Election 2012: The biggest story went unreported

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It’s not possible to be a fair, objective political reporter in American today.

Oh, you can try. You can have the best intentions in the world. You can do intense research, get at least two sources for everything, etc. But if your report treats both sides equally, then each will accuse you of favoring the other. And if, because the facts warrant, your story puts one party in a bad light, then obviously you’ll be considered biased in favor of the other side.

As a result, according to Washington political observers Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, the biggest story of the 2012 election went unreported. The biggest story, bigger than the candidates themselves, was that the Republican Party had run completely off the rails and veered to the extreme right. It went unreported because good journalists and their editors did not want to appear biased.

That’s the theory, anyway, and it makes a lot of sense when you think about it.

Dan Froomkin at the Huffington Post quotes Orenstein:

If voters are going to be able to hold accountable political figures, they’ve got to know what’s going on. And if the story that you’re telling repeatedly is that they’re all to blame — they’re all equally to blame — then you’re really doing a disservice to voters, and not doing what journalism is supposed to do.

Froomkin’s story is a thought-provoking read for those interested in journalistic ethics and the way the campaign was reported. In an attempt to be fair and unbiased, America’s journalists apparently failed to be objective and factual. It gets complicated; you really need to read the story.

But of course, now I’m caught in the same predicament. There’s no way I can appear objective while referring you to a story that puts Republicans in a negative light. And there’s no way I can say “they put themselves in a negative light” without appearing biased against them, even if every word of that statement is true.

I see the problem here. And I’ll be damned if I see a solution.

7 comments

  1. Your post rings true, PT, and I agree that there appears to be no good solution to it. Although blogging discussion might help. Who knows?

    This dilemma of human nature tending to partisanship made me think of sports. Sometime in his single-digit years my oldest son decided he would be a Minnesota Vikings fan. So far as I could tell he had absolutely no basis for doing so. He has never even been to Minnesota. Maybe he liked the team colors or something. He’s now 51 and he’s still a Vikings fan. But I’ve noted that as soon as people start following any kind of contentious activity, whether it be sports or politics or a school-bond issue, it is quite likely that very few will be left straddling the fence. I submit that this reality of human behavior accounts for the journalistic jinking to the right. Journalists see themselves as referees, not judges (except for editorialists of course), and they are no less subject to falling off the fence than the rest of us. Does that make sense?

    1. It makes sense. But the referee analogy doesn’t quite nail it either. Refs are supposed to be impartial, keep order on the field, and signal when rules are violated by either side. Journalists are more like network play-by-play announcers who are expected to tell you (with complete impartiality) everything that’s relevant to the game — not just the scores and penalties, but also how each team is playing, their lineup, their injuries, their apparent game plan, what’s happening on the sidelines, etc. If they were calling a game and failed to tell listeners that one team had just sent every coach and player on their bench to the locker room, that would be a serious disservice; listeners would still think that team had a chance to win, even though they were playing with only the 11 men on the field.

      Nah, that doesn’t really explain it either. Froomkin explained it better. I complain a lot about how bad journalists have gotten, but this year, even the good ones got caught in a Catch-22 where they couldn’t/didn’t do it right.

  2. I think that “biggest story” was rather well reported. All sorts of traditional media and online news reports showed the Republican turn to the right. Old journalists (I’m one) were taught to confine news story content to the facts of the matter. An example might be the nomination of an extreme right-winger for vice-president along with his views. That was done in many places during the recent campaign. Of course, this approach to objectivity assumes the readers or listeners are willing and capable to determine for themselves what the facts mean in the big scheme of things. Or, the media can suggest that to readers and listeners via editorial opinion. A lot of that also was done during the campaign. Bottom line: Mann and Ornstein are ignoring the facts to create a story. Just as a whole lot of the “new journalists” seem to do nowadays. We should not confuse those talking heads on television with journalists.

    1. I’m an old journalist myself. And I was quite aware of the GOP’s lurch to the right. But it was generally presented as background to a story on a particular candidate or race rather than a straight-up report on the party itself, which, had it come during the election, would have been thought highly prejudicial. What I found most interesting about Froomkin’s piece was not what happened with the GOP but the dilemma journalists faced when trying to report it. (And I agree, those talking heads on TV are not journalists; they are for the most part just news readers.)

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