I’ve got a new Think Again called “Follow the Money” here.
David Broder passed away this week. I interviewed him once over twenty years ago for my first book, and have written about him quite a bit since. I am not one to comment on Broder the man based on a single one-hour conversation. But here are some of my assessments about his work and his influence. I link to them here for the sake of the public record.
Jerry Ceppos—dean of the Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism and Advanced Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno and a former VP of Knight—was troubled by the last of these columns and got in touch with me about it. He gives a fair summary of our exchange here.
Now here’s Reed:
If you have the time and aren’t completely saturated by the coverage of the hidden-camera NPR fundraising fiasco, I recommend checking out NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard’s Washington Post webchat. It presents a near-perfect distillation of the current conventional wisdom about modern media ethics and its obsession with hiding reporters’ personal beliefs. Indeed, read through Shepard’s answers to the online questions and it becomes evident that her real beef with NPR executive Ron Schiller is his violation of this supposed code of journalistic omerta, so much so that she revisits the point three separate times:
“Who blabs to total strangers in public about their personal biases?” […]
“That is what baffles me most. When you first meet a complete stranger do you share your personal feelings about conservatives, liberals, politics? UNBELIEVABLE.” […]
“I still can’t believe you would divulge so much to a stranger. That’s what I’m having a hard time wrapping my brain around.”
Just to emphasize: what Shepard finds baffling and unbelievable is that Schiller and his fundraising colleague, Betsy Liley—who, it should be pointed out are neither journalists nor did they work in any news capacity at NPR—shared like-minded personal political opinions with people they might want to solicit for a large cash donation during a business lunch. Stephen Glass or Judith Miller, they ain’t. Granted, Schiller was certainly guilty of making broad stereotypes about Tea Party members and asserting that certain media outlets employ a “Zionist” editorial outlook and they both let a lot of prejudicial banter wash over them unchallenged. But whatever your feelings of the pair’s smarmy behavior and viewpoints, their sins here were venial rather than cardinal ones, as what they notably did not do was offer the phony Muslim group some kind of unethical or illegal quid pro quo, like a promise that the $5 million donation would guarantee favorable coverage or equate to special access.
Now, Shepard does say that Schiller’s particular ideological slant wasn’t what got him into trouble: “Certainly he wasn’t fired for harboring negative views about conservatives. it was the unprofessional manner that cost him his job [sic].” OK, but it’s clear Shepard’s outrage is grounded upon more than just the fact that he lacked the sufficient fundraising due diligence to see through these charlatans. (And, to be fair, it’s worth pointing out that after the meeting, NPR did not further pursue the donation.)
Instead, her obvious anger stems from a larger, journalistic ethic that currently says the revelation of any kind of personal bias, ipso facto, renders your reportage and, by extension, your network biased as well. You can hate conservatives or liberals, in other words, but you just can’t say it out loud. But really it’s not the verbalizing of these personal biases that bothers adherents of objective journalism; it’s the mere presence of it. Listen to Shepard’s definition of how most journalists must overcome this challenge:
“I happen to think that many journalists tend toward liberal thinking, but then known that [sic]. They go out of their way to compensate, to reach out to those with opposing views, to be professional in making sure everyone gets heard. They do not have an agenda, at least MSM reporters do not…”
I would have an easier time believing Shepard’s conclusion here if she hadn’t just described quite clearly in her previous sentence an agenda she claims does not exist. That she and other journalism heavyweights are comfortable defining as “professional” MSM reporters who “go out of their way to compensate” for their “liberal thinking” is to precisely encourage the kind of climate where artificially balanced, horse-race stories run rampant in our democracy.
Rather than foster an ethic of transparency among the media that would better allow honest, fair reportage to be held accountable by the public, what the public now gets instead is an increasingly timid and defensive press corps that is committed to concealing its internal biases and churning out “view from nowhere” stories, as NYU professor Jay Rosen calls them. But in a world where the realm of what’s private or personal is circumscribed within a smaller and smaller space, to expect increasingly savvy readers to be satisfied with a simple masthead and byline is to deny them the tools necessary to properly value the news they’re receiving. As we saw this week, inevitably these walls of objectivity will crack open a bit and reveal that what’s going on inside isn’t as pure and chaste as the press would like everyone to believe. A more open dialogue with the public would help restore its trust in the press, but silence, I’m afraid only makes it worse.
Lebanon, New Hampshire
Professor, here’s a breath of fresh air. Citizens of Nacka, Sweden—near Stockholm—are pursuing a unique project bringing Lutherans, Catholics and Muslims together under a single roof. The plan involves renovations to the current building owned by the Church of Sweden (but which also rents space to the Catholic Church) and upon completion a mosque will be built on land adjacent to the current structure (and will be connected by a communal foyer).
Given that the southern Swedish city of Malmö has seen a rise in anti-Semitism—perhaps provisions could be made in Nacka for a temple, and complete an interfaith grand slam?
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