar, not a journalism professor. His system of spheres is descriptive, not prescriptive. In practice, I have found that any attempt to align one’s coverage to the sphere of consensus is doomed to failure, because there is no one sphere.

If you’re a member of ISIS, you might have been quite happy about Kayla Mueller’s death. When journalists try to orient their reporting with a consensus point-of-view, they inevitably have to pick whose consensus they’re going to go with, thereby proving the futility of the exercise.

I’ll give you a less extreme example.

One day in 2012 when I was producing for Radio Boston, WBUR’s local midday show, I wrote a script for our hosts to read that characterized the same-sex marriage issue as one of “marriage equality.” In our post-show wrap-up meeting that day, a colleague argued that we shouldn’t say “marriage equality” since it’s a term that’s only used by the proponents of same-sex marriage.

That’s true — “marriage equality” is not the most neutral available language, and therefore conventional journalistic wisdom states that it should be avoided.

But then again, what was Martin Luther King Jr.? What was his job description? “Civil rights leader,” right? Do you think any segregationist would have consented to that description of MLK back in the 1960s? Do you think they called him a civil rights leader? No. They called him an agitator, and that’s when they were being nice.

“Civil rights leader” was not a neutral description at the time, and yet, King was a civil rights leader. That is the accurate description of the man.

Likewise, I think that Mary Bonauto, the lawyer who led the charge on legalizing same-sex marriage in Massachusetts (and our interview subject that day in 2012), is a marriage-equality leader.

You might argue that even though the idea that black people deserve equal rights isn’t controversial anymore, it was controversial in the ’60s, and so maybe it’s OK for reporters to call King a civil-rights leader now, but it wasn’t back then. That logic would suggest that as long as same-sex marriage remains somewhat controversial, I shouldn’t call Bonauto a marriage-equality leader.

Then again, while same-sex marriage may still be a controversial topic across America as a whole (with a shrinking but still sizable minority being opposed), it is much less so in Massachusetts, where marriage equality — there, I said it — has been the law of the land since 2004. Even Republicans in Massachusetts tend to be pretty socially liberal, especially those who live in the city.

So if I’m producing a local show in Boston, whose consensus do I need to align with? That of my local audience, or that of the country as a whole? Why not the whole world? I don’t have a good answer for that, which is one of the reasons why I think consensus doesn’t work as a North Star on which to calibrate your journalistic compass.

Maybe “sphere of consensus” journalism was easier to pull off a few decades ago when U.S. politics were less polarized, but the list of things on which most Americans agree is shrinking.

Practical arguments aside, I don’t think journalists should operate within a model that enslaves them to public opinion, because public opinion tends to get things wrong.

If I had been trying to do impartial reporting about slavery in the mid-19th century, I would have had to give equal space and weight to those who believed that black people are an inferior race to be subjugated like an ox or a cow. Of course, there was no impartial media in America back then — papers were either aligned with the abolitionists or the slaveholders — so no reporter ever had to thread that particular needle, but imagine if you did.

Back here in the 21st century, I believe that there’s nothing wrong with being gay, and if I’m honest, that is the moral orientation from which I approach my coverage of the topic. Whether they admit it or not, it’s the way most news outlets approach the topic. And that’s the right thing to do, sphere of consensus be damned.

Uncomfortably grandiose as it may be to say this out loud, it is up to journalists to make certain judgment calls about what is right and wrong. We can try to play the uninvolved observer all we want, but the way we talk about things — the very language we use — affects the events we report on.

We can try to calibrate our language by sticking our finger in the political wind, but I think that has to be balanced against our own personal values. That is, as long as we are honest about he fact that they are ­our values. Right now, I think lots of mainstream reporting (and plenty on public media) implicitly asserts values as though they are shared by all of “us.”

There’s a better, more intellectually honest way to do it: Strive for objectivity, rather than impartiality.

Objectivity ≠ impartiality

These two terms are often used interchangeably, but I argue that they are related yet separate concepts. To be impartial in your reporting means that you don’t take sides in a debate over something controversial. To be objective is to be guided by facts and evidence rather than your own personal prejudices.

