The blockbuster series of Daily Caller reports on the Journolist—culled from the archives of the secretive email list which paired liberal academics, bloggers, and think tank members with the mainstream media—has not included many surprises for those who realize that any claim of a semblance of fairness or unbiased observation on the part of the U.S. mainstream media is an absurd myth. The revelations, however, have further undermined any pretense of real journalistic standards, much less objectivity, on the part of the nation’s obsolescent mainstream news media.
So long, and good riddance, say we—in a world where only 29% of Americans trust the media, the concept was on its deathbed anyway.
Many of the Journolist conversations turned to the kind of foul-mouthed venom one typically expects from activist bloggers, not journalists for Bloomberg, Time, Newsweek, Politico, Foreign Policy, The New Yorker, National Public Radio, and other such high-minded institutions. Some of the vitriol is quite extreme—the NPR journalist caught on a thread talking about her hopes for Rush Limbaugh’s death has apologized—and already, examples are emerging where conversations with the radical online left fed into the musings of prominent “mainstream” journalists.
My strongest reaction, though, was disappointment in seeing that the list included entries from a reporter from my policy area—Kate Steadman of Kaiser Health News. Writing in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s 2008 victory, Steadman gushes with partisan enthusiasm:
KATE STEADMAN, KAISER HEALTH NEWS: i can’t imagine anything like it except a world series/superbowl win, and several of my co-walkers told me it never gets the entire city so riled. i think what makes it even more amazing is the incredible diversity in this city and how we all came together for this, especially in victory.
Those who read Kaiser Health News regularly, as I do, will recognize Steadman as not an opinion columnist (the excuse of many on the list), but as a KHN staff reporter and the primary author of KHN’s Blog Watch. You can read more of her writing here.
Steadman may well be a good reporter—I have had no major complaints about her coverage of the beat—but her inclusion on the Journolist now makes me wonder. How has her bias fueled what she writes? How many times during her coverage of the recent debate about Obamacare was her reporting on the policy influenced by her support for the president who espoused it? How many stories has she ignored because they didn’t fit her ideological framework, or would conflict with her affection for that moment when “we all came together for this … in victory”?
In other words, it’s what we don’t know about her coverage of the issue that is important.
We have no way of knowing how Steadman’s intense personal biases affected her writing. And that’s the problem with her and the mainstream media complex in general. Having control of the flow of information to the public enabled them to ensure that the suspicions of media bias constituted an untestable proposition to some degree.
As the Journolist revelations make clear, that’s no longer possible. Vive le Web.
Essentially, we’re learning that Journolist functioned as a gigantic lobbying shop, providing liberal bloggers and academics with unprecedented and near-constant access to leading media figures—pairing those who work to persuade America of their rightness with those who still possess the largest megaphones—empowering ideologues to pass along their activist take on news (dismiss this, highlight this, call this fellow racist, this pick sexist, etc.) to those who loudly and continually proclaim the fairness of their reporting.
The left’s reaction has been to dismiss all of these revelations, saying that the same kind of conversations have been happening all along—but as Fred Barnes writes today in the Wall Street Journal, this is not just freewheeling tavern talk:
I think JournoList is—or was—fundamentally different, and not simply because one of its members proposed to make palpably false accusations. As best I can tell, those involved in JournoList considered themselves part of a team. And their goal was to make sure the team won. In 2008, this was Mr. Obama’s team. More recently, the goal seems to have been to defeat the conservative team.
Until JournoList came along, liberal journalists were rarely part of a team. Neither are conservative journalists today, so far as I know. If there’s a team, no one has asked me to join. As a conservative, I normally write more favorably about Republicans than Democrats and I routinely treat conservative ideas as superior to liberal ones. But I’ve never been part of a discussion with conservative writers about how we could most help the Republican or the conservative team.
As Barnes notes, my conservative and libertarian colleagues naturally seek to highlight conservative and libertarian ideas. We are open and honest about this fact, and we don’t pretend our views are irrelevant to what we do. There’s no deception here about our pro-market, pro-consumer, pro-liberty approach to the analysis of public policy—and we are just as willing to criticize bad policy on one side of the aisle as the other.
What the Journolist story illustrates is how dangerous it is when people with large audiences purposefully choose to ignore this distinction, banding together to achieve political goals and feed stories and individual prejudices to a wider audience.
The truth is that when a group of like-minded elites decides one party or one politician has a monopoly on good or bad ideas, these self-styled arbiters of fairness and unbiased reporting might as well be on the campaign payroll. In a way, they were on the politicians’ payroll all along—carrying water for those whose ascension would serve to elevate their own policy views.
We just know it now.