Opinion: Media Mangle

Fair and Balanced? You Bet

Mainstream media view efforts at objectivity as bias itself

I worked in newsrooms for most of 30 years, with a couple of breaks for grad school and political campaign work. I can say with confidence that I can count on one hand the conservatives I worked with during those years in mainstream news.

They fall into two categories: those with whom I worked in the early 1970s who were relics of the days when you might actually find a conservative in a newsroom, and a couple in the 1990s who, like me, had made a gradual transition from left to right.

One thing became clear to me: while outright socialists and even communist-sympathizing reporters (these became visible during the Sandinista-Iran-Contra period) and editors were viewed as benign, any conservative news person was considered a threat to journalism itself. You just couldn’t be an unbiased and objective reporter or editor if you had any conservative political leanings at all, was the common view.

Once my conservative views became known in the newsroom every decision I made was explained with, “Well, you know he’s a conservative now, don’t you?” That’s an actual comment from one of our aging lefties after I mandated that if we were going to call conservative groups conservative in news stories, then we had to call liberal groups liberal. My attempt to rid the paper of bias was seen, strangely, as evidence of my bias.

I thought of that experience over the weekend as the Fox News interview with former President Bill Clinton aired. Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday asked Clinton what he thought about the view that he didn’t do enough to catch Osama bin Laden in the 1990s. Clinton’s red-faced, finger-wagging and fact-bending reaction is already legend. In addition to claiming that various “right-wingers” were conspiring to besmirch his legacy, he also accused Fox News of bias for asking the question.

Let’s examine that for a moment.

Clinton had been interviewed by numerous networks and mainstream publications in the two weeks leading up to his Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York last week, and not one of the esteemed objective journalists had asked him this very pertinent question.

Instead, viewers and readers got lots of fawning and gushing, the two most nausea-producing performances coming from MSNBC wildman Keith Olbermann and Today Show host Meredith Vieira. Even Tim Russert, widely described as one of the media’s toughers interviewers, avoided the touchy but appropriate question that Wallace posed.

So, who is the responsible journalist here? The many “big names” too afraid or too supportive of Clinton to ask a tough question, or the one person who felt that including this one question among a list of questions was the journalistically responsible thing to do? Who was being objective and unbiased and who was not? I think we know the answer to that question.

Still, Clinton and his defenders in the lefty blogosphere called Wallace a tool of the right for doing what responsible journalists are supposed to do. Just as I was accused of bias for trying to pull the pendulum back to the middle in my own newsroom, Wallace is accused of bias for refusing to engage in the biased journalism that is the norm in the mainstream media.

In the last analysis, here’s the mainsteam media’s definition of bias: any attempt to include conservative views, any effort to be equally accommodating of conservative groups, and asking tough questions of those on both sides.

The left constantly ridicules Fox News’ “fair and balanced” slogan, but this incident shows why it is accurate. The major networks and other mainstream media stars abdicated their responsibility as journalists, either through fear or personal bias. Wallace didn’t.

Fair and balanced, indeed.

Jon Ham is vice president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of its newspaper Carolina Journal.