By Lisa Smith Molinari
NSNC Past President
The beauty of being a columnist is that I can write whatever I damn well please.
Piece of cake, right?
Frankly, writing columns isn’t easy. In fact, there are moments when I’d rather chew my own arm off than pen my weekly submission. But what makes column writing special is that, like editorial and commentary writers, columnists are called upon to give their opinions, while the rest of the media is unbiased.
Wait, did I just say “the media is unbiased”? That statement must be my attempt at wit, because it is impossible to take seriously.
In today’s 24/7 media cycle, opinion has crept into every aspect of the news. Years ago, reporters and anchors didn’t reveal their personal biases. We huddled around our console televisions, transistor radios, and coffee-stained newspapers, unaware of the personal opinions of David Brinkley, Helen Thomas, Peter Jennings, Connie Chung, Seymour Hersh, Walter Cronkite, and Ted Koppel, who reported raw facts. Allowing bias to creep into news reporting was once considered unethical. Opinion was reserved only for editorials, columns, and commentary.
But nowadays, we accept that news anchors double as commentators, reporters are activists, and everyone in the media tweets. All day, every day, one can turn on MSNBC for the left-wing spin, and Fox News for the right-wing perspective. Websites such as AdFontesMedia.com and MediaBiasFactCheck.com publish charts rating and categorizing media outlets by their ideological leanings. Arguably, no news organization offers neutral fact reporting anymore, and most lean left.
Award-winning journalist Lara Logan, who recently announced that she split with CBS where she had been a top “60 Minutes” correspondent since 2002, said in a February 15 interview, “The media everywhere is mostly liberal. But in this country, 85 percent of journalists are registered Democrats.” Logan acknowledged that her comments would amount to “career suicide,” but published a piece last week stating that one-sided reporting has damaged the press’ credibility. Others agree with Logan’s claims, like New York Times columnist David Leonhardt who said, “Most mainstream journalists do lean left,” and Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan who said, “Impartiality is still a value worth defending in mainstream news coverage.” (Sullivan will speak at our 2019 Buffalo conference.)
According to a recent poll in Columbia Journalism Review, less than half (42 percent) of Democrats and only 10 percent of Republicans believe that the media is unbiased. The majority of all respondents reported having “hardly any confidence at all” in the press.
Why won’t the news media stick to the facts? Do they no longer trust the public to think for themselves? Have ethical standards in journalism changed? Will opinion-saturated news make editorials, columns, and commentary obsolete?
One-sided commentary in the news and social media “is making opinion journalism and opinion writers less interesting,” said James Bennet, editorial page editor of the New York Times, in a lecture at Harvard University that I attended with NSNC VP Chandra Bozelko and Executive Director Suzette Standring on February 26 titled “What’s the Point of Publishing Opinion, Anyway?” Since Bennet took over the Times’ editorial page in 2016, he has been criticized by his own newsroom for launching a “Diversification Project” and hiring conservative columnists Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss.
“Back in the day, there were rewards for being contrarian, but we have unfortunately moved toward radical conformity today,” Bennet said about the news industry. “We need a sense of humility. To recommit to the fundamental tools of our trade.”
The fact that the print news media industry has changed from an advertising-based business model to a subscription-based model “means the journalism needs to be good,” Bennet said. He believes that readers want unbiased reporting of straight news and diversity of opinion because it encourages “the kind of debate we need in our society.”
“Let people think for themselves,” he said, and I agree. Readers, subscribe to publications that commit to objectivity. News media, stop stepping on opinion writers’ turf. As Bennet said, “Reporters report on the world as it is, and opinion imagines the world as it could be.” Objective reporting and advocacy by columnists should stay separate – but equal.
Lisa Smith Molinari is a columnist with Stars & Stripes