In Response To Political Polarization, A Call For Impartial Media

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The very well-designed poster for the event.

Last night, Daily Editor Zack Abrams attended ISERP’s – the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy – event called “Coming to Terms with a Polarized Society: Professional Journalism, Polarization, Post-Truth, & Post-Trump.” What a mouthful. His review:

If you’ve been alive for the past two years or so, you’re probably aware of the many complaints against the media being lobbed by all sides, including the Executive Branch. Political polarization, or simply the idea that partisanship is driving people to surround themselves with supporting views instead of exposing themselves to the other side, is at an all-time high among college first-years. Many see the media as having a hand in this issue, especially as terms like “fake news” have become commonplace among discussions of politics and policy.

In this context, ISERP hosted Michael Schudson, a Columbia Journalism professor, to give a brief overview of how the media has handled objectivity and engaging with its consumers, while Leonard Downie, Jr. and Bill Keller, former Executive Editors of the Washington Post and the New York Times, respectively, provided commentary and answered questions from the attended guests.

Schudson, a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, started off by recapping the previous lectures in ISERP’s ongoing series about political polarization. Previous guests described political polarization not as a crisis, but as an illness, and talked about how many people in the Midwest feel like they’ve been forgotten by the government in faraway Washington, referring to public servants as people who “shower before work, not after.”

For his lecture, Schudson discussed how “professionalization” was the biggest factor in journalism since the beginning of the 20th century, and how the adoption of an ethical code by the American Society of Newspaper Editors shaped how journalists approached objectivity and resisted propaganda. While Schudson admitted that the current media has an “anti-populist” bias, underrating the feasibility of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders during the 2016 election, he claimed that the best journalism presented both sides and was “not liberal or conservative, but objective.”

Schudson also noted that the concept of objectivity shifted sometime around the 70’s, as journalists realized the power of aggressive investigative reporting, as thus journalism became more analytical and critical of large institutions. This wave was brought about as the size of the government increased as it related to civil rights, social welfare programs, and the environment, governmental reforms increased transparency, and politics took a larger role in the average citizen’s life. Overall, Schudson’s address contextualized large shifts in journalism within a larger framework of journalists figuring out how exactly to approach the “truth.”

In response, Downie rejected the term “objectivity” in favor of impartiality. For example, in his twenty-five years running the Washington Post, he never once voted in a political election. He compared objectivity, which would imply covering both sides of the climate change argument, even those who deny science, with impartiality, which would only cover those with facts to back their argument. Downie agreed that journalists holding the powers that be accountable is one of the most important changes in journalism, praising the virtues of investigating scandals and referring to one of my personal favorite reporters, David Fahrenthold, who investigated Trump’s network of charities while posting his notes online, as a prime example.

Keller, responding to Schudson’s address, spoke to his experience running the New York Times, and how the Internet was a surprising factor in journalism. In defense of the Internet, he stated that the current financial problems in the journalism sector started long before the Internet, as the evening news displaced the need for evening papers. The Internet, he argued, does lower the barrier for entry to gather information, fact check, and expands the reach of one person to the entire world. However, he argued that the Internet “accelerates everything,” leading to sloppier reporting, a reliance on promoting your own brand, and that algorithms serve up comfortable news rather than the opposition.

With the issue of how to adapt, Keller noted how the Times changed its approach to covering the falsehoods from the White House. During the campaign, the articles took the form of “Trump says X, Clinton says Y,” though over time it transitioned to “Trump says X, he’s lying.” He also noted that the Times, and the media in general, need to do a better job with certain overlooked issues, like the power that Google and Facebook have over the Internet and how consumers are not properly media literate.

Many of the present attendees had interesting questions about the state of media, including the shrinking size of overseas operations in several outlets, how journalists should have handled the issue of Trump’s tax returns, and if journalists have a “duty to warn” about impending political threats. I even asked a question about the current trend of engagement among political writers on their Twitter feeds and podcasts which are meant for them to express their opinions, something the former editors had large problems with. In their view, journalists are meant to be as impartial as possible and are not allowed to express personal opinions via Twitter or march in a partisan protest. However, it seems to me that most people my age would prefer to know more about the journalists who they read in order to evaluate the implicit biases that may exist. In this way, I felt, the panelists showed their antiquated tendencies.

Overall, the panelists presented a holistic argument for absolute objectivity in the news media and how journalists should not convey their biases to the public. However, at several moments I was unconvinced that the panelists were truly ready to confront the current rapid changes in media and instead defaulted to the decades-old standard of their archaic former institutions. Only time will tell if political polarization is a chronic disease that will need to be fought, or simply a trend that will pass in time.

Poster via ISERP

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