Liberal media watchdog Media Matters announced yesterday that The Wall Street Journal had, “following criticism of its disclosure practices,” revealed the political affiliations one of its op-ed writers.
Max Boot is one of ten contributors to the Journal’s opinion pages whose views the newspaper has published without mentioning the writers' links to presidential candidate Mitt Romney, according to Media Matters.
“In a total of 23 pieces, the op-ed writers attacked President Obama or praised Romney without the paper acknowledging their Romney connections,” the organization asserted in a September 27 report.
“Op-ed writers aren’t supposed to be objective or to have no stake in the subjects they’re writing about,” Los Angeles Times editorial page editor Nicholas Goldberg is quoted as saying. “But when a writer does have a particular relationship to his subject that is not immediately apparent to the reader, it is important to disclose that so the reader can evaluate the argument intelligently.”
On September 28, below a book review by Boot (published in the print edition on September 29), the Journal included the following bio line: “Mr. Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an advisor to the Romney campaign.”
That is all well and good, you may be thinking, but what on Earth is a liberal media watchdog? In the case of Media Matters, founded in 2004, it is a self-described “progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analysing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media.”
A comparable entity exists across the ideological divide in the Media Research Center, which proclaims in its About Us section that it is “proud to celebrate 25 years of holding the liberal media accountable for shamelessly advancing a left-wing agenda, distorting the truth, and vilifying the conservative movement.”
Both are registered as non-profit, tax-deductible organizations, and each combs the opposing camp’s media offerings for examples of misinformation and political bias, naming and shaming the offending news organisations and journalists, and urging them to correct their slanted ways.
Given that distrust in the media has reached a new high in the United States, with the majority (60 percent) of the country's population having “little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly” according to the latest Gallup survey, it is hard to tell whether the overall effect of these partisan organisations' efforts is positive, or whether by blowing whistles at one another they are merely widening the gap between the poles.
Perhaps it would make sense for there to be an apolitical umpire of sorts, who could establish and enforce a standardised set of news labelling practices for the benefit of readers. On second thought, perhaps not: a quick glance at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Food Labeling Guide warns that this would be a complex and time-consuming proposition, not at all suited to the pace of news publishing.
It would be more logical for news organisations, with help from public editors, to apply the media watchdogs' tactics to their own output, and take these issues into their own hands.
Margaret Sullivan’s latest entry in The New York Times Public Editor’s Journal offers a good example of how this can be done. Her post explores whether opinion articles should appear in the news section of the newspaper, if so what label they should bear, and whether it would be a bad thing for the border between news and opinion to grow hazier.
Sullivan focuses on a recent article published in The Times’ Texas section, entitled “How Perry Lost His Edge in a Bid to Be President.” A reader who called himself “an Upper West Side liberal and no defender of Rick Perry” took issue with the article, which despite containing strong political opinion and being written in a far-from-objective tone, was packaged “like a normal news story” according to The New York Times' Managing Editor Dean Baquet, whom Sullivan involved in the investigation.
From the beginning, they concluded, the article should have been marked as a non-news item; it should have borne a label identifying the author and explaining that it was an excerpt from a book, not a standard news story. Now, thanks to the Public Editor’s work, it does.
Sullivan does not, in this particular column, attempt to answer the question that has been arising of late about whether newspapers should continue to strive for objectivity (nicknamed “the view from nowhere”), or whether they should shed the veil and be open about their political views. “That’s a big discussion, something for another day,” she writes.
She does, however, make a good point right in her column’s title, which is as true in the case of the Journal’s op-ed labelling as it is in the case of The Times’ Texas page packaging:
“When the view is from somewhere, readers ought to know where that is.”