Television News and a Mythical Neutrality

The television media in the United States has been struck by an interesting affliction virtually since its inception—the affliction of journalistic neutrality. I don’t necessarily mean that the television media—CBS, NBC, ABC and 24 hours news networks like Cable News Network (CNN) and Fox News Channel (FNC)—actually have journalistic neutrality, but for some reason they all insist on touting that they are “Fair and Balanced”, as FNC would put it.

Now sure, fair and balanced would probably be a good thing, but as evenhanded news watchers like myself surely realize it is an impossibility in media.

Looking back through the history of American media, you’ll notice that the original newspapers were newspapers created with specific political agendas. There were pro-revolutionary and anti-revolutionary papers, there were Federalist and anti-Federalist papers, followed later by Democratic Republican papers and Whig papers, and so on. But these entirely agenda-based papers have lost ground over the last two centuries, replaced by newspapers that strive to report accurate news and limit their political commentary rhetoric to the Op-Ed pages.

But even today’s papers have their leanings. The Washington Post and The New York Times lean toward the left—generally in favor of Democrats—while The Washington Times and The Wall Street Journal lean toward the right—generally in favor or Republicans. I do not doubt the integrity of any of these papers or the accuracy of what they report, but the political slants of their editorial staff cannot be kept from edging into their otherwise evenhanded presentation of pure news on the front pages.

I have absolutely no problem with this slant being present, as long as I know it’s there and which way it goes.

Thankfully, newspapers generally do a good job of making it perfectly clear which way their editorial staff leans on the political spectrum. If not made clear enough purely by the content of the Op-Ed pages, it is solidified when these papers endorse political candidates every election season. But the television media is quite another story.

Like newspapers dedicate pages to different purposes, television news does the same with periods of time. The 24 hour news channels slate several minutes at every hour and half-hour for reporting the day’s news stories—more for breaking news—and fill the rest of the time with what is basically the Op-Ed page—news commentary and opinion. The evening network news programs (NBC Nightly News, etc.) and the news magazine programs like 20/20, 48 Hours, and Dateline all have their own systems, but do have opinion segments along with actual news segments.

And this is all just fine with me.

But none of the television news organizations will admit that they have an editorial bias, let alone which way it goes. None of them publicly endorse political candidates. None of them will provide their viewers with the information they need to properly digest the news as presented the way they can when digesting stories in the print media. No, the television news organizations seem obsessed with convincing their viewers that there is no bias at all in their presentation of the news.

But, again, news watchers like myself know that there is indeed a bias. CNN leans left, FNC leans right, for example.

I must reiterate that I have nothing against these leanings. Like in the print media, I do not doubt the integrity of any of these organizations or the accuracy of what they report, but their editorial political slants do slip into how they present the news. What I have a problem with is that these organizations don’t have the guts to come right out and admit that it’s there. They’d rather pretend that they have a mythical journalistic neutrality. I don’t even pretend to do that, I’ll be the first to tell you I have a conservative slant on most issues.

Facts can be cast in different lights without changing their factuality. For example, let’s say hypothetically that the Supreme Court were to overturn Roe v. Wade and increase limitation on abortion. You could easily headline that story “Pro-choice groups angered by court decision” or “Pro-life groups cheer court ruling.” The first makes it sound like a negative story, the second makes it sound more positive, but either would be accurate in this hypothetical case.

To parse this story as a reader, we would have to take into consideration the underlying political views of the news organization’s editorial staff, and the more clear those editorial biases are expressed by that organization the easier it is for us to do so.

As I mentioned earlier, there is no easier way for an organization to express its political biases than by the endorsement of political candidates. Almost every newspaper does this every election cycle, and I praise them for doing so, and now it is time that the television news organizations—ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FNC, and others—drop their charade of journalistic neutrality and begin endorsing national political candidates in the 2004 elections.

Not only would viewers be better able to judge and understand the news they are presented, but widespread political endorsements in non-newspaper media would help to settle once and for all the debate over whether or not the media slants predominantly to the left. That’s an issue I wouldn’t dare dive into in this rant, but it is one that needs to be addressed by news watchers—and more importantly by news organizations.

The free press in the United States—now including print, radio, television, and internet—is protected by Constitutional law. This protection wasn’t created to ensure that news was accurate and fair, no it was created—as was free speech—to encourage political dialog and advocate political views. Yet despite this clear protection and Constitutional intent, I sometimes get the impression that the television media is afraid to openly exercise its right of political expression. It chooses instead to hide it behind supposed pillars of fairness, evenhandedness, and neutrality that do not and cannot really exist where human beings are involved.

Some may argue that we wouldn’t be able to trust television news sources if they openly took political sides, but as I’ve been saying throughout this rant newspapers already take those sides. I don’t trust the Washington Post any less because they have tended to support Democratic candidates—in fact I find their articles overwhelmingly intuitive, well written, and accurate—but when I read their articles I am conscious of their liberal leanings and parse the information through that filter. Likewise I am conscious of FNC’s conservative leanings when I watch their channel or read their articles online.

But every election year the Washington Post has the guts to tell me which way they’re leaning. FNC does not. CNN does not. NBC Nightly News does not. What are they afraid of? Why don’t they want us to know there their editorial staff falls on the political spectrum? It almost seems like these television news organizations are afraid that if we knew where they stood we would no longer take them seriously, but on the contrary I take them less seriously because they refuse to come clean about their biases.

It is time for television news to stop sacrificing journalistic integrity and honesty in the name of a mythical neutrality. It is time for television news to admit the political slants of their editorial staff and to endorse political candidates. Newspapers do it all the time . . .

Scott Bradford has been putting his opinions on his website since 1995—before most people knew what a website was. He has been a professional web developer in the public- and private-sector for over twenty years. He is an independent constitutional conservative who believes in human rights and limited government, and a Catholic Christian whose beliefs are summarized in the Nicene Creed. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration from George Mason University. He loves Pink Floyd and can play the bass guitar . . . sort-of. He’s a husband, pet lover, amateur radio operator, and classic AMC/Jeep enthusiast.