Fact-checking an editor’s biased agenda
TEACHER SAID: There “is absolutely, positively no such thing as an unbiased piece of writing.”
During a junior high-school English class decades ago, I eagerly raised my hand to answer a teacher’s question about news reporting. He wanted us to explain the kind of sources we would use and how we would assure that our writing was fair.
I would rely on “unbiased” books and articles, I explained. The teacher threw his hands in the air and started yelling (in a friendly manner) that there “is absolutely, positively no such thing as an unbiased piece of writing.” The lesson was learned — and it stuck with me through my long and continuing journalism and writing career.
Human beings have biases. There’s no way around it. The most biased news stories I’ve ever read have been presented in a perfectly fair manner, with two sides of an issue presented, but where the basic premise points in one direction or another. The biggest bias actually might come in what reporters choose not to cover.
Yet some journalists still believe they can present news stories free from any bias. That’s a declining view in today’s wide-open online news world, where people know that balance is achieved by reading articles with myriad perspectives rather than relying on one superficial piece distributed by, say, the Associated Press.
For an example of this musty and arrogant “we are the arbiters of fairness” thinking, I offer Karen Peterson, editor of the Tacoma News Tribune in Washington. In a Sept. 29 column, she blasted my former employer, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, after the nonprofit news group (parent company of Watchdog.org) emailed her offering a news partnership.
Watchdog.org offers free reprint rights to newspapers and has engaged in myriad partnerships with local and national media. Peterson said she was interested, but then did a little “research” on the group. She found that Watchdog’s work “revealed a list of stories and sources with an anti-taxation and deregulation bent.” She couldn’t find any list of its funding sources.
And then she did more research (i.e., a Google search) and reported on the findings of “The Center for Public Integrity, a 24-year-old nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism organization.” Peterson’s conclusion is that the Franklin Center is an ideologically oriented group that tries to pass its work off as “unbiased journalism.”
She accuses the group of dishonesty, but her writing not only is disturbingly short of forthrightness, but reveals the weakness in the old, “we have no biases” thinking.
For starters, the Franklin Center does not claim to produce unbiased journalism. I know. When I was vice president of journalism there, I crafted the policy and worked with reporters and editors to enforce it. Watchdog produces quality journalism that conforms to professional journalism standards — but it admits that it has a pro-taxpayer, pro-liberty perspective.
Franklin is not the only nonprofit that doesn’t list donors, by the way. But whatever one thinks of that policy, the group spells it out and doesn’t try to pretend otherwise. If a newspaper doesn’t like that policy, then it shouldn’t use Watchdog’s articles. But that’s not dishonesty — it’s the epitome of truthfulness.
Here’s what’s really revealing. Peterson refers to the Center for Public Integrity in a way that would make one think that it is just some unbiased good-journalism group. But it is a nonprofit with a hard-left political perspective and it didn’t just do some “research” on Franklin. It published a poorly crafted hit piece with a transparent political agenda.
“The fact that you didn’t question its findings suggests something of your own bias,” wrote Franklin Vice President Will Swaim in an email to Peterson, who never responded to his correspondence.
You see the ironies here. A newspaper editor attacks a libertarian-leaning group that admits its view of the world for the crime of offering news stories for reprinting. Meanwhile, she champions as unbiased the work of left-wing groups that are cagier about their perspective. Too bad she wasn’t in my junior high class that day.
No wonder the public has been frustrated over the years with perceptions of media bias. It’s not really the bias that’s the problem, but the insistence by some editors that they are untainted by any worldview — even as they so obviously trumpet one. (Not long ago, for instance, I received an angry email from a reader about one of my newspaper articles. She couldn’t believe how biased it was. After I explained to her that it was an opinion column, her view totally changed. She didn’t mind my idiotic view — as long as it wasn’t dressed up as unbiased!)
Don’t like Franklin or Watchdog? That’s fine. Then don’t use their work. But don’t dress up your own political biases as a bold defense of journalistic integrity.
Steven Greenhut is a Watchdog.org contributor and former vice president of Journalism for Watchdog’s parent, the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.
Originally published at Fact-checking an editor’s biased agenda.