You can be objective without being impartial, as demonstrated by The Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates in his blockbuster cover story from last June, “The Case for Reparations.”

Its total abandonment of impartiality is right there in the headline. Coates is making an argument over the course of 15,000 words that somebody needs to actually, finally pay money to blacks in America as compensation for slavery and Jim Crow. This is not impartial journalism. It is objective journalism.

Coates’ conclusion is based on an exhaustive review of the relevant history. Even if you don’t agree with him, you learn a lot from his reporting.

Did you know that most black soldiers returning from World War II were unable to actually use the home-buying assistance offered in the GI Bill? I didn’t, not until I read Coates. That assistance allowed my coal truck–driving Italian grandfather to buy a little house on Long Island and establish the modest but meaningful generational wealth that is directly responsible for my prosperity in life. And most black GIs simply didn’t get it.

Coates’ piece obliterates the notion that people who complain about contemporary racial disparities are hung up on things that happened at least 150 years ago. There are root causes in the much more recent past.

This is objectively true — Coates’ reporting proves it. The fact that he then suggests a policy prescription to deal with the problem does not mean that the piece isn’t objective. It means it’s not impartial.

Now you could argue, as many people have, that Coates’ interpretation and presentation of the objective facts was skewed by his stated partiality, but I don’t think that’s an argument over the difference between objective and non-objective journalism — I think it’s an argument over the difference between good and bad journalism.

A car that’s broken and won’t go is still a car; it’s just a bad car. A piece of objective journalism that misrepresents or misinterprets facts is still objective journalism; it just sucks.

An argument based on facts is objective. An argument based on ideology, or — heaven forbid — belief, is non-objective. The latter, in my opinion, is definitionally not journalism, though it often masquerades as such.

Most public media journalists try to be both objective and impartial. It’s called “straight” reporting. Those ideals are, in fact, enshrined in the ethics guidelines of many public media news organizations.

There have been exceptions for years, of course. NPR’s Scott Simon, host of Weekend Edition Saturday, has always been an essayist as much as he’s been a journalist.

Simon poked a hornets’ nest after 9/11 when he wrote and spoke in support of the War on Terror, but that was hardly the first controversial opinion he had ever voiced. An equivalent figure on the public TV side would be Bill Moyers, though his politics differ from Simon’s.

Those two men have been around for a long time, but there are more and more exceptions to the impartiality rule popping up lately, particularly at the station level.

Perhaps that’s due in part to the increased regional clustering of people with similar ideologies, resulting in local spheres of consensus that differ considerably from the national sphere, as I personally experienced in Boston.

But I also think that just as states are the laboratories of democracy, public broadcasting stations are laboratories of journalistic practices. It’s one of the great strengths of our sometimes maddeningly disorganized, decentralized system. Stations are playing with journalistic practices in ways more daring than can perhaps be expected of national networks.

Colin McEnroe, whose eponymous show on WNPR in Hartford, Connecticut is possibly the best local show in public media, has never played the straight journalist. He’s a long-time newspaper columnist — a commentator, unabashedly so.

WNYC’s On the Media has engaged in what I would consider outright advocacy on matters of press freedom and governmental transparency in recent years.

In 2013, WGBH in Boston hired Jim Braude and Margery Eagan to host the station’s midday local radio talk show, Boston Public Radio. The pair had previously been the late-morning drive team on conservative-leaning commercial talk station WTKK, and they sound like it.

Then we come back to the example of The Diane Rehm Show. Listen to that Feb. 17 episode about assisted suicide, an issue on which Rehm has a stated position. I think it proves that you can have a dog in a fight and still conduct an inclusive, smart and fair inquiry into the nature of the fight and the merits of the other dogs. That’s what objectivity is.

The movement in some corners of public media toward a journalistic model that strives for objectivity while eschewing impartiality is a lagging indicator of what’s been going on with Internet-native news publications since such things existed.

As Daniel Hallin has observed, old-school “sphere of consensus” reporting is most common in local newspapers and network television — media that make their money by appealing to the broadest swath of the population possible.

The rise of cable TV and the Internet has allowed for the flowering of innumerable niche news products that make money by appealing more intensely to narrow segments of the population.

