By Steven Greenhut
Several years ago, I appeared on a television news show discussing a local political issue with one of the reporters from the newspaper where I worked as a columnist. As our discussion turned to debate, the reporter said, “Steve, the difference between you and me is that I deal in facts and you deal in opinion.” I was stunned, given that she was as opinionated as I am, and my columns were as highly reported and fact-filled as her news reports.
I’ll never forget that encounter because it epitomizes an outlook that’s still common in the journalism profession, especially newspapers. Reporters believe they are professionally trained to be unbiased. They analyze an issue, speak to the interested parties, and produce a report that impartially presents the facts. That people on both sides of the political spectrum often criticize the final work only reinforces to journalists that they are doing their job fairly. But is it true that journalists can be free of bias and that those who admit theirs are not really part of the club?
That question was raised following a Society of Professional Journalists panel dealing with nonprofit news organizations at the Wisconsin Newspaper Association conference in Madison last month. Three of us who work for nonprofit news entities discussed our operations and answered questions. Bill Lueders, of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, and Lisa Graves, of the Center for Media and Democracy, were fellow panelists. University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism ethics professor Stephen Ward moderated.
At the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, parent organization of statehouse news agency Wisconsin Reporter, we’re unabashed in our focus. We ask questions from a free-market, pro-taxpayer perspective. We provide all perspectives and follow traditional journalistic standards, but we focus on waste, fraud and misuse of taxpayer dollars — on questions that aren’t always asked in the newspaper world. Everyone has a voice. We simply admit ours, so readers can make their own judgment.
But last week, Lueders published a column in several Wisconsin newspapers, including many of the same newspapers that run Wisconsin Reporter content, arguing that not all nonprofit journalistic endeavors are equally legitimate. Franklin and Graves’ center, which focuses on corporate misdeeds, provide a valid function, he argued, “but it’s not what the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism does. We are not just nonpartisan but non-ideological, a distinction worth drawing in this brave new world of nonprofit news.”
This reminds me of the attitude expressed by the reporter I described above. Lueders’ operation does great work and is not partisan, but the stories are based on a clear left-of-center perspective. That perspective is so ingrained in newsrooms that reporters often can’t see it. It’s how almost everyone around them thinks, so their thinking must be unbiased. Lueders also took Franklin Center to task, because we do not reveal the names of our donors unless those donors have publicized it themselves.
There’s nothing nefarious going on and nothing that undermines the veracity of our journalism. Nonprofits typically protect the names of donors. Many donors are afraid of political repercussions. In California, even donors who provided $25 to one controversial initiative found themselves on the receiving end of protests. This scares people. Furthermore, donors often don’t like their donations revealed, because it makes them fundraising targets.
The journalistic integrity issue doesn’t revolve around the revelation of funders. It centers on whether the organization has a strong wall of separation between its funding and its editorial content. I've heard many stories from the newspaper world where advertisers made editorial demands. At Franklin, we maintain a strong wall. And we are not partisan, despite some common misconceptions.
“My state of Wisconsin is a testing ground for this partisan assault on journalism,” Ward wrote in an online article that references the Franklin Center’s Madison-based Wisconsin Reporter. “If this activist model works here, these groups are prepared to establish similar services across the country, as they prepare for a presidential election next year.”
Yet Franklin and its journalists don’t support or advocate for a particular party, and we can point to many examples of stories that embarrass Republican politicians. A philosophical point of view does not equal partisan activism. I used to work for a newspaper chain called Freedom Communication. The “Freedom” told readers the fundamental perspective from which the publications approached the world. There’s a reason so many newspapers are called the Republican or the Democrat or the Independent or the Vindicator. Somewhere along the way, journalists embraced a false ethic of impartiality and many still cling to it.
That ethic often strikes readers as hypocritical. When I was in Madison, for example, I picked up a cover story in the Capital Times featuring the residents who started the recall effort against the Republican governor. It was an interesting read, but it was a glowing celebration of the activists. That story had a clear voice, but the mainstream journalism world still likes to pretend that such opinionated stories are objective.
Most reporters strive to be fair, but they all have a worldview, whether they admit it or not. They typically quote both sides accurately, but the bias comes in the story selection and the basic premise of the reporting itself. I knew many reporters where I worked and they almost always strived to be fair, but they often reminded me of that New York reporter who famously declared that Richard Nixon could not possibly have won the election. She didn’t know a single person who voted for him. Groupthink is common in all professions, including newspapers.
H.L. Mencken once quipped that freedom of the press belongs only to those who own one. Now anyone can own their own press, given the availability of inexpensive blogging platforms. The new media has changed the journalism world. Broadcast news has changed dramatically too, with the growth in cable news programming and myriad programs with distinct points of view. Yet many journalists are still trying to determine who is a “real” journalist and who is an impostor and impose a false standard of objectivity. Even worse than biased stories that pretend to be fair are those that strive so mightily to show no biases that they end up being boring or fail to provide the necessary back story and perspective that readers need.
At Franklin, we publish news stories and investigative pieces on our own Web sites and publish in traditional media sources. We love the old media and the new media. But we don’t hide from who we are. The emerging new media world is changing the face of journalism. Reporters should embrace this vibrant new world rather than try to fight the pointless battles from the past.
Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. He is based in Sacramento, Calif.