Over the past decade or so, “objectivity,” that elusive yet useful ideal in modern professional journalism, has been under attack. The right has now turned the left’s critique of power on its head, and accused the news establishment of somehow having a “liberal” bias. In less of a response than a lament, Eric Alterman in his well-documented book What Liberal Media?: The Truth About Bias and the News, suggests that the drumbeat of accusation from the right has devalued the critical importance of “good journalism” in the eyes of the public and that objectivity should be resuscitated. Recently, the Columbia Journalism Review weighed in with a long and studied feature, arguing that the concept should be reformed and more “grounded in reality,” wherein reporters admit some inescapable subjectivity.
But given the new media environment and a new era of partisanship, I think the situation demands more drastic measures.
Ideally, the journalistic profession should be recognized by the public as rigorous, critical, and important to democracy. But we’ve all got serious problems now, problems that are challenging and changing the very nature of the American journalistic establishment. The right, bolstered by Republican hegemony and war, is carving out an influential niche in the mainstream media by branding “opinionated” and “edgy” news and thereby popularizing overtly ideological news with dedicated conservative viewers
At a time when well-funded, widely distributed—and unabashedly opinionated—right-wing news is setting the standard for radio and cable news ratings, where does that leave the so-called “liberal” press, those estimable scions schooled in journalism and detached objectivity? In the face of this veritable challenge from increasingly powerful and ideological right-wing news, will mainstream journalists with liberal tendencies step up to the plate and, perhaps, help radicalize the Democrats?
The New Formation
The era of governmental regulation on TV news, tepid as it was, is over. The new panoply of media technologies has fragmented audiences, while the increased commercialization and deregulation of news has dissolved any remnants of rules like the F.C.C.’s Fairness Doctrine. Most significant is this rise of powerfully funded ideological news from the hard right that has, in its ferocity and bombast, overshadowed any “liberal bias” in the so-called “liberal news establishment” of a CNN or New York Times. In fact, there have been many well-researched quantitative and qualitative studies that suggest such “liberal” news outlets prove themselves at times to be stenographers of political and corporate power, especially because the tenets of objectivity require quoting established “authority” in order to introduce criticism. But that’s another story.
The one news outlet that has changed the news game more than any other is Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel. Its ratings have grown exponentially. During this last Gulf war, it got a greater share of the cable news audience on the first day of bombing and every day after that. The loudmouthed, aggressively conservative “O’Reilly Factor” got a greater audience in the 8 p.m. slot than all of the other cable news channels combined. And this has translated into money: According to Advertising Age, estimates for Fox News ad revenue will surge by more than 60 percent this year.
The very basis of Fox News is unabashedly opinionated and conservative, much more skewed than the “liberal” establishment media where government “sources,” military analysts, and a great many conservatives have their say. In fact, Roger Ailes, the ex-Republican strategist for the likes of Nixon, the first George Bush and Rudy Giuliani, is upfront about his conservative bias and belief that sharp opinion and “edginess” is what delivers viewers. Objectivity for Ailes is mere pretense, or, as the New York Post might put it, it’s pretending you’re not something that you are. Meanwhile, Ailes’s Machiavellian instincts and experience in media spin led him to create the wretchedly ironic taglines “fair and balanced” and “We report. You decide,” for Fox News.
Created as more than just a conservative news outlet, Fox was engineered to break the traditional mold of news. Ken Auletta, in a recent New Yorker piece on Fox News, quoted Peter Chernin, the president and chief operating officer of News Corp., who declared that media companies have to "seize the edge, because the most dangerous thing in the anti-bland world is to play it safe. And it must leap out with brand identity.” Auletta also quotes a director of the Pew Research Center who comments on the “intensity” of the Fox News viewership. According to Nielson, Fox viewers between the ages of 25 and 54 typically watched 70 percent more news than CNN viewers. Evidently, just as right-wing radio became an obsession for disgruntled white Americans (or those disgruntled became an obsession of right-wing radio), Fox has found a preconceived “fit” for news that lays on thick the easy salve of patriotic jingoism, xenophobia, and bombastic diatribe that serves a specific audience.
