An ex-New York Times editor is right about showing her bias

The New York Times fired Lauren Wolfe, one of its editors when she tweeted before Joe Biden’s inauguration that his plane landing at Joint Base Andrews gave her “chills.” She had failed the paper’s impartiality test. Wolfe is back now, not at the Times, but in the Washington Monthly, arguing that she ought to be able to show her bias – and I couldn’t agree more. Of the many destructive things about America’s media, one of the worst is the self-created myth that its journalists objectively purvey the day’s news.

When I lived in England, I was introduced to the concept of openly biased newspapers: The Guardian represented the Labour Party’s interests; The Telegraph was for the Tories; while the venerable Times represented some mythical slightly right-of-center party (mostly, to my young eyes, old people). For someone raised believing that a national media should be objective and impartial, I found the British system refreshing. It’s much easier to parse the facts and analyze a story if you understand going in that the author is biased.

In America, however, the myth of media objectivity has long corrupted how political information and social issues get broadcast to society. For decades, unless they were very astute, Americans assumed that they were hearing the truth.

When Walter Cronkite took his glasses off after our military sustained a huge victory in 1968’s Tet offensive, and announced that America had suffered a “defeat,” ordinary Americans (like my parents) accepted that as true. Support for the war, already shaky, tanked, even as the Viet Cong was destroyed militarily. Cronkite was just another lying leftist but his false statement had incredible power thanks to that carefully cultivated illusion of objectivity.

Even now, many Americans who aren’t politically engaged continue to believe that the mainstream media are honest. They know, because media talking heads have told them so, that Fox News is right-wing, but they’re not told that there’s a corollary left-wing. Instead, they believe that the mainstream media represent the “sane center.” Because Americans like the idea of a sane center, they lap up the media’s lies. If the media were honest about its biases, as it is in England, political and social issue discourse in America would be much better.

This brings me to Lauren Wolfe. The Washington Monthly republished Wolve’s substack essay entitled “I’m a Biased Journalist and I’m Okay With That.” In it, Wolfe, a graduate of Columbia's journalism school, which seems to crank out leftists, argues that being honest about her bias makes her coverage fairer.

The problem, as she sees it, is that Americans just don’t get the difference between magazine-style features writing and actual news reporting:

Very few Americans, however, seem to understand the distinction between different types of stories, even though it’s not subtle. In news, your opinion stays out of it. Your bias stays hidden—especially in political reporting. You are as objective as you can be—you are, in fact, not “you,” but the paper itself—and there is an entire system in place to make sure that your final copy achieves this.

I would argue that they don’t get it because journalists have blurred the lines, but that’s just me. Where I agree with Wolfe is that she believes it would be better if journalists, at least occasionally, tipped off Americans that there was an element of bias creeping into a report:

My job as a journalist, as I see it, is to gather information, translate it for my audience and communicate it clearly and effectively. Sometimes that is best done by giving your own perspective along with your sources’. And often, the most powerful way of doing that is by writing in first person.

As journalists, we can all use what appears to be a “neutral voice,” but that doesn’t mean our implicit bias isn’t guiding our choice of sources, or even what stories we decide to cover.

Indeed, I don’t think Wolfe goes far enough. Just as a newspaper will occasionally insert a paragraph alerting readers to a possible interest the paper has in a story (“Mr. Smith, who’s been charged with doing dirty deeds with sheep, is one of our paper’s main shareholders”), I think every journalist should state his biases upfront regarding the subject of his report.

When some 20-something writer oozes disdain about the claim that there was massive election fraud thanks to unconstitutional laws allowing mail-in voting and delayed counting, it would be helpful if that same writer would state clearly, “I supported Joe Biden” or “I despise Donald Trump.” Those of us who are tuned in to politics will already have figured that out but Wolfe is right: There are enough people in America who haven’t figured out that our journalists are Democrat party activists, which is something they really should have spelled out to them before they draw any conclusions about the veracity of an article or TV segment.

IMAGE: The New York Times newsroom in 1942. Library of Congress. Public domain.

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