Bans on po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions help reporters hide bias

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OPINION - Jonah Gold­berg The Na­tional Re­view Jonah Gold­berg is syn­di­cated by Tri­bune Me­dia Ser­vices.

“Let me say for the bil­lionth time: Reporters don’t root for a side. Pe­riod.”

This declar­a­tive tweet came from the Wash­ing­ton Post’s Chris Cil­lizza on Oct. 16. The next day, Cil­lizza posted on Twit­ter, “Well, this is su­per de­press­ing. NO idea why any jour­nal­ist would do­nate $ to politi­cians.”

The “su­per de­press­ing” story he was re­act­ing to came from the Cen­ter for Pub­lic In­tegrity. Ac­cord­ing to its just-re­leased study, more than 96 per­cent of do­na­tions from me­dia fig­ures to ei­ther of the two ma­jor-party pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates went to Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Left-wing out­fits and var­i­ous mem­bers of the jour­nal­is­tic guild nit­picked the re­port’s method­ol­ogy. And they made some good points. The study blended former jour­nal­ists and peo­ple in the jour­nal­ism busi­ness with ac­tual reporters.

NPR in­ter­viewed Len Downie, the former ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of The Wash­ing­ton Post, about the re­port, and while he echoed many of these crit­i­cisms, he none­the­less crit­i­cized reporters who give money to pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns. “No jour­nal­ist should con­trib­ute, as far as I’m con­cerned, to po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns,” said Downie, who added that it cre­ates “ap­pear­ances of con­flict of in­ter­est” for both jour­nal­ists and news or­ga­ni­za­tions.

This is an an­cient and — by my lights — ridicu­lous con­tro­versy. Any­one who has spent a mo­ment around elite reporters or stud­ied their out­put knows that they tend to be left of cen­ter. In 1981, S. Robert Lichter and Stan­ley Roth­man sur­veyed 240 lead­ing jour­nal­ists and found that 94 per­cent of them voted for Lyn­don John­son in 1964, 81 per­cent voted for Ge­orge McGovern in 1972, and 81 per­cent voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976. Only 19 per­cent placed them­selves on the right side of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum. Does any­one think the me­dia has be­come less lib­eral since then?

None of this means lib­er­als — or con­ser­va­tives — can’t be good reporters, but the idea that me­dia bias is nonex­is­tent is lu­di­crous. Judges have far greater in­cen­tives to be neu­tral and ob­jec­tive, yet we know that Demo­crat-ap­pointed judges tend to is­sue lib­eral de­ci­sions, and Repub­li­can-ap­pointed judges tend to is­sue con­ser­va­tive de­ci­sions.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and cam­paigns have hired dozens of prom­i­nent, sup­pos­edly non­par­ti­san jour­nal­ists, in­clud­ing former White House press sec­re­tary and Time mag­a­zine re­porter Jay Car­ney, former Time manag­ing ed­i­tor Rick Sten­gel, The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Shailagh Mur­ray and ABC’s Linda Dou­glass. Was it just a co­in­ci­dence that they were all ide­o­log­i­cally sim­patico with the Obama agenda? How did the Obama team even fig­ure out they were lib­er­als in the first place?

The con­tro­versy over po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions gets the causal­ity back­wards. Do­na­tions to po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns are down­stream of ide­ol­ogy. What I mean is, giv­ing money to a lib­eral politi­cian doesn’t make you a lib­eral. Be­ing a lib­eral mo­ti­vates you to give to the politi­cian.

I don’t give money to cam­paigns for any num­ber of rea­sons. But if I did, would any­body be shocked if I gave to con­ser­va­tive politi­cians?

Of course, I’m not a news re­porter. I’m an opin­ion jour­nal­ist. But imag­ine if in­stead of a pro­hi­bi­tion on po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions there was a re­quire­ment. Reporters could give to any­one they wanted, but they had to make a do­na­tion of, say, $500. Does any­one doubt that the vast ma­jor­ity of reporters at The New York Times, The Wash­ing­ton Post or NBC would give to Democrats?

Downie and other jour­nal­is­tic Brahmins point to sur­vey data show­ing that many jour­nal­ists de­scribe them­selves as “in­de­pen­dents,” as if this is an im­preg­nable fortress of ide­o­log­i­cal and par­ti­san neu­tral­ity. It’s not. It’s more like a duck blind al­low­ing jour­nal­ists to hide their par­ti­san bi­ases. Former CBS an­chor Dan Rather, who swore lib­eral me­dia bias was a “myth,” said that “any­body who knows me knows that I am not po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated, not po­lit­i­cally ac­tive for Democrats or Repub­li­cans, and that I’m in­de­pen­dent.”

That was the same Dan Rather who de­stroyed his ca­reer on a par­ti­san, fraud­u­lent witch hunt to take down Ge­orge W. Bush.

I un­der­stand bans on reporters giv­ing to cam­paigns, but we should un­der­stand what those bans are: a means of hid­ing the po­lit­i­cal lean­ings of reporters from read­ers and view­ers. This lack of trans­parency ben­e­fits news or­ga­ni­za­tions, but it re­ally doesn’t fool any­body — ex­cept maybe the reporters them­selves.

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