Conservatives Have an Ethics Problem, Not a News Problem
A common complaint right-wingers themselves make about conservative journalism is that there’s too much opinion and not enough news. That comes through in remarks from Tucker Carlson (“It’s really expensive to cover the news and it’s much cheaper to opine on the news”) and Robert Costa in this Michael Calderone report (in which I’m credited with some vivid metaphors for the state of things—my saltier analogy was inspired by this Washington Free Beacon headline). I heard much the same thing back in the ’90s when I attended student journalism workshops put on by right-leaning groups like the Leadership Institute. They drove home a fair-minded and important distinction between reporting and opinionizing and urged students to focus on the latter.
But the the problem with conservative journalism today is not that it’s producing too many George Wills or wannabe George Wills. There’s plenty of reporting—it’s just dishonest or partial reporting. It’s imitation journalism, and I’m not sure its consumers even know how it differs from the real thing. Look at this reaction to Calderone’s piece from Matthew Sheffield at NewsBusters. In particular:
During the campaign, about the only thing Romney ever talked about was the economy and how bad things were. None of his rhetoric really mattered, though, because the media simply did not inform Americans about how gas prices were much higher under Obama than ever before or that Obama and his team actually want energy costs to go upward so as to make their “green” solutions more economically competitive.
You didn’t know that gas prices were higher than usual because the New York Times didn’t tell you. That’s how Americans find out whether the price at the pump is painful or not: they wait for the media to explain whether they should be outraged.
There’s a place for in-depth looks at gas prices—which would show that prices fluctuated quite high under the last Republican president as well—but Sheffield isn’t asking for more depth, he wants what’s basically a Republican spin on gas prices to be reported as fact, along with the “fact” that Obama and his people “want” those prices to be high. Now, one can make a good-faith case that Obama does indeed want prices to be high, but “making a case” and “reporting the news” are two quite different things. That the mainstream media doesn’t always observe the distinction doesn’t license right-wingers to ignore as well.
Within an avowedly political outlet, reporting is going to have some bias, and that’s a feature not a bug. But one can be fair-minded even while taking a side: it’s like playing a sport and insisting that the rules be observed even when a breach would favor your team. That spirit of fair play is missing from the reporting that one finds among many well-funded right-wing websites. I’d have a degree of respect for the Washington Free Beacon if its opposition to Hagel had been couched in well-written polemical essays of the sort once produced by Norman Podhoretz. Those kinds of essay can also be dishonest in the particulars, but the genre itself indicates some degree of good-faith self-awareness—awareness of the difference between playing the role of a prosecutor and that of a judge, juror, or bailiff.
The problem with right-wing journalism today isn’t that it features too much opinion but that its reporting is all slant. It wasn’t enough for the Free Beacon (or Sen. Ted Cruz, for that matter) to argue that Chuck Hagel was insufficiently supportive of Israel to be U.S. secretary of defense, instead a series of overblown “gotchas” and insinuations about undisclosed interests were deployed as manufactured news. Never mind the distinction between reporting and opinion—what’s at stake here is the difference between factitious propaganda and good-faith writing of all kinds.