You could argue that this is why public media reporters need to keep playing it straight. Much of the rest of the media is going hyper-partisan, so the country needs somebody to try to hold the center. Who better than the people who are under enormous political pressure to remain impartial, lest their public subsidy be threatened?

I actually think this is precisely why public media reporters, of all people, should drop the impartiality pretense. Because when they do, they’ll have to earn bipartisan support by being something else; something much better, and much more attainable. They’ll have to be — dare I say it? — fair and balanced.

Five steps to a more honest, balanced public media

It’s impossible to precisely quantify the level of public media’s liberal bias, but we can look at how it is reflected by the types of people who decide to be in our audience.

According to a 2012 Pew survey, 17 percent of NPR listeners identify as Republican, 37 percent as independent, and 43 percent as Democratic. That same year, according to Gallup, 25 percent of Americans identified as Republican, 42 percent identified as independent, and 31 percent identified as Democratic.

Those numbers are probably a lot closer than conservative critics of NPR might imagine, but they’re also probably not as close as they should be.

When you watch or listen to a news show, I think you can always tell who is talking to whom. Conservative voices may be well-represented on NPR — actually over-represented, according to a 2004 analysis by the liberal media-watchdog FAIR — but I think you can always tell that their views are being presented to what is essentially a center-left audience within a center-left mode of inquiry.

The solution to this problem is not for public media journalists to pretend even harder to be ideological eunuchs. The solution is to disrupt the ideological homogeneity of public media newsrooms. If you get more people in the tent representing a diversity of perspectives, the net journalistic balance of the organization will improve, while at the same time each individual journalist could be free to be her or himself.

Therefore, the first step in my five-step plan is:

1. Make a high-profile conservative hire.

Last summer I did a piece for Current about Mike Pesca, who had just quit his job as an NPR sports correspondent to host a new podcast called The Gist for Slate. If you want to see how a journalist can be honest about his opinions while not descending into pointless, predictable punditry, Pesca’s show is a great model.

Talking to me about how Slate gave him the freedom to opine on matters beyond sports, Pesca speculated that his old bosses at NPR would be nervous about hiring someone like the left-leaning Jon Stewart (who, incidentally, might soon be on the job market when he leaves The Daily Show in August) to host a news or talk show.

“Jon Stewart interviews might make NPR nervous because, you know, Jon Stewart is a guy with an opinion. And it shouldn’t. He’s a great communicator,” Pesca said. “And if it does make you nervous, then, you know, do the thing where you give William F. Buckley a show too, if he were alive.”

Since conservative icon Buckley’s show Firing Line ended in 1999, public TV has made several earnest attempts at building a show around conservative voices, including Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered and the Journal Editorial Report from the Wall Street Journal. Both Carlson and the Editorial Report are now on Fox News.

There haven’t been as many attempts on the radio, so I think somebody — it doesn’t have to be NPR, but somebody — needs to give a young, smart conservative thinker a whole, well-promoted, widely-distributed national show on public radio.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The man currently sitting in Buckley’s old chair as National Review editor, Reihan Salam, would be a shoe-in. He’s smart, he’s moderate enough that he wouldn’t alienate the core demo, and as a bonus, he’d bring some needed ethnic diversity as well.

And this hire doesn’t just have to be for a hard news or politics show. Think outside the box.

Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks is as keen a student of social science as any amateur. Maybe he would have co-hosted Invisibilia, NPR’s hit new show about human behavior. Yes, I realize I’m proposing replacing one of the few women currently hosting a show about science with a white man, but we will only achieve ideological diversity the same way we have tried to achieve ethnic and gender diversity: by prioritizing it above other factors.

A high-profile conservative hire would accomplish three important things.

First, you’d be bringing in someone who is already comfortable letting her opinions show and could serve as a model for everyone else. Second, it would signal to the public that we’re serious about boosting our ideological diversity. Third, and most important, this person would show young conservative journalists that they too can work in public media if they want.

2. Consider ideology when making editorial hires.

This is especially important with the entry-level positions. These are the people who in a few years will be sitting in show meetings pitching stories that the liberal media sphere might not take seriously but should.

