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Reporters must confess their biases
Monday, October 18, 2004

When I moved to a new city two decades ago, I asked the man running the huge neighborhood newsstand which daily paper was considered the best.

He laughed.

"That depends," he answered, "on whether you prefer the left or the right."

You can tell it wasn't an American city because it had several newspapers to choose from and the papers' political biases were openly proclaimed.

In my lifetime -- my earliest political memory is watching Nixon resign -- American media have been transformed. Even as the newspaper industry has contracted, the proverbial ink-stained wretch has been overtaken by upwardly mobile crusaders -- blame the rumpled glamour of "All The President's Men" -- who view their jobs as half-profession, half-religion. Many members of the modern media are acolytes in the Temple of the Fourth Estate, where they worship the false god of objectivity.

But as of this election cycle, the American journalistic model no longer works, because news consumers understand that journalism's god does not exist.

No human being is objective. Each of us has a world view -- some more coherent than others -- that encompasses our experience, learning, beliefs, preferences, even our temperaments. Who we are shapes the messages we hear and those we pass on.

But the American journalistic model depends on denying human nature. The media's true believers pretend they alone are not inclined to see what they want to see or to shape their messages to help those whom they favor.

Viewers are voting "No confidence" with their remotes. Fox News Channel's convention coverage drew a greater audience than any broadcast network.

Correctly perceiving the old news establishment as corrupted by uncorrected liberal bias, many viewers are choosing a conservative network.

Fox's only mistake is a big one -- claiming that it's "fair and balanced." Since Fox favors the right, Fox is balance.

Liberal bias pervades both broadcast and print media.

In the 15 years since S. Robert Lichter's landmark book, "The Media Elite," documented the bias, the situation hasn't improved.

This past summer, New York Times columnist John Tierney polled 153 colleagues and found that while reporters favored John Kerry 3 to 1, those based in Washington, D.C., favored him 12 to 1.

This month, ABC News took a hit when an internal memo surfaced urging staffers to hold President Bush to a higher standard of truth than John Kerry -- "to serve the public interest."

On Thursday, as part of a weeklong road tour, ABC's Peter Jennings will visit Pittsburgh for a town hall meeting to address media bias (my colleague Tony Norman and I will be panelists at the event).

Correction is needed, but is the direction we're now headed -- the European left/right media model -- the best way to go? No. We need our biases challenged at least as often as they're reinforced. But we can't trust the job to journalists in denial.

With so many news consumers refusing to do the co-dependent tango that's been playing ever since Watergate, the media's only hope for a healthy future may be a kind of 12-step program. All over America, reporters could come out of the closet, stand up in the newsroom and confess, "I'm Bill W. and I'm a liberal." Then we could hold each other accountable.

The most we can hope for is to be fair, maybe even balanced.

First published on October 18, 2004 at 12:00 am
Ruth Ann Dailey can be reached at rdailey@post-gazette.com.