Guardian column: Fess up, journalists

Oops, I forgot to subject you to my Guardian column this week about SNL, Obama’s honeymoon, and the election. If that’s not enough of me, here’s the transcript of my appearance on the same subject on Howie Kurtz’ Reliable Sources.

And for good measure, I give you Will Bunch of the Philly Daily News and James Poniewozik of Time, all of us agreeing that it’s time for journalists to fess up and tell us whom they’ve voted for.

* * *

In a time of blogs with their ethic of transparency, how long can journalists continue to hide their opinions? I’m a believer in the British newspaper model, in which print journalists join a tribe, Guardian left or Telegraph right, and then invite the public to judge them not on their hidden agendas, but on the quality of their journalism. British broadcast and all US news organisations, by contrast, expect us to believe journalists are devoid of opinions: half-human hacks, roboreporters.

That fiction is falling apart in the US presidential campaign, where news media have failed to cover one of the essential stories of the event: media’s own love affair with Barack Obama.

The story has begun to attract attention, with comedy show Saturday Night Live twice skewering the press’s roughing up of Hillary Clinton and fawning over Obama. In one skit, the show’s faux Clinton complains: “Maybe it’s just me, but once again it seems as if a) I’m getting the tougher questions and b) with me, the overall tone is more hostile.”

The real Clinton picked up the punchline at the next debate and said: “If anybody saw Saturday Night Live, maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow.” Some believe this played a role in her victories last week.

In the other skit, a reporter gushes to “Obama”: “I just really, really, really, really want you to be the next president.” And the Fauxbama responds that journalists are “tired of being told, ‘You journalists have to stay neutral, you can’t take sides in a political campaign’. And they’re saying, ‘Yes, we can. Yes, we can take sides. Yes, we can.'”

So why don’t they? The question of journalistic objectivity is the stuff of endless journalism-school seminars. But what’s different this year is that the journalists’ opinions are related to the quality of coverage of the campaign.

I’ve seen reporters complain Clinton doesn’t give them access or is aloof; I’ve seen journalists quoted (anonymously) saying that they don’t much like her. Of course, that shouldn’t affect their coverage – since when do we see crime reporters whine that murderers are mean to them? – but it does. Obama is on an endless press honeymoon. He breathes rhetorical cumulus clouds – “Change we can believe in”, “Yes, we can”, “We are one” – without reporters challenging him or his supporters to define what they mean. I’ll wager that if a pollster asked 1,000 Obama fans what “change” means, there’d be 100 different answers.

There’s another new factor in the objectivity debate: weblogs. Reporters are now writing them. And they’re learning that if a weblog is successful, it is a conversation held at a human level. That conversation demands frank interaction and openness. As one online executive puts it: blogs are a cocktail party. I’ll add that if you talk to friends at a party and refuse to give your opinion while demanding theirs, someone will soon throw a drink at you, as I have been wanting to do to many a TV pundit lately.

I’ve heard TV news executives say that to have on-air personalities writing blogs might present a conflict because, after all, TV people are impartial. But they already live with that conflict by presenting TV journalists as personalities and then cutting off that part of the personality that enables opinion. If these people want to join the discussion on the net and reap its benefits, they have to give something of themselves.

The more journalists tell us about their sources, influences and perspectives, the better we can judge what they say. So I should tell you I voted for Clinton. You probably could have guessed that. But now you don’t have to.

  • I Am Barack, And So Can You!

    After the volcanic mis-fire that was “Playing the race ace” (gimme a break puh-lease), this is more like it.

    Let’s not all forget that a certain George W. Bush also got the exact same treatment 8 years ago, when investigative journalism collectively went AWOL and he had a very cosy time indeed, with many profiles focusing on the aw-shucks down-home-with-you-folks idiocy. This the guy born with a silver-boot in his mouth, a ‘regular guy’ ?

    So. A little bit more journalistic back-bone and tough questioning – equally applied to all candidates – would be lovely to see. Enough of blind acceptance of intangible, vaucous rhetoric. It’s great that someone trying to get elected to the office of President can actually string a few words together and generate such fervour amogst people at public rallies – what a pleasant change after years of head-scratching faux-pas and illogical, confused statements on matters of international importance!

    But then again, fantastic oratory skills aren’t everything. After all, a certain Adolf Hitler was pretty effective when it came to big speeches and that didn’t end too well.

    You might flich at the parallel (I could care less) but it might hopefully underscore the larger issue at stake here: people seeking positions of political power need to be vetted and not be given the star treatment – they haven’t earned that right yet.

    The public expects more of its journalists, whatever medium they present their opinions in.

  • Christopher Davis

    No American who collaborates with the Guardian can be trusted.

  • Sebastian

    I completely agree with this. It’s time the press stopped giving Hillary a pass on her tax records and start getting on her about the earmarks. Honeymoon over!

  • Robert I. Laitres

    If anyone has any expectation that the press will improve its quality in any way, they are very much mistaken. The media companies have been taking the “easy money” and “easy way out” for so long that if they actually had to “work” to get any real stories (sorry for using the four letter word “work”) they would die from exhaustion. Too many of their members, those you see on television or hear on radio, consider themselves “stars” and, as long as they can keep “raking in the big bucks” there is no reason for them to change, and they won’t. Looking, listening and reading their products, it leads me to believe that most don’t know the difference between reporting facts, advocating (propagandizing), or opining on issues. Having met several reporters, editors and publishers, what I find is that they would sell out their own mothers for a buck. They are merely reflecting the prevailing attitude in thsi country “Everything for a buck!” and others and even the country be damned.

  • John

    I don’t disagree with your core argument, but plenty of successful blogs covering politics do so without disclosing the blogger’s personal preferences: (neutral at least on the Dem primary), Ben Smith on Politico. I don’t believe these reporters are pushing agendas, but if they did disclose who they voted for, that gives fodder to people who want to paint them as tools of the campaign. (“He voted for X, so why should we believe him?”)

    If reporters do their jobs well (granted, a big if), I’m not sure that what we gain from knowing their vote. The press supposedly has a love affair with McCain too, but do you think that’s because the people covering him are Republicans? We need more considered, evidence-based reporting. Disclosure alone won’t fix that.

  • Marilyn

    Just read your blog, picked up from the c span site. I agree with you 100%. This campaign is quickly becoming a racial issue. The media have painted Sen Clinton as racist, at the very least, or conniving and criminal . In 40 years of voting in presidential elections, I’ve not seen so much bias in the media. I also voted in the Tx primaries for Hillary and know of several incidents where Obama supporters tried to suppress Clinton delegates. Much of the press for Obama has skewed the thinking of our young voters . This is a very dangerous thing, & I’m just happy to read a different take on things. My fear is your voice is not being heard ,to any great extent.

  • Interesting how bias in the media only becomes an issue when it’s hurting a Democrat.

    The media bias against Republicans has been quite blatant for many years, but it never seemed to bother anyone. Except for Republicans, that is, and they don’t count.

    Ironically, this has helped Republicans get elected, since many Democrat candidates have never undergone hostile scrutiny until they campaign for real. Then they suddenly find their weaknesses exposed, as John Kerry did four years ago.

    This campaign is unusual in that the Democratic front runners are now both getting a little taste of how it feels to be a Republican candidate.

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