By Bob Sanchez, JMI Policy Director
Posted April 3, 2012
By now most consumers of the news media’s output realize that a lot of purportedly objective reporting is actually a reflection of the viewpoints of the writers and editors — and that those viewpoints typically skew left. This has become even more evident in recent years as the historic lines between news and opinion have been blurred.Maybe this blurring is a byproduct of what some are calling “the Super Bowl Syndrome.” That is, anyone who’s truly interested in pro football’s Super Bowl probably watched the Super Bowl. These viewers already know the game’s outcome and how it was achieved. As a result, there’s not much new information to convey afterward on TV or the next morning in the print media. Indeed, about the only thing left for the print media to do is literally “Monday morning quarterbacking” in the form of analysis laced with opinion.This model has migrated from the sports arena to news reporting. Anyone who was interested in a State of the Union message or a presidential candidates’ debate, for instance, probably saw it live on TV. What’s left for the press? First come the instant analyses from the TV pundits. Then, in the ensuing days, the print media’s laggards chime in with commentary that some readers will dismiss as late and stale but others will think is more thoughtful because its authors actually had time to think and do some research.Either way, the end product is analysis and opinion rather than the “straight reporting” that formerly characterized the news sections of newspapers, a medium that – with the migration of internet content from desktops to portable devices – seems increasingly anachronistic. Indeed, printed newspapers are dinosaurs. Among the services replacing the nation’s traditional sources of news coverage are internet-based services – websites, blogs, aggregators – ranging from the Drudge Report, the Huffington Post, and the Daily Caller to Florida’s Sayfie Review and The James Madison Institute’s own Capitol Vanguard.Many of these services are unabashedly opinionated, whether they skew to the left or the right. Often it’s not so much that they’re telling us what to think about the issues; rather, through their selection of the topics they choose to cover, they’re telling us what issues to think about. So, given that most news reporting now comes soaked in opinion, is it better for the consumers of what now passes for news reporting to be aware of the political and ideological the leanings of the writers who are producing it? That’s a question tangled up in a controversy now raging inWisconsin.It’s a bit ironic that the state capital named for James Madison, the principal author of the U.S. Constitution and a principled champion of limited government, is ground central in battle centering on a question that could ultimately determine the fate of limited government — not only in Wisconsin but throughout the nation:Will the citizenry control the government or will the government control the citizenry, taking an inordinate and ever-increasing portion of the fruits of the citizens’ labor to support the privileges of the governing elite?The answer to that question may well be determined by the outcome of a late spring referendum in which a coalition of labor unions and other left-wing activists is asking voters to oust Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker. Governor Walker, who was recently the featured speaker at a James Madison Institute luncheon in Naples, has dared to challenge the public employee unions’ grip on state and local government inWisconsin.This recall election came about after Governor Walker’s foes gathered more than one million signatures on petitions seeking his ouster. Among the signers were 25 news employees of Wisconsin newspapers owned by Gannett, a media heavyweight with a nationwide presence. Gannett owns USA Today, 23 TV stations nationwide including the Tampa Bay area’s CBS affiliate and Jacksonville’s NBC and ABC affiliates, plus daily newspapers in 90 cities nationwide, including Tallahassee, Pensacola, Fort Myers, and Melbourne.Mind you, the 25 anti-Walker petitioners are news employees, not opinion writers, at the Gannett-owned papers in the Wisconsin cities of Green Bay, Appleton, and Fond du Lac. By signing these petitions, they revealed their ideological leanings, potentially casting doubt on the credibility of their coverage of this campaign. When the signings were disclosed, the publishers of the three newspapers – evidently reacting to orders from on high at Gannett’s headquarters in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., – expressed regret in columns that were nearly identical in their wording. They were not pleased; instead, they were “disheartened.”The St. Petersburg-based Poynter Institute, a media watchdog and training organization, reports that Green Bay’s Publisher Kevin Corrado promised his readers that “We now are in the process of taking disciplinary measures and reviewing supplemental ethics training for all news employees.” One alternative way of translating this bit of corporate-speak from atop Gannett’s food chain: We’re royally annoyed that these reporters revealed our dirty little secret — the fact that journalistic objectivity, if it ever actually existed, is now a myth.Meanwhile, some of the petition signers have asserted that they have a First Amendment right to take sides on political issues – at least when they’re off duty — so this may not be the end of these kinds of controversies over “journalistic ethics,” a term that arguably has become a bit of an oxymoron.Therefore, in the end, the central questions recur: Is it better for the public if news reporters come right out and reveal their biases, thereby forewarning readers that their reporting might not be entirely trustworthy? Or is it better for their biases to remain concealed? Inquiring minds want to know.