It’ll be hard finding young conservative journos, in part because there are fewer of them. But apply the same lessons you’ve learned in hiring racial minorities. You can’t find them just by looking in the same old places; you’ve got to go where they are. That means conservative universities, conferences, and the staffs of right-leaning news outlets.

This will require active, shoe-leather recruiting. Make it a priority, and go get ’em.

3. Learn from other people who are doing reporting that has a point of view but isn’t all about the point of view.

Just because you tell the audience what you really think doesn’t mean that it has to become the subject of the story. We don’t have to become a bunch of Bill O’Reillys. I already mentioned The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, but CBS News political director and Slate writer John Dickerson is probably the best example I can think of.

Closer to home, there’s also the eminent PBS documentary series Frontline.

“We are not an objective news series, but we’re a fair one,” said Frontline’s newly named executive producer Raney Aronson in a recent interview with me, using “objective” to mean what I describe as impartiality.

“We can be tough on corporations, tough on individuals, but you always will see us being fair, and I think that is something that is pretty unique to what Frontline does,” she said.

4. Communicate about the changes you’re making.

Frankly, public media journalists have been moving away from impartiality for a long time now. We just haven’t been honest about it, with the audience or ourselves.

Here’s a specific idea about how we can get real: News leaders should consider issuing some statements of values, the same way they issue style directives. Obviously you wouldn’t want to enumerate all of your values, just the big ones that aren’t in the sphere of consensus (whomever’s sphere you’ve arbitrarily decided to use, of course).

NPR style and standards chief Mark Memmott could put out a memo saying that NPR journalism is predicated on the value judgment that there’s nothing wrong with being gay. Policy and law surrounding gay rights remains in the sphere of legitimate controversy, but Memmott could say that NPR does not entertain the belief that homosexuality is morally wrong or an illegitimate lifestyle, even though many Americans believe that.

We consider it hate speech, Memmott could say. We will bring it to you in contained ways — such as a sound bite — so you can know what people are saying, but it is not a perspective that factors in to our balance calculations.

I think that’s what NPR already does; they just need to own up to it. And I think conservative listeners would respect the candor, even if some might not share the position.

5. Accept that public media will never attract an audience that reflects the politics of the country in perfect, one-to-one proportion.

This is where I’m going say some stuff that could get me into trouble. I think there’s a reason why many studies have shown that journalists, scientists and educated people in general lean left, in aggregate.

There are some aspects of conservative thought, particularly in social conservatism, that arise from ignorance. There’s no other way to put it. We see it across the globe and across history. Religious fundamentalism, knee-jerk resistance to social change, xenophobia — these things are always strongly associated with poverty and ignorance. They are pre-Enlightenment phenomena.

No doubt, many conservative Americans oppose permissive immigration reforms for sound economic, social and national-security reasons. But no doubt many others oppose it because they’re afraid of people not like themselves. And we in public media are never going to get that audience, because we will not entertain xenophobia as a valid perspective on the news. It’s in our “sphere of deviance.”

Perfect, proportional representation of the American political spectrum is not the goal. People want the media to show them the truth, not a mirror. Or at least, they should.

Conservative media and conservative politicians have convinced conservative people that the expression of certain basic facts — like the fact that most scientists believe the climate is warming and human activity is a significant cause — is evidence of liberal bias, which it simply isn’t. It’s just true.

Yes, people on the far left believe some crazy stuff too, but I think those beliefs aren’t nearly as mainstream as the crazy stuff on the right.

All that said, I think it’s still self-evident that public media needs even more rightward correction than it’s already carried out over the last couple decades.

So, step 5.1 of my plan here is this: Don’t allow yourself to be cowed by lefties. If you’re like me, you’ve taken way more complaints in your career from angry lefties than angry righties. That is not because the lefties’ complaints are equally valid; it’s because there are more of them in the audience and probably more of them in your social circle.


Since I started hashing out these arguments on The Pub (my podcast from which this piece is adapted), I’ve gotten some interesting feedback that has given me pause.

A person commenting at Current.org under the name “Sanpete” argued that “publicly standing for a position makes one less able to be fair and impartial regarding it, in ways that just holding a view privately doesn’t.”

