Newspaper press room 1913
In 35 years as a broadcast news journalist, I’ve never seen anything quite like the presidential election of 2016, not simply because a popular candidate who captured the imagination of millions was unceremoniously kicked to the side with all the force of his political party, but because members of my own profession are startlingly transparent for that candidate’s rival. And Bernie Sanders’ — for whom enthusiasm seemed rampant just three months ago — is now sidelined for a candidate about whom enthusiasm is largely dormant.
Major news publications gave Sanders occasional nods, noting his fascinating following among students, intellectuals and free-thinkers, but during the primary campaign his message was trivialized as the news focused largely on Hillary Clinton and her national political experience with unprecedented backing from the White House. There has been an inevitability factor in reporting on Clinton based on the fact that for Democrats, she’s next in line after her husband, Al Gore and Barack Obama. It’s her turn, now made inevitable because she would be the first female president of the United States.
The leader of a genuine movement to scrap Washington DC business-as-usual is now reduced to making strained endorsements of his former rival’s reputation and political platform. Meanwhile, American news media — and the Democratic Party — has now turned its attention to an unbridled assault against Clinton’s Republican opponent. This, too, is unprecedented in my professional lifetime.
There were times during the campaign of Republican Richard Nixon against Democrat George McGovern in which newspapers in 1972 appeared to favor Nixon, with editorials and articles varnishing his accomplishments in his first term, calling for a second term with the Republican outcry, “Four More Years!” That’s the closest American news media have come in the past 50 years to the journalistic events of 2016.
But in 1972 there was still a subtlety to the bias, as commitment to fairness on the part of journalists to include Nixon’s shortcomings along with his strengths, to apply sympathy to an otherwise hapless McGovern campaign. In 2016, all guns are now trained on Donald Trump, with no mercy toward those who criticize Clinton.
It’s largely because of the changing nature of journalism, which is no longer the legitimate mainstay of serious reporters who have worked their way up from the city beat to national political analysis. Reporters can work their way up to national status — especially in broadcasting — just by putting in a few years on the local level. Some, such as George Stephanopoulis for example, can move from no broadcast experience directly to a major role on that prized of all journalistic prizes, network television news anchoring.
But the biggest change we’re witnessing this year is the uncoupling of journalistic fairness with the marketplace. From the 1930s into the 1980s, both print and broadcast writers and opinionators were under strict rules to keep their opinions and political points of view to themselves. In the world of high-stakes news, trust was a central value and credibility was essential, if only because opinionated reporting alienated readers and viewers — and that cut into profits. Make people angry because your reporting appeared bias to one side and the other side would threaten to — and often would — cancel subscriptions or turn to a different TV channel or radio station.
But by the late 1980s, a shift occurred in which advocacy reporting became a new trend, leading to the rise of a new splinter market: reporting for YOUR side of the political spectrum. In addition to unbiased news reports that were still standard for the networks, local stations and newspapers, there were shows on the new cable network CNBC that were apologetically biased toward one political view, just as alternative newspapers had been for decades. (In the 1960s, no one expected to see both sides of a political argument in The Village Voice or a wide number of free newspapers you could pick up at coffee houses — or newsstands, another vanishing piece of Americana.)
The 1990s saw a strong trend toward advocacy reporting that sees politics from a point of view, as news “reporting” began to merge with opinion columns and editorials, both of which used to be clearly marked and carefully separated from advocacy reporting.
By the start of the 21st century, focus groups (individuals called to meet based on their demographics, representing as many points of view as possible who are asked specific questions about their habits and preferences) had become standard research models, and many of the people in those groups expressed strong interest in “news” presented with a strong point of view. By 1960s standadards that would not be journalism, it would be opinionating, but the tide had changed.
News corporations learned that they could make money on the presentation of “unbiased” news that could be characterized as old-fashioned journalism, and make still more money marketing more biased news platforms such as Time and Newsweek magazines had for years been offering. By this point radio has manufactured an entire sub-market of opinion-based “reporting” that excludes some facts while emphasizing others in an attempt to find new truths. Usually, though, those new truths were merely facts distilled from the overall big picture, allowing those whose opinions were already solidified to receive what psychotherapists call validation.
But right- and to a lesser extent left-leaning talk radio also drifted into the national debate, and focus groups would often talk of a preference for opinionated news “reporting,” and sales departments took notice. There can still be attempts to remain politically unbiased among major news outlets, but there can also be political bias elsewhere and there is money to be made at both.
It’s no secret that the majority of journalists attack their work with a passion, some with a notion that they’re going to change the world with their reporting. And the noble concept of “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” can easily be misinterpreted by the passionate as a call to love the poor and hate the rich. But as standards were loosened, standards started to fall.
(For instance, when I began as a reporter no news director that I even heard of would allow bias in choosing of news stories or in the writing of those stories. It was a fire-able offense to do so and was derided as amateurish to imply any preference for one political idea or persuasion. I was there, though, to watch as more and more news directors allowed reporting-with-opinion in the manner of radio legend Paul Harvey. By the turn of the century, with focus group complicity, news with a political “perspective” became increasingly common. By 2010, many of us expected it. Standards of non-bias insisted upon by news directors and newspaper editors and owners were slowly loosened, but the unique qualities of news/opinion became overwhelming and now we can find it all over cable TV, local news and talk, in newspapers almost everywhere and we witness news anchors and reporters doing side work in TV and radio commercials and taking paid gigs giving speeches. It’s a different world now.)
The important thing to remember about today’s journalism, though, is the passion that reporters are bringing to their work. It’s a good thing in that it brings a thirst for knowledge and a search for not just facts but depth, the why-and-how that brings brilliance to who-what-when-and-where. It’s not so good in that passion often lures one to ignore the broad picture in favor of the specific, and passion often leads to the painting of a specific incident as symbolic of all similar incidents.
