Editors are used to complaints of bias in their pages. But there is a noticeable increase these days, a phenomenon I suspect is happening throughout the news industry.
Frequent or not, the claim is unsettling and never goes unnoticed here at the Monitor. A perception of bias cuts to the core of our cherished values of fairness and objectivity. Each time the charge lands on our doorstep, it prompts careful consideration and reflection.
As I sit down to write this, I have two recent reader laments. One accuses the Monitor of "getting a little too close to the [Bush] administration." Another is so fed up with our perceived Bush bashing, particularly during a time of war, that it included a subscription cancellation.
Of course, there is also plenty of correspondence with a warmer cast. "Still the fairest rag in the land," pronounces one. Another comes from a new reader who finds the Monitor "thought-provoking, accurate and intelligent."
The rising tide of bias complaints has something to do with the times we live in, I think. Americans increasingly inhabit a blue/red nation, experts tell us, referring to the color-coded division of the states into Democratic and Republican territory, in effect splitting the country into hardened ideological camps that seem to be growing further apart. People even seem to be gravitating to politically like-minded communities. This sounds like the making of a more polarized nation and a desire by many to hear what they agree with and tune out what they don't.
The media themselves play a role in this phenomenon. A proliferation of red meat, unabashedly partisan talk shows on radio and television allow like-minded citizens to tune in to news and commentary programs that echo their own worldview.
And let's not forget the news stream we are all swimming in these days. The United States is at war, and readers are consuming a daily diet of highly emotional and often disturbing news. On the US home front, some basic social values are being questioned, ranging from the meaning of marriage to the safety of everyday life amid rising terror threats. Chiseling things to a sharper edge, we're in the middle of an election campaign whose very nature is to drive wedges, emphasizing differences rather than similarities.
By any recent standard, these are exceptionally polarizing times.
It's periods like this that teach journalists the necessity of being a little thick skinned about praise or condemnation. The adage that bias is whatever doesn't agree with your own point of view has more than a grain of truth, in our experience. We note for instance that our sharpest critics often come with their own strongly partisan leanings. And even praise can have a sting of its own. When a reader expresses admiration for our work because it meshes with his own political point of view, we find that equally unsettling.
The whole notion of having a partisan "point of view" is anathema to our basic operating values. Our goal is to get as close to the truth as we can in each 24-hour cycle, and revisit topics that remain important from different angles so that over time a reasonably fair and complete picture emerges. We would never be so bold as to claim to capture the entire, pristine truth on any topic. This is an ongoing enterprise and each story is a snapshot of what we know at any particular moment.
Avoiding a "point of view" is not to say we don't have values or a distinguishing approach to our work. We are unabashed about seeking to be compassionate. We have little tolerance for cant or spin and deliberately seek the underlying causes and likely effects of events. We think attitudes shape our world more than the other way around. We regard personality as an element, but rarely the core, of a story. And our ultimate aim is to bless, not harm.
When I respond to individual letters of complaint, I often point out that reporters are trained observers. Whether in the alleys of Baghdad or the corridors of Congress, reporters live amid the conflicting realities of any story and do their level best to offer an accurate portrayal of the "facts" on the ground.
Still, we do make mistakes. We get facts wrong, dates wrong, names wrong, and sometimes even conclusions wrong. We also use language or make assumptions from time to time that may imply a bias. Despite the layers of filters applied by reporters and editors to prevent loaded language, questionable premises, the slant or unreliability of a source, or just plain poor execution, sloppy material occasionally gets through.
What's important, though, is that these are errors of execution, not of motive. We never intend to drive a partisan agenda. We are in the business to illumine, to explore the questions that matter and to do so from a vantage point of intense interest and inquiry - and humility. And with an open mind.
That may seem impossible when the media's practitioners have been shown by recent research to be more liberal than the population as a whole. Most in this industry would agree that newsrooms should generally look like the populations they cover, so this political gap is not ideal. But the political leanings of journalists need not matter if they are left at the door. This is no more unreasonable to expect than the presumed objectivity of other forms of trusted inquiry, whether it be anthropologists studying an alien culture or financial analysts from the General Accounting Office sizing up the future of Medicare.
Some in the news media see their role as one of providing answers. Answering baseline questions is part of any story. But "answers" to the big questions, involving as they must personal values and subjective criteria, are probably best left to readers. At the Monitor we see our role as primarily providing readers with the tools to draw their own conclusions. The paper's opinion is clearly labeled each day in the space "The Monitor's View."
Readers are supposed to come to conclusions and even have a bias. They are supposed to gather facts and information and make a judgment. But once made, those choices should not be immune from new facts or information. And that is what we are here to provide, the pattern and meaning of events as they unfold, often unpredictably, and often in the face of conclusions some readers may have already drawn.
If you have thoughts on the subject of bias and the Monitor, please e-mail me at Paul Van Slambrouck.
• Paul Van Slambrouck is Editor of the Monitor.