That certainly comports with my anecdotal experience. While I think that crafting an argument is the most effective way for me to think about and understand something complex, the downside is that the act of arguing publicly can cause my position to become entrenched. Do I really believe that public media journalists should abandon impartiality, or have I just invested so many hours into arguing it that now I’m throwing good money after bad?

Assuming that journalists can overcome those tendencies and be free with their opinions without becoming slaves to them, it’s not even clear that all public media organizations could allow their people that freedom. This was pointed out to me by David Thiel, program director at WILL, the public broadcaster licensed to the University of Illinois.

Thiel quoted this line from the university’s policy on the political activity of employees: “Certainly, all members of the University community — faculty, staff and students — have the right to freely express their views on any subject, including advocacy for/against candidates for public office. In exercising these rights, however, the resources of the University cannot be used.”

Lots of public broadcasters are owned by state universities or other public sector entities where such policies could be a hitch.

Lastly, I should say that Daniel Hallin, the communications scholar whose work I have repeatedly cited here, does not entirely agree with my arguments. In an interview, he told me that the world’s best-functioning media systems have a healthy mixture of straight reporting and opinionated journalism.

“I would like to see public broadcasting be more aggressive,” he said, but added that he wouldn’t like to see it go in the direction of Salon.com or Fox News, two outlets with predictably partisan POVs that he finds “boring.”

“I already know the partisan slants,” Hallin said. “I want to know, you know, what’s going on in the world.”

Indeed, don’t we all? The question remains: What’s the best way for journalists to convey that information?

I maintain that journalists telling you what they really think doesn’t have to be predictable, nor does that opinion have to be the focus of the story. It just happens to have been the focus of this one.

Adam Ragusea hosts Current’s weekly podcast The Pub and is a journalist in residence and visiting assistant professor at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism. 

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10 thoughts on “Why public media journalists should drop the fig leaf of impartiality

  1. Adam, when I read things like this, I always think to myself the utterly brilliant gem of pithy wisdom that Stephen Colbert shared in a Fresh Air interview: “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

    If you have a chance, check out The Wired City by Dan Kennedy. He makes a compelling case that having some mythical concept of “impartiality” or “objectivity” is worthless to a news organization, especially at the local level. What matters is providing news coverage that acts for the betterment of the local community. This can, and does, sometimes mean NOT being impartial on certain stories.


    Certainly newspapers have, for decades, embraced this very concept. It’s drifted away as newspapers were gutted by corporate ownership who holds dozens of papers across many distant lands. But in the old days, papers routinely and shamelessly played favorites in local issues under the rubric of “defending their readers”. And it worked.

  2. You said “public media is, broadly speaking, by and for liberals”. You cite data that public radio journalists skew to the left, but cite no audience data. The public radio audience has a much wider cross-section of political views than you seem to realize. I just read the brand new Audience 2015 report today, and in the NPR news audience, 25% self-identify as conservative or very conservative, 37% Liberal or very liberal, 18% Middle of the road, and the rest decline to state. This is similar to what has been reported year after year from audience research. So, no, public radio journalism is not just for liberals. Your plan to allow public radio to be overtly liberal sounds like a way to make a few leftists happy but to drive away half or more of the audience.

    • Actually, I did cite audience data:

      “Not surprisingly, a 2014 Pew survey found that only 3 percent of Americans with ‘consistently conservative’ views trust NPR.”

      “According to a 2012 Pew survey, 17 percent of NPR listeners identify as Republican, 37 percent as independent, and 43 percent as Democratic.”

      Though, I’m not surprised you didn’t notice, because if you think my argument is that public radio should be overtly liberal, you clearly didn’t read this all the way though. Try again and we’ll talk.

  3. Does the Audience 2015 account for the fact that, objectively speaking, the characteristics and beliefs of someone who self-identifies as “liberal” or “conservative” vary quite dramatically today from what they were ten, twenty and thirty years previous? And thus, they also need to be weighted accordingly for the age of the person doing the responding?

