Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Newsrooms: Time for Integrity

What's important is the willingness to hold power accountable.

This is a terrible time for newspapers, but the solutions suggested over the last year by the deep thinkers of the floundering industry give one little hope.
Back in September, the ombudsman of the Washington Post, Andrew Alexander, lamented his paper's failure to keep up with conservative outlets after they described footage showing Acorn employees apparently advising people how to evade the law. The Post's slowness on the story, Mr. Alexander wrote, raised the possibility that the paper didn't "pay sufficient attention to conservative media or viewpoints."
Continuing the next day on the newspaper's Web site, he decided that the blame for this unhappy situation lay with the newspaper industry's workforce, which is apparently made up of the wrong kind of people. According to "surveys," Mr. Alexander wrote, "newsrooms . . . are more liberal than the population." Newspapers might mean well, but they are handicapped by their monocultural politics. The obvious answer is to hire for political diversity.
Mr. Alexander's predecessor as ombudsman made the same point in 2008, and it's easy to understand why: It seems to dismiss an embarrassing failure with an uncontroversial idea. Everyone likes diversity, right? And this way no one is really to blame for botched coverage of any sort, least of all newspaper brass. Their intentions are pure, just poorly executed by their annoyingly conformist info-proles.
Ordinarily, such a bad idea would not draw much concern. But it has now been repeated several times in the great organ of journalistic consensus. Clearly they mean it seriously.
Years ago, Mr. Alexander wrote, newspapers achieved racial and gender diversity, and "It's the same with ideology."
Actually, it isn't. Unlike race or gender, people choose their ideologies. What's more, they often change them as they go through life, and they sometimes find that it is to their pecuniary advantage to ditch the embarrassing political enthusiasms of their youth.
Which brings up the problem of Republicans in Name Only. Anyone setting out to appease bias-spotters on the right should know that the conservative movement feels that it is plagued by impostors and fakers, and it won't be satisfied until these RINOs, too, are chased from the newsrooms of the nation.
Then, once all that is taken into account, there's the damnable problem of the bias-spotting left, like the Media Matters for America organization, which has documented the conservative tilt of the press in voluminous detail. How to deal with this? By ignoring it? Isn't that an act of bias on its own?
Besides, there's the mechanics of the job. How is the Post supposed to check up on its reporters' politics? I'm hoping for loyalty oaths and televised hearings, with stiff penalties for employees who refuse to talk or to name names: It would be the perfect spectacle for the end of the newspaper era.
Craziest of all, though, is the prospect of the Post ditching its decades-long pursuit of the grail of objectivity . . . because it got scooped on the Acorn story. If that is all it takes to reduce the Washington Post's vaunted editorial philosophy to ashes, what is the newspaper industry planning to do to atone for its far more consequential failures?
Remember, this disastrous decade saw two of them: First, the news media's failure to look critically at the Bush administration's rationale for the Iraq War; and then, the business press's failure to understand the depth of the subprime mortgage problem and to anticipate its massive consequences.
Would the solution currently on the table—hiring more Republicans and fewer Democrats—have helped the press behave differently in either situation? It's possible, of course, given the right Republicans.
But it is far more likely that it wouldn't have helped at all. To begin with, it would have been unrealistic to expect the press to scrutinize the Bush administration's claims about Iraq more vigorously had it agreed with the administration more. Even bias theorists understand that's not the way it's supposed to work.
And in the case of the subprime lending industry and its relationship to Wall Street, the public would probably have been better served by a perspective that regarded, say, predatory lending with suspicion instead of one that insisted on putting the phrase in quotation marks.
Which is another way of saying that the problem, in each of these massive failures, wasn't really ideological at all. The people who got it right, in both cases, were the ones willing to hold power accountable, to directly challenge the conventional wisdom.
What the Post seems to be after is the opposite: A form of journalism that offends nobody, that comes crawling to the powerful, that mirrors the partisan breakdown of the population as a whole. If that's the future of journalism, we can be certain that ever more catastrophic failures await.
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