Fictional movies and television have always leaned on subject matter that provides symbolism, as characters that are rigidly or superficially portrayed come to represent types or stereotypes that can be used to represent a broad range of people. Just as Hollywood at one time became enraptured of the prostitute-with-heart-of-gold and later the rapist-and-his-victim, so those were often used to represent segments of the population in general — women and the men who victimize them.
Just so, stories about illegal immigrants or police brutality or political corruption if written with a passionate bias can create symbolic significance to an incident that has no real place in the overall picture of society except as one incident. Politicians are aware of this tendency toward symbolism, though, as they use it accordingly and sometimes effectively.
If politicians use such symbolism and then project it onto incidents and passionate reporters write up the incidents from a biased perspective, the resulting news stories are almost always unbalanced and distorted. And such news stories are increasingly common. Therein lies a danger in that the would-be independence of the news business is compromised not only by the blind passion of the reporter but the manipulation by political gamers.
The secret, though, is to be subtle. If a politician wants to game reporters, all it takes is threat of access, or the lack thereof. You can go all the way back to the Kennedy era of the early 1960s to see that reporters who were consistently against White House policies were not among those who were given important news stories. Politicians always favor sympathetic reporters, yet reporters as a rule should never be sympathetic toward those in power.
Afflict those comfortable politicians, comfort those afflicted voters who need to know the truth.
It’s almost impossible to write a truly unbiased report when you know that the subject of your report could also end your career because you wrote it. Yet that is the Catch 22 of reporting today, so biased reporting is practically built into the news system today. Each president since Nixon has increased the pressure on reporters to play the game by the White House rules, or the next series of important news tips will go to everyone else.
So, then, the subtlety of biased news reporting drifts into the mainstream, as it now has, and the losers are most Americans, who need to know the truth about the workings of their government. The bias is in choosing what stories to report and the angle from which to report them, as we move closer to the days 100 years ago when newspaper stories included moral judgments, questionable sources, political opinions and some subjects were taboo based on the reporter’s circle of friends and editorial standards that were dictated from above based on political bosses and profit arrangements with businesses and politicians. Those days it was sometimes called “Yellow Journalism.”
There are certainly questions about the handling by the Clinton family of their multi-faceted charity foundation, but if you passionately believe that it is most important that Hillary Clinton achieve the winning vote, then it is most important to you to concentrate on the questions about her opponent’s charity foundation because it eliminates righteous indignation about potential wrongdoing if similar questions can be raised about the opponent. So rather than do the story about the Clintons, you do the story about Trump. There may not be much to the story, but it appears to level the playing field of corruption — and that certainly is the unintended effect on a skeptical public.
The subtle bias is there in point of view. Now, Creative Writing 101 will tell you that point of view is important — in fiction. Your point of view is irrelevant in unbiased news reporting, except in the case where it allows you to add additional information or unique perspective. That’s why the Associated Press has a handbook of guidelines to keep reporters on track and to keep them from getting carried away by their passions and biases and affection for trendy jargon and platitudes.
In headline writing and in news story writing, though, the trend is toward a political point of view. And the careful choosing of stories is essential not only to fulfilling the initial precept — in the case of 2016, that Clinton is immensely qualified to be president, Sanders and Trump are not and besides, it’s her turn — but in making certain that the White House today is not offended but the White House of tomorrow — Clinton’s White House — is not offended, or your job will either be more difficult or it will be eliminated upon the White House whim.
These are the pressures and motivations that are leading reporters, editors and news directors toward a kind of biased reporting that has not been seen and has not been fashionable for nearly 100 years. The Hearst newspapers are still around, but the heyday of William Randolph Hurst’s Yellow Journalism are long gone — except that everything old is new again.
No one really expected the Yellow Journalists of 1910 to give us the unadulterated facts without opinion. When newspapers and radio and then television became big moneymakers, it became incumbent upon owners and editors to keep news straight and unoffensive, lest they lose readers, listeners and viewers — in other words, lest they lose money. You don’t stay profitable running people off.
But that’s not a big deal now. It may be a danger to democracy, but biased news is fun. It may result in an ever more uninformed electorate, but newspapers tell it like it should be these days, y’know? It may sound elitist to you, but they cover the news every day, so they know better, right? You? You just go do your job — we’ve got this news thing, we’ll tell you what you need to know and that’s all you need to know, okay now?
Each day of 2016 I have scoured newspaper and TV, radio and alternative media websites and I’ve found stories praising Clinton, marginalizing Sanders and attacking Trump, one after another after another, argumentum ad nauseum. It is relentless especially among the once-proud standard bearers of American journalism such as the Washington Post and the New York Times. If there are many in America like me, it is then obvious why news credibility is quickly disappearing for many major and multitudes of minor media.
Yellow Journalism — where the reporter was often judge and jury, bystander and participant, sympathizer and mockish skeptic — was banished for a while, but there are new ways of making money by assuring people that their way of thinking, their own liberal or conservative bias is sound and important (whether it really is or not), by reinforcing their pre-drawn conclusions and not confusing them with proven facts that upset their worldview. There is new money to be made there. And obfuscation of truth, cloying attempts to sway opinion and elitist demagoguery is returning in spades — and quickly.
So return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. A known danger rides again.
— Mike Shiloh
Mike Shiloh is an award-winning broadcast journalist who began in radio in 1981 and has since contributed regularly to AP Radio and Television, CNN and ABC News, while also anchoring for top radio stations including KILT-Houston, WINK Newsradio/TV Ft. Myers/Tampa FL, KRBE-Houston; has also regularly contributed to KPFK-Los Angeles, KTRH-Houston and is an editor at The Texas Energy Report and TheLatest.net.