Monday, April 19, 2010
Who Pays and Why I've long believed that one of the consequences of the vast proliferation of information sources - the Internet, cable, social media, etc. - and the contemporaneous decline of the so called "main stream media" would be the rise of an increasingly partisan media. By partisan, I mean "news" with a distinct point of view and an obvious ideological bent. In a way, it's a movement that goes back to the future. In the days of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, consumers of political news could read a "pro-Adams" or "anti-Hamilton" newspaper. Newspapers were the "voice" of political movements and made little effort to provide anything approaching real "fairness and balance." Even fairly recently, the Chicago Tribune, under its autocratic owner and publisher Robert McCormick, was the leading voice of Midwest, conservative, isolationist sentiment. McCormick delivered the news heavily laced with his considered view of what America should be all about. As a Guardian blog points out, Britain has long had a tradition of news organizations representing a distinct political point of view or party and paid for in some clandestine manner. The most effective manifestation of this back to the future in our politics is FOX News and MSNBC. Despite protestations from the heads of news operations at both cable networks that they play news coverage right down the middle, FOX puts a deliberately conservative slant on everything while MSNBC varnishes its coverage with liberal lacquer. I watch both, but always with the "are they reporting or advocating" meter turned up full. FOX and MSNBC are my idea of day-in, day-out "point of view" journalism. Now comes the fascinating and not altogether encouraging development of "news bureaus" in several state capitals that are openly mixing "news" of state government with advocacy of particular public policy positions. John Miller with the Associated Press in Idaho reported last week on a relatively new website - Idahoreporter.com - and what he described as, "similar news operations...now in place in Washington state, Michigan, South Carolina, Montana, Wyoming, Florida, West Virginia, Arizona, Missouri, Maryland, Nebraska, Illinois, Texas, Tennessee, Ohio and elsewhere." In Idaho, the "news" site is connected to the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a 501(c)3, non-profit that recently sent a fundraising appeal over the signature of former Republican Senator Steve Symms. Miller notes that "there are fears that these organizations are trying to advance a certain agenda by the stories they decide to cover — even if the articles themselves are unbiased." He quotes Amy Mitchell, deputy director for the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism: "They are still very new. But in any content, there are a couple of different kinds of bias to look for: the angles taken by a reporter, the tone of writing. But there is also a bias that can exist in terms of choices of stories to cover." These operations are flourishing for at least three reasons. The traditional media - newspapers and TV, primarily - are retreating in their coverage of government and politics. At a time when a majority of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction and many feel our politics are hopelessly dysfunctional, there is a dearth of local reporting on policy and politics. These new news bureaus are filling a void. There is also a demand for "point of view" reporting. If there wasn't, FOX News wouldn't consistently lead the cable ratings. There is more and more evidence that liberals love to have their point of view validated. The recent New York Times/CBS News poll focused on Tea Party supporters found that crowd wildly in love with Glenn Beck and FOX. The complexity and ambiguity of that continuing search of "objectivity" is clearly something many of us desire to avoid. Finally, there is the money. Someone out there has the deep pockets to finance the rather elaborate and sophisticated efforts of idahoreporter.com and similar efforts around the country. But who? None of the people running these efforts, including former reporter Wayne Hoffman in Idaho, will talk about the deep pockets. Ironically, while Hoffman regularly blasts government for a lack of transparency and frequently posts the results of his requests for public records - salary information for the Wilder School District, for example - he justifies his own lack of candor about who backs his efforts by invoking the non-profit status of his organization. This is a curious stance for a group that helped set a good part of the agenda for the most recent session of the state legislature. Hoffman's group advocated elimination of state funding of Idaho Public Television, successfully sought to end the income tax check-off for political parties and strongly backed the state's effort to legally challenge the federal health insurance reform legislation. Good for them. That is the way our system works. But, the system also works based on sunshine and it gets perverted when information about who is bankrolling efforts like Hoffman's remains secret. I'm an absolutist when it comes to the marketplace of ideas. Everyone can and should play. Admittedly, I prefer my news served up with at least a side dish of objectivity, but don't begrudge a Rupert Murdoch or a Punch Sulzberger their points of view. They're paying for it, after all. Or, better yet, the advertisers they induce to buy time with FOX or a full page ad in the New York Times are paying for it. In those cases the marketplace of ideas is supported by the market and the more of it the better. By contrast, what these new "news bureaus" - and the "think tanks" that back them - lack is the very transparency they claim to value in the public arena. I'm confident the proponents of this confluence of "news" and "advocacy" will continue to expand their efforts to influence public affairs. Just don't confuse what they do with real journalism or with advocacy that abides by the rules of real disclosure. All of us are better served when we know who is writing the checks that make this kind of effort possible.