In a salvo launched in what appears to be a renewed war on the news media, my epistolary acquaintance and perennial news-media critic Sammy McLarty offers a seething variation on the old saw about liberals dominating the news media. I’m going to surprise Sammy. I’m not going to deny the possibility of it.
But it’s critical to digest a few other truths if we’re to accept this possibility as even a probability.
Foremost, it’s important to divorce a newspaper’s opinion pages and the views of its editorial board from the daily reporting of the news staff that fills most of the paper. Many on the news staff may not even agree with the editorial board. And the firewall between the two is a concept deeply rooted in American newspaper tradition that nonetheless still confounds some folks. Gruff editors as well as reporters’ professional codes stress the absolute importance of objectivity in reporting.
The Wall Street Journal only the other day broke a particularly damning story about Republican Congressman Tom Price, a Donald Trump Cabinet pick and architect of destroying the Affordable Care Act. The paper reported that Price had possibly violated federal laws by trading hundreds of thousands of dollars in health-related stocks while working on health care legislation. If true, it’s self-serving, a clear conflict of interest, even unlawful.
Drivel from the liberal media? Hardly. As anyone who reads it regularly can confirm, The Wall Street Journal has a solidly pro-Republican, strongly conservative, pro-business and vehemently anti-Obama, anti-Clinton editorial board. You’d be challenged to find anything positive that the Journal editorial board has said about our current president.
The Tom Price story is but further evidence that while a mainstream newspaper’s editorial page may lean right or left, rank-and-file reporters are generally honest brokers separate and apart from it. They’re out to report news as it goes and turn over rocks to uncover impropriety when they suspect corruption. Their job includes highlighting wrongdoing by politicians (right and left), businessmen or anyone else.
Unfortunately, too many people find it easier to castigate the press as biased rather than accept the inconvenient possibility that, say, their political idol is crooked or incompetent or both, or that legislation they supported isn’t working out as intended.
Much easier to blame the press as biased. Much better to deny those pesky facts.
This week marks my 40th year in this profession. All the editors for whom I worked regularly instructed reporters that, for instance, they are not to erect campaign signs in their yards or place political bumper stickers on their vehicles. And unlike newspaper columnists and TV political commentators who deal in opinion, reporters are to guard obsessively against allowing political preferences to infect their stories. Most reporters prefer it this way.
When I was summoned to then-Trib editor Carlos Sanchez’s office in 2008 and asked to join John Young on the opinion page, I asked Carlos why he would even consider me. In my years of working for him as city editor, I had never revealed my political views. Carlos frankly admitted he had no idea whether I was a Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative.
But he also said he couldn’t imagine anyone in the Trib newsroom being as liberal as John Young. Texas Monthly a year earlier had proclaimed John the “perfect nominee to replace the sadly departed Molly Ivins as the bee in the Texas establishment’s bonnet.” So right off, I just naturally had to be a more conservative addition to the editorial board. (While John and I viewed some issues differently, he was a gracious professional who believed in all opinions and even oversaw the patient weekly editing of a column by Waco-based, right-wing iconoclast and rocker Ted Nugent.)
It’s always dangerous to stereotype members of any profession, religion, race or discipline. Yes, the press was routinely vilified as wildly sympathetic to liberals by Republican political campaigns as far back as 1968 and 1972. And from what I could tell at the time, many of us who got into journalism in the wake of the remarkable Woodward-Bernstein Watergate coverage at The Washington Post were fairly liberal when we opened up privately amongst ourselves.
Yet, to raise more inconvenient facts — I voted for Richard Nixon for president, came from resolutely Republican lineage, grew up in a household where we weren’t so sure that Joe McCarthy was wrong, and I counted as a cherished friend rabid anti-communist and Texas Republican Jack Cox. (Texas Republicans who know their party history will recall Jack. He once told me that if he had beat John Connally for governor in 1962, John F. Kennedy would still be alive because Jack never would have invited JFK to Texas.)
This anti-commie bent in my genetic makeup explains why I have darker views on Russian meddling in our recent presidential election than some Johnny-come-lately Republicans who think it’s A-OK because Russian espionage so conveniently undermined Hillary Clinton. And if you want to know why a multitude of conservative opinion columnists balk at Donald Trump, consider carefully his positions such as vowing to undermine the First Amendment — clearly contrary to opinions of serious conservative thinkers such as the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
As an editor, reporter and columnist through the years, I have been fortunate to work with some excellent political reporters. All moved easily in Republican and Democratic circles. One even told me he refused to vote in elections because he feared it might somehow color his reporting. He said the smartest politician he ever covered was a Republican, though admittedly a maverick: U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Even in the realm of the opinion page, which by definition is all about bias, we try to keep things fair. I interrupted my Christmas vacation to write a column vigorously defending Republican Congressman Bill Flores after he was maliciously and unfairly savaged by a white-supremacist news site — and four days later I parboiled the congressman for (in my view, clearly not his) seeking to undermine the House’s independent ethics office.
Is the news media perfect in its daily reporting of events? Hardly. We make honest mistakes and miscalculations, sometimes demonstrate poor judgment — not unlike the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, county sheriffs, U.S. presidents (Republican and Democratic), network TV programmers, physicians, restaurant managers, battle-tested field generals, judges, traffic cops and Hollywood movie moguls. We also shake our heads mightily at charlatans who assume the title of journalist while demonstrating little of it in the way of principle or professionalism.
As newsrooms dwindle in size, resources and societal impact, the public may learn what it’s like to rely instead on partisan hacks and political shills instead of a discerning press, even a press bearing fact-based opinions. In an astonishing “post-truth” era when more and more Americans cavalierly dismiss facts that don’t fit their preferred narratives, our badly divided nation will find it harder and harder to address complicated dilemmas. One way to solve some of this is by considering opinions that differ from our own and possibilities that we might not have previously entertained.
Bill Whitaker is opinion editor of the Tribune-Herald.