At a time when America seems polarized over virtually every major issue, there’s one thing that politicians of all persuasions can agree on: The media are biased.
One side argues that the media have gone soft on the Obama administration; the other side maintains that the coverage has been unfairly negative and destructive.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 60 percent of Americans believe that news organizations are politically biased. Only 29 percent said that the news media generally get the facts right.
Has there ever been a time in American history when the news media were held in such low regard?
Sure. Pretty much since the birth of this nation.
Despite the perception of news media bias, the truth is that most traditional news organizations – primarily newspapers, their websites and local TV and radio stations – adhere to in-house ethics codes and keep politicians and policymakers at arm’s length.
Yes, you read that right. Most traditional news media strive daily to report news and information about their communities without regard to political affiliation or special interests. Reporters are largely prohibited from any political activity, including putting bumper stickers on their cars.
In sharp contrast, throughout most of this nation’s history, news organizations openly affiliated themselves with one political party or another. Until the Civil War era, few pretended to be fair or objective, or even saw those as positive traits.
In the last 50 years, news organizations have increasingly recognized that good journalism is good business. Why would you alienate half your readership by taking one side over another?
Contrast that with the landscape at this nation’s birth. As Eric Burns writes in his eye-opening book “Infamous Scribblers,” the late 1700s were “the best of times” and “the worst of journalism.”
“The Declaration of Independence was literature, but the New England Courant talked trash,” Burns wrote. "The Constitution of the United States was philosophy; the Boston Gazette slung mud.”
Publishers founded newspapers to attack political rivals. There was no pretense at balance in most papers. And yet even when the press was incendiary, irresponsible, reckless and one-sided, the first generation of Americans demanded freedom of the press, understanding that even an unfair watchdog would help curb corruption.
If today’s traditional news media are indeed more ethical than their predecessors, why does the public have a perception that the press is biased? In part, the problem stems from the breadth of the word “media.”
When America’s news media began routinely referring to themselves as “the media” and not “the press” or “news media,” they threw in the towel on public perception. Journalists now are lumped in with any and all forms of information, entertainment and advocacy.
When Americans take surveys about media bias, are they thinking about their local daily newscast or about cable channels that shamelessly favor one side or another? When they think of journalists, do they think about the young reporter carefully taking notes at City Hall or a blustering pundit spewing outrage on air or online? There’s a lot of junk journalism out there and it feeds the public’s sense that “the media” are high on agenda and low on ethics.
The other factor driving public perception of bias is, of course, the relentless drumbeat of politicians who find that counterattacking is more convenient than actually explaining their actions or positions. There’s been some of that throughout American history, but former Vice President Spiro Agnew raised it to an art form. Remember “nattering nabobs of negativism” and charges of the press being elite and out of touch? His strategy worked and the name-calling stuck.
Yes, America’s news media have plenty of warts, including understaffed newsrooms and errors made in haste. But the truth is that most traditional news organizations in this country still take their watchdog roles seriously, keeping an eye on people in power and looking out for the communities they serve.
To the extent there is bias in America’s traditional newspaper newsrooms, it’s not liberal or conservative. It’s a bias against whoever’s in charge in the moment, maintaining a healthy skepticism about how the public’s business is done.
That’s not always comfortable for government officials, but it’s in the best interests of a democracy.
Ken Paulson is president of the Newseum and Freedom Forum and a 1975 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism. This column is part of a series distributed through the American Society of News Editors.