The Persistent Myth of the Impartial Press, in the Nation and Even in Berkeley

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday July 27, 2011 - 01:14:00 PM

In his blog today, Paul Krugman tackles a virus which has almost taken over the body politic, insidious creeping centrism. The whole piece is well worth reading, but here’s the money quote:

“We have a crisis in which the right is making insane demands, while the president and Democrats in Congress are bending over backward to be accommodating — offering plans that are all spending cuts and no taxes, plans that are far to the right of public opinion.

“So what do most news reports say? They portray it as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent — because news reports always do that. And we have influential pundits calling out for a new centrist party, a new centrist president, to get us away from the evils of partisanship.”

Professor Krugman, now almost the only intelligent voice allowed to be heard in the corporate press, spent most of his early career in academic economics, so it’s no wonder that he’s shocked at what’s going on in national politics and how the situation is being covered in the press. But sad to say, militant centrism is not all that new. It’s just gotten much, much worse lately. 

The Republican party, which once embodied the faux center when Dwight Eisenhower was president, Earl Warren was governor of California and Thomas Kuchel was a senator, has degenerated into a ludicrous form of self-caricature at one extreme. This is not really new: it all started with Ronald Reagan, and ever since his ascension to power Republicans have flirted with right-wing extremism.  

The American press in the first century of the republic gave voice to a bracing variety of points of view, but starting in the 1920s newspapers increasingly depended on corporate advertising for paying the bills. As a result, they took more and more pains to pretend that they were referees, not players in the game of government. Now that the Supreme Court has decreed that corporations can have all the political participation their big money can buy, the media both print and electronic are even more reluctant to offend those who write their checks. 

And both political parties, the media, and even academic-ish pollsters have nurtured the myth of the independent voter, the guy who supposedly inhabits the center and swing-votes come election day. But when I did precinct organization for the Democratic Party I soon learned that the guy who tells you on his doorstep that he is “independent” or “votes for the man, not the party” most often doesn’t turn up at the polls on Election Day. Modern polling has amplified the voice of the unconcerned, so that all too often Democrats like President Obama give unwarranted deference to pollsters’ reports of the ill-formed opinions of people who don’t participate in public life.  

Now-forgotten Republican Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew, who ultimately resigned in a bribery scandal, used to claim that he represented the wishes of a never-existent “silent majority”. Jim Hightower’s book title said it all: “There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Lines and Dead Armadillos”. But try to tell that to the media. 

Besides trying to please the advertisers, the corporate press has devoted way too much space to sports coverage, and this has infected the real news. It seems that there’s always got to be two teams, occasionally the good guys and the bad guys but more often a clash of well-matched titans. I even ran into this problem when I was doing investigative stories for leftish magazines on scientific topics, where there is often a right answer and a wrong answer. Several times well-meaning editors tried to insert views of thoroughly discredited crackpots into straightforward stories on well-researched and well-settled science, in the interest of “balance”. No, despite some who think so, the earth is still not flat (and now climate change is really upon us too.) 

In the Berkeley Planet’s transition from a relatively standard commercial newspaper with paid reporters to a non-commercial news outlet written mostly by unpaid interested citizens, we’ve started to deviate more and more from 20th Century ideas of “unbiased” journalism. In truth, many questions are not well-served by ping-pong coverage “on the one hand” and “on the other hand”. Variety, yes, that’s what our opinion slots are for. But when there are well-informed people around who actually understand what they’re watching, there’s no reason to play hide the ball.  

And that goes double for the national press. Krugman puts it to them straight: 

“…what would it take for these news organizations and pundits to actually break with the convention that both sides are equally at fault? This is the clearest, starkest situation one can imagine short of civil war. If this won’t do it, nothing will. 

“And yes, I think this is a moral issue. The 'both sides are at fault' people have to know better; if they refuse to say it, it’s out of some combination of fear and ego, of being unwilling to sacrifice their treasured pose of being above the fray. 

“It’s a terrible thing to watch, and our nation will pay the price.” 

Around here you’ll be seeing more and more reports of important local happenings written by admittedly interested parties, labeled “news analysis” or even sometimes as “press releases” from trustworthy sources. The press release in this issue on behalf of concerned East Bay environmentalists (complaining about the attempt to limit discussion of the fate of Golden Gate Fields, a significant part of the whole bay shoreline, to those who happen to vote in tiny Albany) is a good example of the kind of information that’s too important to be left to supposedly impartial reporting. We know that when organizations like these think that there’s a problem, they’re likely to be right, and we think our readers need to know what they think. And we see no need to pretend that we’re above the fray.