As we continue coping with the Covid-19 pandemic, it is now more important than ever for the media to take extra steps to ensure that their news stories are fact-based, without hype, without speculation and a minimum of bias.
Wait. Did I just say “a minimum of bias?”
Conservative news consumers on the right of America’s political spectrum often talk about bias, screeching that media outlets such as the New York Times and MSNBC television are in the pockets of left-wing billionaires and prominent Democrats. President Trump gleefully eggs them on, attacking the ‘liberal’ media of delivering so-called “fake news.”
Meanwhile, those on the left side of the political spectrum dismiss news outlets such as FOX news and the Washington Times, saying those media outlets are dripping in conservative rhetoric.
Are the pundits right? Do “news” outlets practice media bias?
According to two veteran journalists, the answer is yes, with varying moderation.
Dennis Bailey, who now lives in Washington, DC, is a veteran journalist who spent several years as a reporter working for the Maine Times and Portland Press Herald. He readily acknowledges that his personal politics are more in line with Democrats.
“I’ve never been a believer in objective journalism,” Bailey said. “A good story is a good story but it does come with some bias.”
Bailey points to certain realities about how the news story is produced. “A reporter often decides what story to follow,” he said. “From there, an editor decides the placement of a story and the headline of that story. These are all subjective decisions.”
On the other side of the political aisle, John Day, who spent several decades as a reporter and then as an editor of the Bangor Daily News, agrees with Bailey about media bias.
“I’m a big fan of diversity,” Day said. “But I was always a contrarian. Fake news has always been around. If all news outlets reported every story the same way, then it would be nothing more than a giant circle jerk.”
Although they seem to disagree on just about everything, the two men agree that journalism has gone through some profound changes over the last 30 years, including the 24-hour news cycle and social media.
“People today have a much wider range of choices when it comes to the news,” Bailey said. “There is a notable absence of media literacy today. You can find anything you want to support your own views on the internet.”
Bailey and Day both point to the Watergate scandal and the role that the media played during that crisis. The Washington Post led the way on the story while the New York Times and other media outlets took a more measured approach.
“Walter Cronkite was the godfather of news,” Bailey said. “He was such a trusted guy. We don’t have that anymore.”
According to Day, more than 95 percent of news stories about President Trump are negative while stories about Maine Senator Angus King are nearly always positive. “Angus is not much more than a boot licker for Chuck Schumer,” he said.
The lines between news and opinion are becoming more and more blurred as cable news shows fill air time with pundits such as Rachel Maddow on the left and Sean Hannity on the right.
Today, too many people pick their news source to align with their personal viewpoint, according to both Bailey and Day. “I have more respect for CNN than MSNBC,” Day said. “At least they try to be objective with guests such as Chris Christie.”
So long as media outlets chase ratings and circulation, their ability to maintain objectivity becomes more difficult.
We need to be increasingly vigilant about how we get and choose our news sources.
President Trump is not the first president to have a deep disdain for the White House press corps. More than 50 years ago, former president Richard Nixon lashed out at the media following his loss to Democrat Pat Brown in the California gubernatorial election.
Appearing before more than 100 reporters, Nixon didn’t mince his words about his frustration with the media. “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference,” the candidate said.
More recently, an editorial published in the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2015, James Risen, then a reporter at The New York Times, called the Obama administration “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.”
As Walter Cronkite consistently said at the end of each of his evening broadcasts: “And that’s the way it is.”
We miss you, Walter.
(Originally published in the Saco Bay News on May 2, 2020)