If You’re Political, Then say So

Should journalists make political contributions? That’s a quandary raised in a today’s Washington Post story by reporter Howard Kurtz. The situation is this: Some news organizations allow staffers—and that includes editors and reporters—to make political contributions. Such contributions could infer bias and so tarnish the contributor’s and/or news operation’s neutrality.

As a former journalist too often disgusted by the news media misbehaviors, I’m in favor of the contributions, as long as there is full disclosure. My reasoning is simple. Reporters, editors, and publishers are people. That means they do have biases and even agendas. But the mask of so-called neutrality often hides the real story behind news stories. I like the idea of those purporting to deliver unbiased news stories and analyses offering readers insight into their political leanings. 

Of course, that’s not enough to resolve all the problems with the American news media. Bias is everywhere and should be acknowledged rather than spread the myth of neutrality. American journalism has a long history of pointed commentary. Freedom of speech isn’t meant to be fair, a point not missed by early American political pundits.

One of my longstanding news media criticisms is the near obsession about what the other guy is doing. Newspaper B is a major competitor to A, and so watches its stories carefully. The editors at B can’t allow A to scoop them, that is to get a story first or one they don’t have at all.

So, A publishes a story about an alien invasion from Mexico into the United States—that’s outer space not illegal—citing reliable, unnamed government sources. B follows up on the same story. Newspapers C and D compete with B and feel compelled to do their own news stories and so on.

Sure the example is outrageous, but the point isn’t. Many so-called news events that otherwise would get small coverage grow larger in significance because of the competitive nature of the business. Editors justify this behavior as necessary to keep readers, which might bolt if A has a story B doesn’t. I disagree, particularly in this era of the information-gorged Internet. Most people I know go to multiple places for news.

In some ways, I respect the grocery story checkout tabloids more than mainstream newspapers. They don’t make any pretense of legitimacy, only that three sources confirmed their stories. Besides, they have long history writing about alien invasions that never happened. Surprising that doesn’t hurt the confidence of the readership. Credibility isn’t so much their focus as giving readers what they want.

As the 2004 political campaign heats up, I expect to spend more time reading blogs instead of relying on mainstream news. Blogs often are no-nonsense and no-pretense. That’s refreshing.

As for the news media, from the song “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” composed by Joey and Dee Dee Ramone and Jean Beauvoir, “You’ve got to pick up the pieces, c`mon sort your trash. If there’s one thing that makes me sick, it’s when someone tries to hide behind politics”.

The Ramones’ song was in protest to a Ronald Reagan visit to a ceremony in Germany, but I see some appropriateness here. Oh, for the sake of political disclosure, I voted for Ronald Reagan both terms.