A Campaign Against Credibility

The Times does – cross a line
It used to chafe at me when the newspaper for which I worked ran advertisements (known as “house ads” because the paper itself “paid” for them) exhorting or applauding any local sports team. I covered all of them at one time or another and believed that even the appearance of my employer cheerleading for any of them undermined my credibility as an impartial reporter. The worst thing you could call a sportswriter back in those days was a “homer,” though many of our readers expected us to be exactly that and objected whenever we wrote anything critical about the home team.

Politics is the one arena in life where the levels of passion and partisanship rival those found in sports. And in that arena, my former employer, The Seattle Times, recently tripped the way it routinely stubbed its toe, at least in my view, in sports.

With a full-page ad in support of Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna in its Wednesday editions, The Times launched its “Seattle Times Initiative for Political Newspaper Advertising.” By allocating approximately $75,000 in support of McKenna and a similar sum to the campaign to approve same-sex marriage, the newspaper hopes to “prove” the efficacy of political advertising.

One campaign official called the move “a stunning example of journalistic bias, greed and stupidity,” in a story reported by the Times about its own actions.

See what the end of that previous sentence does? It provokes the sentiment in some that The Times cannot objectively report about its own activities. As a stakeholder, how could it? Yet the primary author of the story, Jim Brunner, is a well-respected political reporter and his piece is balanced, quoting The Times as well as those critical of The Times’ campaign.

Brunner, by the way, is the one most likely to be impacted by his employer’s move. Reporters are the face of any media company and generally will be held accountable for the actions of management, no matter how otherwise objectively those reporters exercise their craft. Though, yes, there are homers among the rank and file, the executives are the ones who get fired up when the local team meets success or a candidate aligns with their personal and business objectives. The executives cross the journalistic demarcation between objectivity and bias, and the messengers (reporters) are the ones who are killed. It also begs the question of how management can require its employees to stray from conflicts of interest when it exercises contrary behavior.

Even in the current, highly polarized state of this country, many people (most, I hope) still desire reliable sources of information. Even if passionate bias provokes filtered reasoning or wishful witnessing, people frequently continue to wonder what really happened. Maybe they hope reality aligns with what their prejudiced view of developments, but whatever the motivation, a desire for some form of objectivity persists.

After the second Presidential debate, I reflexively channel-hopped between cable news stations for replays and analysis – just like any sports fan would do after a game. Since I don’t watch TV much, I was stunned at how openly liberal leaning MSNBC had become. I’m aware of FOX and its tether to the right. In my sepia-colored memory, N-B-C used to spell fair and honest reporting. The chest beating by MSNBC’s pundits over President Obama’s performance (superior in their view) was off-putting. I could have tuned to FOX for a counter viewpoint, then reached my own conclusions about what really happened, which in theory is the way any fair quest for truth is supposed to work. But I’m like a lot of people in being too lazy or too time-challenged to undertake such an effort and instead yearned for objectivity.

A dangerously shrinking industry.
Already on the endangered species list, newspapers have to hope customers place palpable value on honest information. It’s either that or people will have to start lining birdcages with something else – say, political yard signs. Or maybe The Times is dipping its toe in the so-far, Web-dominated cesspool of advertorial, coverage for pay or, at the very least, coverage held hostage. Which easily can be flipped. Why should Nordstrom, for example, purchase advertising in The Seattle Times without guarantees of cheerleading coverage or supportive, additional ads? We can continue the joy ride down the slippery slope, add quote approval, paid interviews, source hacking and wind up with a country covered by Murdoch knockoffs.

Credibility is a fragile and complex creature. Perception being reality, even the appearance of bias muddies the mirage of objectivity. It’s one reason why media organizations deploy so many resources, or used to, to ensure correct spelling and grammar, and the accuracy of “facts.” Spelling a name incorrectly, to wit, opens the door to readers, viewers and users to wonder what else the media source is getting wrong. This line of thinking is drummed into the head of any self-respecting journalist. Even though true objectivity only can be an ideal, since reporters are people subject to the bias and influences of their own experience, the earnest pursuit of it can be practiced transparently and therefore effectively.

Although fair and reliable media at least used to be considered a cornerstone of a free and democratic society, the sincere pursuit of truth always has been a high-wire act for journalists. Narrow interests constantly wield magnifying glasses, searching for any hint of bias. The average reader, even purely as a consumer vetting reliable sources of information, becomes aware of coverage that is overtly slanted.

I believe people still value fairness and accuracy because I built a business – a website called HoopGurlz, which provided national coverage of girls’ basketball – on credibility. Like many grassroots sports, girls’ basketball is a world dominated by Nike. At HoopGurlz, we aggressively and pointedly covered events, athletes and teams without regard to sneaker affiliation. We disavowed any affiliations – coaching teams or players, for example, or operating events – that even potentially conflicted with the perception of fair coverage. Even though we participated in the highly subjective act of ranking athletes and teams, we did so as a group with different, but equally valid viewpoints, and we were as transparent as possible about process. Mainly, we almost never attributed news to anonymous sources and had a policy of using named, primary sources. People took to saying (and thinking) that “if HoopGurlz didn’t report it, it didn’t happen.” This was our main triumph; people trusted and therefore supported us.

Though from the outside sports journalism long has appeared as a bastion of boosterism, it did, after all, birth the no-cheering-in-the-press-box ethic. Which isn’t exactly intuitive, by the way, since the host or owner of every press section is the home team of any sporting event. But the symbolism is important. If a sportswriter hoped or openly cheered for a certain outcome, any report of undesired outcomes can be suspect. If, for example, a reporter roots for the home team, a strong criticism of any loss by that team could be the product, not of fair judgment, but of the reporter’s disappointment or anger.

To some this was a small thing, but it rankled me when local baseball beat writers had photos taken in front of a scoreboard after Felix Hernandez pitched a perfect game for the Mariners at Safeco Field. The photos wreaked of celebration, and I’d always felt my writing a story about an important or historic event was as good a souvenir as could be unearthed. I similarly flinch when local media types routinely refer to Russell Wilson, a rookie Seahawks quarterback much in the news, simply as “Russell.” The apparent chumminess, like the post-game photos, implies the reporters have a stake in their subject. Having a stake erodes the ability – at least, the perception of it – to cover the event, person or organization fairly. This is why, by the way, I always hated the fact that the newsroom and sports department at The Times participated in fantasy sports games.

Time was, newspapers never would consider assigning sportswriters to cover a team at a university they once attended. Some newsrooms even discouraged reporters from voting, much less demonstrate open support for a candidate. Such was the concern over the influence of having a stake in a potential subject. That devotion dies a little each day. And then the day comes when a newspaper announces it is financially supporting a candidate and a cause under the pretense of exploring the efficacy of political advertising, without much apparent thought to the negative impact on its news gathering functions.

It makes you wonder how truly close we’ve slithered to the end of truth, justice and the American way.

3 thoughts on “A Campaign Against Credibility

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