    A person in their twenties who self-identifies as “very conservative”…broadly speaking…has a rather different worldview and belief set than many people in their sixties who self-identify as “very conservative”. Concordantly, there’s been an entire generation who grew up thinking “liberal” was a dirty word, whereas most of the college and high school kids I know (and I’ve worked with many, many college kids) who have an opinion at all on the subject? They think it’s a badge of honor.

  4. I agree with almost all of your points, but you don’t understand conservatives if you believe that conservatives are anti-intellectual, hyper-religious, xenophobes. Those traits are the caricature perpetuated by the left about conservatives. And the dominant, liberal, establishment, mass media will only perpetuate that caricature because they agree with progressive ideology.

    • I live in Macon, Georgia, and grew up in rural central Pennsylvania. I understand conservatives better than most liberal media types (though I would describe my personal political views as progressivism mixed with Reason Magazine conservatism). Not all conservatives are “anti-intellectual, hyper-religious, xenophobes,” but most anti-intellectual, hyper-religious xenophobes are conservatives. Social conservatives, specifically. Fiscal conservatism is a different matter. This isn’t just me talking, there’s lots of polling and social science empirically linking lower education and/or intelligence and fearful personalities with conservatism. Some links:

      See education: http://www.gallup.com/poll/139880/election-polls-presidential-vote-groups.aspx

      • Thank you for your generous reply, but social science is referred to as soft science for a reason. I suppose I’m confirming your point that conservatives are ignorant dunces, who are too stupid to be enlightened.

        It could be conservatives and progressives have opposites visions and understanding of how a society should work. Conservatives are realists, and understand economic reality. Progressives are idealists. One example of this is the gun control debate. Whenever there is a mass shooting progressives demand government “do something” to stop this madness. Then propose legislation that will have no effect in preventing future shootings, but they feel better because they “did something” to stop gun violence.

  5. I hadn’t seen this compiled column before. (You can tell because I didn’t comment!) It deserved more response than it received. No doubt the length limited the audience.

    You deserve credit for being the only person (I know of) in public media who sees past the Emperor’s New Clothes in regard to the effects of lack of ideological diversity. As you know, I think it’s by far the biggest problem facing NPR and public media that receives so little acknowledgment and effort. It prevents them from reaching a broader audience, makes programming less useful, and contributes to civic polarization directly and indirectly (by supporting the likes of Fox).

    I’ve already responded to some points where you raised them elsewhere, so I won’t repeat all that. I’ll mention again your associating some elements of conservatism with ignorance seems to conflate correlation and causation, among other problems. I again recommend Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for important ideas (less in their particulars than their general drift) about the bases of the differences between conservatives and liberals.

    I don’t think negative attitudes towards people not like us can be treated as in the “sphere of deviance.” Whether value judgments are beyond what should be treated neutrally should be determined by incidence in the target audience, not how sure we are that our values are best. Facts should be treated as facts, but values are another matter.

  6. On your examples purporting to show the futility of neutrality, to the extent controversial value judgments determine their applicability, it isn’t an objective matter whether terms apply. Whether MLK was a civil rights leader depends on what the proper bounds of civil rights are, so the description “civil rights leader” does rely on value judgments, and isn’t objective in that crucial respect. And as we discussed elsewhere, neither is the term “marriage equality.” (Those opposed argued that they favored marriage equality: all were equally able to marry someone of the opposite sex. Which kind of equality matters is a values question.) The fact that ISIS is happy about a death doesn’t matter in this context, because ISIS is well outside the target audience.

    That there are hard cases doesn’t imply neutrality should be abandoned. But the case of Boston neutrality vs national neutrality on “marriage equality” isn’t a hard case. Language about it that’s neutral nationally will be neutral in Boston too, so there’s no need to choose one over the other. Choose from the intersection.

    I’ll repeat this. Mohn would be fired for making the excuses he makes if they were in the context of the kinds of diversity liberals care about. Can a newsroomful of white male journalists do an acceptable job because they’re professionals and try to put aside their biases, or are minorities and women needed to achieve the desired product? Liberals easily answer the latter, recognizing that white males, try as they might, can’t wholly comprehend, represent, and take into account the views of the others. But the same liberals refuse to apply the same logic to ideological diversity.

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