W. Joseph Campbell

Trump upset exposes years-old media failing: A viewpoint-diversity deficit

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers, Washington Post on November 14, 2016 at 10:59 am

Amid the media’s self-flagellation and agonized introspection in the days since Donald Trump’s stunning election victory — days that brought such astonishing turns as the New York Times all but begging subscribers not to quit the newspaper — I have thought often of an ombudsman’s column published eight years ago, soon after Barack Obama won the presidency.

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NYTimes letter to subscribers

The ombudsman, or in-house critic, was Deborah Howell of the Washington Post, who wrote:

“I’ll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did. There are centrists at The Post as well. But the conservatives I know here feel so outnumbered that they don’t even want to be quoted by name in a memo.”

The column stuck with me not only because of Howell’s evident candor in describing conservatives in the newsroom — you could almost see them cowering — but because viewpoint diversity remains largely elusive in mainstream American journalism.

Howell was right in 2008, and her analysis rings true today: Leading U.S. news outlets have done little to address a failing that has been evident for years.

As John Kass, a conservative columnist for the Chicago Tribune wrote recently, “It’s no secret that most of American journalism is liberal in its politics. The diversity they prize has nothing to do with diversity of thought.”

The viewpoint-diversity deficit was highlighted anew in Trump’s electoral victory over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, an outcome that gave journalists what Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab called “the shock of their professional lives.”

The shock was of 1948 proportions, the year when President Harry S. Truman defied broad expectations that he would handily lose the election to Republican Thomas Dewey. This year, as Nate Silver of the  FiveThirtyEight data blog observed, “most campaign coverage was premised on the idea that Clinton was all but certain to become the next president.”

The outcome revealed how inadequately journalists had prepared their audiences for a Trump victory.

Granted, the viewpoint-diversity deficit in leading American newsrooms hasn’t been much measured. As I note in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong — an expanded second edition of which came out late last month — a survey in 2008 for the Washington-based Committee of Concerned Journalists found that 8 percent of national correspondents for U.S. news media considered themselves “conservative.” The overwhelming majority self-reported as “moderate” or “liberal.”

That such surveys have been rare is hardly reason to pretend the deficit is imaginary. Or that it can be justified by arguing, “Well, conservatives have Fox News,” the cable outlet.

Few media self-critiques following Trump’s victory were as brutally discerning — or as revealing of the viewpoint-diversity deficit — as the essay Will Rahn wrote for CBS News.

Rahn, managing director of political coverage for CBS News Digital, did not refer specifically to viewpoint diversity in his essay. But he said as much, writing:

“Journalists love mocking Trump supporters. We insult their appearances. We dismiss them as racists and sexists. We emote on Twitter about how this or that comment or policy makes us feel one way or the other, and yet we reject their feelings as invalid. It’s a profound failure of empathy in the service of endless posturing.”

Rahn further wrote of journalists:

“We must become more impartial, not less so. We have to abandon our easy culture of tantrums and recrimination. We have to stop writing these know-it-all, 140-character sermons on social media and admit that, as a class, journalists have a shamefully limited understanding of the country we cover. … There’s a fleeting fun to gang-ups and groupthink. But it’s not worth what we are losing in the process.”

The periodic Wikileaks disclosures during the fall campaign that revealed fawning interactions of journalists and the Clinton campaign further confirmed that the deficit in viewpoint diversity is no evanescent problem.

And it’s not of recent vintage.

Howell’s column in 2008 quoted Tom Rosenstiel, then the director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism as saying that “conservatives are right that journalism has too many liberals and not enough conservatives. It’s inconceivable that that is irrelevant.”

Rosenstiel added: “More conservatives in newsrooms will bring about better journalism.”

In this year’s election, journalists openly challenged or flouted professional norms of impartiality and detachment in reporting, saying the incendiary character of Trump’s views and remarks was so egregious that they were left with no choice.

Columbia Journalism Review fairly rejoiced in what it saw as a latter-day “Murrow Moment” for journalists, a reference to the mythical 1954 television program when Edward R. Murrow took on the red-baiting Republican senator, Joseph R. McCarthy.

The journalism review said “we … are witnessing a change from existing practice of steadfast detachment, and the context in which journalists are reacting is not unlike that of Murrow: The candidate’s comments fall outside acceptable societal norms, and critical journalists are not alone in speaking up.”

Powerful stuff. Except that the “Murrow Moment” is a false precedent.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Murrow took on McCarthy years after other journalists had directed pointed and sustained attention to the senator’s brutish tactics — and in some instances paid a price for having done so. McCarthy, I point out, had no more sustained or prominent critic in journalism than Drew Pearson of the nationally syndicated muckraking column, “Washington Merry-Go-Round.”

Pearson first challenged McCarthy in February 1950, shortly after the senator began a campaign against communists in government, and persisted in questioning the validity of McCarthy’s accusations. That was four years before Murrow’s program.

Not only that, but McCarthy’s favorability rating had hit the skids before Murrow’s program aired on March 9, 1954.

So the “Murrow Moment” can’t be considered a high moment in American journalism.

Nor for that matter can last week’s election.

WJC

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