Competition, Not Mea Culpas: the Real Cure for Media Bias

A recent column by Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll, based on an ethics speech he gave at the University of Oregon, has caused quite a stir for its direct attack on "pseudo-journalism." "All across America," he explained, "there are offices that resemble newsrooms, and in those offices there are people who resemble journalists, but they are not engaged in journalism. It is not journalism because it does not regard the reader — or in the case of broadcasting, the listener, or the viewer — as a master to be served."

He then admits that his target is Fox News.

Now, I’m not a fan of Fox News, at least not since its war "coverage" has descended into the sort of pro-military boosterism that Carroll described. He was right to note that among the people who relied on Fox News, 80 percent believed the myths about the Iraq war, such as the one tying Saddam Hussein to al-Qaida.

Fair enough. As someone called a "moron" several times by Bill O’Reilly (on his radio program) during the early days of the Iraq war, because of my opposition to it, and who felt the vile opprobrium of some of O’Reilly’s overheated listeners, I sorta enjoyed the slap at Fox. Then again, I also was left scratching my head at Carroll, and the tunnel vision of those who run the establishment media.

Funny, for all these years, non-liberals have had to suffer through a media that is almost universally liberal in its outlook, and only now, when there is a conservative-leaning network do these folks take seriously media bias.

One of Carroll’s main points: Real journalists, unlike pseudo-journalists, correct themselves when they make mistakes. He points to the 2,700-plus corrections the Times printed last year, and pointed to the forceful way newspaper companies deal with reporters (and their editors) in the wake of any number of recent plagiarism scandals.

That’s no doubt true. There are no laws against plagiarism, but those who plagiarize are vilified and treated as lepers, which is a good example of how punishments can work outside of the force of law. The journalism world is driven by competition and envy, so there’s no brotherhood that protects one another like there is in some other professions.

What Carroll didn’t say: Yes, the newspaper business will come down like a hammer on anyone who steals others’ words, but will rarely do anything if, say, a reporter is found to be slanting the news to the left. I have rarely met a newspaper editor who even admits that there is anything remotely resembling a liberal bias in the journalism biz.

To his credit, Carroll recently received much attention for a memo he sent to his newsroom criticizing a story for having a pro-abortion slant. That was refreshing, and rare, and reason that I take Carroll’s words more seriously than the words of many other editors I’ve read. Nevertheless, I’m still astounded by Carroll’s blind spots.

Is the biggest threat to truth really coming from Fox News, however loathsome I find that channel these days?

On Wednesday, the New York Times printed a rare correction. The Times prints corrections all the time, but this one called into question the basic premises of some of its reporting in Iraq. In a surprisingly long and introspective correction, the Times admitted that it "found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged."

A pretty straight-up way of dealing with it. But, in reality, every newspaper could run long pieces almost every day on the incomplete information and biased sources and biases of the reporters and editors that shaped its news coverage. We don’t need more hand-wringing, or more corrections (well, maybe we do). What the journalism industry needs is less concern about letting the "professionals" run things, and more competition.

"Instead of considering the editor of a newspaper as an abstraction, with no motive in view but that of maintaining principles and disseminating facts, it is necessary to remember that he is a man, with all the interests and passions of one who has chosen this means to advance his fortunes, and of course, with all the accompanying temptations to abuse his opportunities, and this too, usually, with the additional drawback of being a partisan in politics, religion or literature," wrote James Fenimore Cooper, in "The American Democrat."

That’s the reality, yet my profession is more concerned about "pseudo-journalism" rising up, than about the problems with so-called real journalism. Carroll made some good and honest points, but I sensed within his piece a frustration that the establishment media must deal with pesky outsiders, whether we’re talking about Fox News and talk radio, or the more free-wheeling Internet sources.

As someone who works in the "mainstream" media, I can attest to the importance of the not-so-mainstream media. Journalists typically decry anything on the Web that doesn’t conform to the so-called standards of "professional" journalism. What that means is, of course, anything that doesn’t toe to the generally left-leaning line (or the neoconservative line in certain publications), and isn’t consumed by the politically correct passions that drive those who run the establishment media.

Anything, in other words, that isn’t controlled by them.

That’s why I’m so thankful for the Web — not only because, as a writer, I can be more forthright in the opinions that I write, but because, as a reader, I am exposed to ideas and news stories with premises that defy the conventional logic and fixations of my profession.

Something approximating a real, lively, no-holds-barred debate is taking place, which is a far cry from the far more limited debates (center right vs. center left) that take place elsewhere.

Things really have gotten better for the reader, even as certain standards have loosened because of the Wild West nature of the World Wide Web. It’s called competition. It’s a costly endeavor to buy printing presses, bundle newspapers and deliver them door to door. It’s far less costly to set up a Web site.

