The task of navigating the maze between fact and opinion in the news media is often difficult. Over the past two years I have carefully studied the news media and have developed a system classifying journalists into four categories. I hope this system is useful to those of you who wish to better understand the news media.
Editorialists are explicit in the fact that they are giving you their opinion on an issue of public policy. They are often easy to recognize. Editorialists can be found in the opinion section of a newspaper, during primetime on Fox News and MSNBC, and on talk radio. They also appear as contributors on news shows on CNN and the Sunday Morning News shows. Editorialists will use facts to support their position, so even they do not rely completely upon opinion.
Editorialists are prone to factual errors that support their position. Rachel Maddow falsely said that we spend more than the rest of the world combined on the military because she supports cutting the military budget. George Will falsely said that the stimulus did not create jobs because he opposes federal spending to jumpstart the economy. It is possible that both believed the falsehoods they stated. If that is the case, it is because those falsehoods reinforce their positions.
Worldview Reporters present themselves as Neutral Reporters, but their worldview comes through in their reporting. Worldview Reporters are commonly found on television, especially on cable news. This is due, in part, to the nature of the medium of television. Television journalism shows the reporter asking the question, print journalism does not. News channels classify the programs hosted by Worldview Reporters as news shows rather than opinion programs. Worldview Reporters are able to conduct highly insightful interviews with newsmakers they disagree with. Andrea Mitchell, Megyn Kelly, and Shepard Smith are examples of Worldview Reporters.
Andrea Mitchell did a great interview with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The interview was tough and included the quip, “Mr. Secretary, you know what stove-piping means.”
Andrea passionately interviewed Nancy Brinker, the founder of the Susan G. Komen foundation which provides financial assistance to women diagnosed with Brest Cancer. The Komen foundation had decided to stop providing assistance to Planned Parenthood, which provides women’s health services including breast exams and other breast health services, because Planned Parenthood also performs abortions. During the interview, Andrea said, “I come to you today, you know, expressing the anger of a lot of people, channeling though them, you see it on twitter, you see it everywhere.”
The interview was discussed on Reliable Sources. Michelle Cottle pointed out that the issue was personal to Andea, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer the previous year. Matt Lewis argued that it was political; conservatives aggressively oppose Planned Parenthood because the organization is an abortion provider. I agree with Matt that it showed Andrea’s view on a politically motivated decision by the Komen foundation. I disagree with him that that is a bad thing. I believe that journalists should be able to show their worldview in their reporting, and I support that ability regardless of what their position is.
Andrea produced a lean forward ad for MSNBC where she states her opposition to Republican proposals (although they are never described as such) that claim to prevent voter fraud. Many liberals believe that these policies are actually attempts at voter suppression. In the ad she says, “I think it’s a real scandal that political parties and interest groups are trying to prevent people from voting.”
Megyn interviewed state senator Jon Erpenbach about the decision he and his Democratic colleges made to leave the state in order to prevent Scott Walker from having the quorum necessary to vote on his budget. Walker’s Wisconsin budget proposal included language removing collective bargaining rights for public sector unions. Megyn’s interview was tough. She said, “People now know [about the debate over bargaining rights] and now they’re saying you’ve got to go back and do your job and you can vote yes or you can vote no but you have to go do your job. It’s not your job to leave the state and cower in Illinois instead of facing up to the vote.”
Megyn interviewed a Texas professor about his proposal to create a system of affirmative action for ugly people in the workplace. She did a good job asking him about the potential drawbacks of such a plan including, “Are you comfortable creating an entirely new class of victim to clog up our court system?”
Megyn confronted a regular guest on her show who criticized her maternity leave, calling it a “racket.” Her response included the statement, “The United States is the only country in the advanced world that doesn’t require paid maternity leave. If anything America is in the dark ages when it comes to maternity leave.” This appeared to contradict previous things she had said in the past including, “Do you think that there is any getting the tentacles that government has placed into our lives out?” Jon Stewart pointed out this contradiction in an incredibly hilarious segment entitled Lactate Intolerance.
While covering President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage, Shep asked his college Bret Baier, “What I’m most curious about is whether it’s your belief that in this time of rising debts and medical issues and all the rest, if Republicans would go out on a limb and try to make this a campaign issue while sitting very firmly, without much question, on the wrong side of history on it?”
After reading Mitt Romney’s cordial response to Newt Gingrich leaving the presidential race, after a hostile primary Shep said, “Politics is weird… and creepy, and now I know lacks even the loosest attachment to anything like reality.”
Shepard Smith blasted the Senators who voted against funding health care for 9/11 first responders. “And we’re not even going to give them medicine for the illnesses they got down there? It’s disgusting, it’s a national disgrace, it’s a shame and everybody who voted against should have to stand up and account for himself or herself.” In a later segment Shep read off the names of the senators who failed to provide him a statement explaining their vote against the 9/11 first responders bill.
Neutral Reporters believe that it is their job to tell you the news, not what to think of the news. They avoid any statement that would even hint at what their position on an issue would be or where they fall on the political spectrum. Chuck Todd is an example of a Neutral Reporter. C-SPAN is another example of neutral reporting.
Howard Kurts hosts Reliable Sources, a media criticism show. Media criticism is inherently opinionated, media content is either judged to be fair or unfair, trustworthy or not. Thus Howard Kurts is an editorialist, but applies the values of the Neutral Reporter to his analysis. This can be seen when he criticized Wisconsin journalists who had signed a recall against Scott Walker. Kurt said, “I can’t fathom how these journalists failed to recognize that supporting a move to kick a Republican governor out of office would be seen as blatantly political.”
I disagree. I believe that it is beyond unreasonable to assume that journalists don’t have opinions on the political issues they cover. I do not believe that journalists should have to give up their basic constitutional rights in order to do their job. Thus I think that journalists should be allowed to sign a recall petition. They should also be allowed to participate in occupy protests or tea party rallies, communist marches or libertarian potlucks. That is why I disagree with the decision by WNYC, an NPR station, to fire Caitlin Curran, a web producer, because she participated in an Occupy protest.
To be clear, I have great respect for Howard Kurtz and enjoy Reliable Sources. I just have a different philosophy when it comes to my belief in what is appropriate conduct for journalists.
One of the common mistakes Neutral Reporters make is to create a false balance. The view that humans are not responsible for global warming is given equal weight to the view that humans are responsible for global warming. Never mind that over 97 percent of climate scientists believe that humans are responsible. One side says there are death panels in health care reform; the other side says there aren’t. He said/She said. Nevermind the truth. Not all Neutral Reporters fall into this trap, but many do.
The final group of journalists are factcheckers. They rate the relative truth of statements made by politicians. They also track how a politician’s position on a topic changes over time and if they keep their promises. Examples of factcheckers include Politifact, the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, and Anderson Cooper. Many journalists fail to check the claims of politicians because the task is often difficult and sometimes involves complicated issues. Sometimes factcheckers get a ruling wrong, but most of the time they get it right.
Postscript: Jon Stewart also gave a tough informative interview with Donald Rumsfeld. He did a segment titled “Fox News: The New Liberals” making fun of how the views on protests and criticizing the government changed after the presidency transitioned from Republican to Democratic control. He did another segment criticizing Megyn Kelly for denying that Fox News personalities call those they disagree with Nazis. Jon Stewart fits into the Editorialist category.