Meanwhile, overt left-wing media is “alternative” and, while surely out there to find, it is not privy to the same powerful distribution systems as the right, which has saturated radio, talk shows, newspapers, and cable and broadcast news. Even though progressive analysis of the ilk found in Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” (which has made close to $30 million in U.S. theatrical release alone) clearly has great commercial dividends, it is more often than not left to the wayside.
Less Vision than Bottom Line
Unfortunately, the action is still only happening on the right. For example, MSNBC, a fledgling channel in terms of ratings, hired a slew of right-wingers in a bid to get some of Fox News’s audience. Besides hiring Joe Scarborough, it quickly cancelled the quasi-liberal Donahue show and programmed in the most debased right-winger it could find: Michael Savage, who refers to “turd world nations” and blasts out a vicious brand of racism, jingoism, and homophobia under the guise of criticizing the politically correct. Savage has since proved too volatile and his show was cancelled. MSNBC’s defense in the hire was that there were viewers out there that liked his kind of vitriol. “Fox has figured out a format and a slate of talent and talk shows that hold audiences 12 months a year,” notes Erik Sorenson, president-general manager of MSNBC in Advertising Age. “Hats off to them.”
Meanwhile, The New York Times, harangued after the Blair and Bragg scandals (and more worrisome, the Judith Miller debacle), recently applied a moderate salve. While Murdoch’s Post accuses the Times of being a “left wing sheet” that “let’s its ideological heart bleed all over its news pages,” under a guise of objectivity, the Times recently replaced as Executive Editor a flamboyant pro-war Democrat (Howell Raines) with a centrist pro-war Democrat (Bill Keller) who said he supported the war in Iraq because of “the convergence of a real threat and a real opportunity.” The New York Post is proud of its conservative agenda; but can the Times (which is, of course, a paper of a different caliber) nonetheless hold on to the battered guardrails of journalism’s high road that still embraces, and is restrained by, objectivity?
Another (Necessary) Model
In Britain, and in much of Europe, the tradition with newspapers has always been one where multiple papers existed with an upfront diversity of viewpoints, including many powerful mainstream papers with critical left-wing positions. Television news, because it is, or was, mostly noncommercial has been governed by regulation that ensures varying viewpoints as well as international coverage and in-depth, long-form reporting. In addition, there are populist tabloids not afraid to engage in ideological combat with the right: The Daily Mirror is a widely distributed tabloid with a circulation of 2 million that took a hard-line stance on its front pages à la the New York Post, but one thoroughly against Bush, Blair, and war. There is not an equivalent in the U.S.
Earlier this year it was reported that powerful Democrats were looking to develop a radio network or cable television channel that would serve as an ideological antidote to the rise of right-wing radio and Fox News. Recently it was also circulated that Al Gore planned to start a liberal alternative to the powerful radio and cable of the right but, unfortunately, soon thereafter people involved in the initiative said it would not be a “political channel.” Some critics said that there isn’t enough “fire and brimstone” in the liberal analysis to be entertaining enough to be successful. Perhaps that has always been a liberal dilemma and one that is currently plaguing the Democratic Party: soft on stances; easily bullied in the face of jingoism; unwilling to engage in calling out hypocrisy; and, perhaps, unwilling to speak out for fear of battle. Look how the right has pretty much succeeded in mainstream political discourse in branding “liberal” a dirty word to the degree that some Democrats feel it is politically expedient to say they are not liberal.
Given the corporate ownership of media, it’s unreasonable to expect that the mainstream news will ever be as ideologically left as what we’re currently seeing from the right. I’m all for pursuing objectivity, especially for the weather and the Who, What, Where, and When of the reporting formula. But the Why and the How, two elements that always come into a story, inevitably show where a journalist and his or her media outfit are coming from. While the simplistic views from the right on issues like war, deregulation, and taxes are winning in the mainstream news of this country, there is a significant percentage of the population that would welcome, even commercially, the equivalent in distribution and power on the left. Until that happens, our best hope is that the liberal media establishment will shelve the idea of objectivity and come out swinging.