Sure, there’s an enormous amount of junk on the Web, but anyone with any sort of IQ can distinguish between a legitimate news source and a Web site run by a crank.

I love this new world. For peanuts, anyone can set up a decent-looking Web site to hawk one’s views. Now, it can take significant time and resources to do it right, and reaching a wide audience is far from assured. But there are few phony barriers to entry in this new world.

That’s why those of us who work in large, bland newspaper buildings often resent the upstarts.

That’s why "professional" journalists are always trying to make distinctions between their fine, "unbiased" work produced to exceedingly high standards and the "noise" dumped onto the Internet. Increasingly, though, a lot of the stuff on the Internet is more believable than the news stories that make their way through the newsrooms.

Fortunately, journalists don’t have a cartel such as those controlled by doctors, lawyers or librarians. When my wife wanted to become a librarian, she had to go back to get her master’s degree in library science, even though she learned nothing of any great significance. All the technology has changed since she got her degree in the early 1980s, so having an MLS degree means little more than having accumulated the necessary initials that will allow her to be hired by those who control the cartel.

One doesn’t need any special training to be a professional journalist. I don’t have a journalism degree, but one in the equally useless field of political science. It doesn’t make any difference.

Anyone can be a journalist, which, in my mind, is a good thing. How did I become one? I couldn’t think of anything better to do, given my limited abilities. So I started writing stuff. First, I wrote an article for a local weekly about a city budget meeting, got $50 and figured that beat waiting tables. Journalism doesn’t pay too well, but a journalist can get a job as a journalist in any town in the country. You can live where you choose, and no one cares about credentials as long as you crank out the necessary number of decently written lines each week.

That’s why I laugh at all this pretense of professional journalism. It’s not like one has to study several years to learn how to talk to people and write it down in a way that interests readers.

Unfortunately, many conservative critics of journalism don’t make important distinctions when they critique newspapers. So many of the readers I hear from are convinced the whole newspaper enterprise is a giant conspiracy designed to advance some nefarious liberal agenda. There’s no conspiracy, just a lot of like-mindedness. There are terrible biases, of course, but some of these readers insist that it is, say, biased to have made the Abu Ghraib scandal front-page news. Couldn’t we have featured stories about our brave military men and women instead? They simply prefer a world that conforms to their own biases.

No wonder Fox News is thriving.

When I write something with which readers agree, I am brilliant. When I write something with which they disagree, I am a moron, an obvious product of public schooling. I used to wonder why journalists were such nasty, angry, cynical cusses. Now I know: from listening to endless insults and anger directed their way from readers.

I enjoy good discourse, even from people who hate what I write and are mad as hell that I wrote it. But whatever happened to good manners? Sometimes someone will write in an angry email, and I’ll respond politely, and then a nice dialogue gets going. But that is rare. As a friend and fellow columnist tells me, most people don’t want to enter into dialogue, they want to inflict as much pain on the writer as possible.

They want to call names and make insinuations, and aggravate and anger. They don’t want to discuss and debate and build new relationships. Most of my correspondence comes in that form. Now, I often don’t respond to them, even though I used to respond in some form to everyone.

But I don’t need the heartache. I’ll write a long thoughtful response, and that just further angers the writer. Once I wrote back immediately, and then the emailer shot back with a furious reply wondering why I responded so quickly. His words demanded a longer reply, and I should have taken more time to think about it before writing back. This angry emailer wasn’t that different from many others who don’t understand that if I spent 30 minutes responding to each one of 200 emails on a given day, that doesn’t leave much time for anything else.

As much as I love email and the Internet world, I do blame this rampant lack of good manners and decency on the ease of email. There’s something about a letter that gives the writer time to calm down. There’s something about knowing that a real person is on the other end of the phone line that keeps most (but not all) readers from being vulgar and obscene. With email, though, just click on a name and unburden yourself with any rude comment.

Still, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

The nastiest, ugliest emails I received were from those Bill O’Reilly fans who got riled after he called me names during the early days of the war. These callers and emailers clearly did not read my other writing, or else they would know I am not a leftist, and they always referenced O’Reilly. These people were foul, which confirms, to some degree, the preconceived notions of Carroll and other critics of the network.

But I appreciate the increased competition. Sure, talk radio and Fox News are, perhaps, a mirror image, of the establishment media. They are just as narrow, smug and annoying. But at least viewers aren’t stuck with only one set or preconceived notions and prejudices. The real competition, though, comes from the Internet.

The Internet strips away one of the most nauseating features of my profession — the ridiculous idea that journalists are fair-minded truth seekers out for nothing more than a good story. Thanks to Internet journalism, we are moving back toward a wild and open discourse, more similar to the old days when various newspapers, with varying political bents, vied for the public’s attention.

That’s a great development for freedom. Don’t let any newspaper editor, no matter how sincere, tell you otherwise.

Steven Greenhut (send him mail) is a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County Register.