Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are eagerly attacking the media, portraying reporters as hopelessly biased against them. As Mr. Ryan told Fox News recently, “I think it kind of goes without saying that there is definitely a media bias,” adding that he “expected liberal media bias” to affect their campaign from day one.
The truth is, Ryan has a valid point. Most members of the American media do hold a generally liberal point of view toward public affairs. In fact a UCLA study a few years ago found that “of the 20 major media outlets studied, 18 scored left of center.”
That said, I spent more than 30 years working as a reporter and editor in several American newsrooms, including 23 years with the supposedly left-leaning New York Times. Never once during all of that time did any editor ever approach me or any other reporter I knew and request a partisan change to a story. The only instruction of that sort editors do offer is to make sure a story is not improperly tilted in one direction or another and therefore unbalanced or unfair.
Reporters generally avoid even talking about their political opinions among their peers. But even if unspoken, journalists’ professional experiences do shape their views.
For much of the last century, American newspapers were relatively passive, almost somnolent. Reporters literally sat at the feet of presidents and faithfully reproduced their remarks. They often collaborated among themselves before writing a story.
But then came the civil-rights era of the 1960s. Young people, angry at what they were seeing on television, joined newspapers in the south hoping to contribute reporting that exposed the truth and helped right a wrong. On the heels of that came the Vietnam War and the Pentagon Papers. Millions of young people were angry. Demonstrations broke out nationwide. Once again, some of them joined newspapers, determined to expose the ugly truth about the war.
Finally came Watergate, and the Washington Post’s outstanding coverage. Even editors at the paper, veterans of the somnolent years, were shocked. When one particularly hard-hitting story crossed City Editor Barry Sussman’s desk, he put down his pipe after editing the story and told Bob Woodward: “We’ve never had a story like this. Just never.”
The news media underwent a fundamental change. I was in college during this period, studying English and journalism. And along with everyone around me, I saw journalism as a means to uncover wrongdoing and bring positive change. No one thought about slavish passivity. As we set off into our careers, we felt we had a mission – to bring out the truth, expose injustice.
Isn’t that actually the original definition of a liberal? So haven’t most of us in the media, almost inadvertently, fallen into that camp?
Think about what good reporters do now – those who still have the time and ability to pursue original, enterprise reporting rather than spending most of their time updating the news organization’s website.
While politicians in Washington talk about immigration reform, these reporters visit undocumented immigrants living in hovels, picking fruit, and mowing lawns – hiding from authorities while hoping to make enough money so they can send their children to school.
As Congress debates the future of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, reporters interview poor families whose sick children won’t live long without government assistance. I remember visiting nursing homes in Kentucky, talking to old men and women who had led enviable, productive lives but then grew old and so sick that their pensions did not provide enough to pay for their care. Medicaid now paid their bills.
The point is not that journalists get sucked into unthinking empathy for the sick and the poor. It’s that our work adds names, faces, and personal stories to the cold political debates underway in Washington and state capitals. These people we interview personalize the debate. And in all my years reporting on these issues, I have never seen a politician, Democrat or Republican, visiting those neighborhoods.
I left daily journalism in 2006. But I still write and report – all the time. It still feels like an essential life-long mission.
Bill Kovach was Washington bureau chief of The New York Times and executive editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He grew up in Tennessee and, like so many others, was drawn to journalism during the civil-rights movement. During the 1960s he covered civil rights and Appalachian poverty for the Nashville Tennessean.
I worked with Mr. Kovach for many years. I don’t know his politics, and he doesn’t know mine. But I feel the same way he did when he said: “Journalism is the closest thing I have to a religion because I believe deeply in the role and responsibility journalists have to the people of a self-governing community.”
Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer-Prize winning former correspondent for The New York Times.