Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Full Disclosure: A Democractic Endorsement In Every Sense of the Word

Two weeks ago I wondered about presidential endorsements by a newspaper's editorial board and concluded that when a publication joins the civic discourse, the public should not fear, but welcome the opinionated interaction. But what happens when every individual contributor to a given publication wears her biases on a public sleeve?

Whereas some publications prefer a private editorial board vote before endorsing a presidential candidate, online mag Slate has -- for the third straight president race -- provided a list of both editors and contributors and their respective picks for president.

The result? All-around unsurprising:
Barack Obama: 55
John McCain: 1
Bob Barr: 1
Not McCain: 1
Noncitizen, can't vote: 4
But this alone does not necessarily make Slate a left-leaning publication. Editor David Plotz explains the curious, but voluntary practice here, stating:
I don't think a candidate's Slate victory reflects a bias that has corrupted the magazine during the campaign.
Former Slate editor Michael Kinsley does not deny that most journalists tend to vote Democratic, but stresses that an opinion is not a bias (!) and even points toward the practice of overcompensation in an attempt to check one's liberal tilt.

Though The Atlantic's Ross Douthat sees the Slate endorsement as undeniable proof of a left-leaning bias, his former colleague and current Think Progress blogger Matthew Yglesias was correct to suggest that we not assess the "subjective mental states of the staff," but the actual content when attempting to sniff out bias in a given publication.
Having three socialists doing page layout, two moderate conservative [sic] writing features on political relevant topics, and one moderately liberal film critic does not a left-of-center publication make ... [If] your publication contains some articles in which heterodox liberals challenge liberal conventional wisdom and other articles in which conservatives challenge liberal conventional wisdom, then your publication is mostly publishing conservative content.
And there you have it. As a journalist, you can not only vote for who you choose, but sing their praises from a mountain top, because it is only your work that deserves scrutiny.

8 comments:

Abe Fried-Tanzer said...

Joe-
I actually wrote my post before reading yours, and it turns out that our posts have a lot in common (the Slate connection being the least of it). Obviously I find your analysis interesting since I tried to do some of the same in my own post, and additionally the point that Kinsley believes that opinion is not a synonym for bias. In the case of political cartoonists, I think opinion is most relevant and important than bias, but as far as reporters go - the statistic that most journalists are liberals is more a danger in my mind for overcompensation and over-coverage of the right. I also find it quite intriguing that, especially considering the fact that we discussed it briefly in class, Kinsley uses the term Democratic rather than Democrat in his article. Just a interesting point!

Rhea Anklesaria said...

i find it interesting that while the Slate is willing to disclose a Democratic bias in it's reporters, it still maintains that coverage is not biased. I find myself agreeing with Plotz on that point. Journalists, especially those covering politics, are naturally going to form opinions about the candidates they have followed for over a year. As long as publications can draw a distinct separation between "hard news" and opinion, I think it's fair.
I'm not sure if most journalists vote Democratic. When it comes to social issues, journalism tends to lean left. However, in economy and business issues, there seems to be a bias towards the right with an obvious support for big business.

Cindy Yeung said...

Honestly, I don't care which nominee a newspaper endorses. Print is a failing industry and by revealing partiality, a newspaper can really alienate one side of their readership by imposing biases.

But are readers going to tilt because the newspapers tell them to? Probably not. Does not matter if Powell supports Obama and Bush supports McCain. My decision is based on what the nominees stand for and what they can do for our country.

My opinion is that endorsements are ineffective and superfluous to the campaign trail. At the same time, I believe a newspaper cannot cater to both sides equally as much as it is idealized in the "ethics of journalism." Journalists, surprisingly enough, are human, too. They can be easily manipulated, tilted and they do reflect bias in their reportings, let alone the existence of endorsements to prove this point.

Will Marshall said...

Joe,
Your post was a useful run-down of the Slate endorsement issue, but I didn't get a clear enough idea about YOUR opinion on it. Judging by the tone of your kicker, it seems as though you doubt that a journalist can support a candidate and their work remain unbiased.

I agree with Kinsley that opinion does not equal bias, the dictionary tells us that much. Bias is a bent, an inclination, or a tendency towards something. Opinion in a judgment, a decision made after weighing factors. I think a journalist (providing their work is not labeled as "hard news") does the reader a great service by forming an OPINION based on the sources he or she has considered. That's a form of taking their analysis a step further by telling the reader which argument convinced them personally.

Remember, Slate is an online publication and like many doesn't erect a concrete barrier between their "hard news" and opinion journalism. Sharing their collective political ideologies was big of them and an important step in debunking what I see to be a myth: all opinion is biased. If a reporter is intellectually honest, his opinion will occasionally go against his ideological bent (aka. bias).

Audrey Tran said...

Cindy, I don't agree that the existence of endorsements is an exact mark of bias. Joe's post argues this and points to the idea that we need to look at a paper's content verses the mentality of its staff.

Question: Why do print media outlets traditionally give endorsements and not Television stations?

Keith Olsen said...

I take Kinsley's point that opinion and bias do have different meanings.

I, however, can't help but find it troubling the following facts: that nearly all of the Slate editors are in the bag for Obama and a majority of journalists are Democrats. As long as the reporting is honest and thoughtful though, I don't think there's anything wrong with it.

While it's not fair; it is the business. No profession has a clear and even breakdown of political tendencies. We can't control it, just try to make sure journalists are kept in check.

Zara Golden said...

As has been said, interesting distinction between "bias" and "opinion."

Jack Shafer got at a similar point as you in his column last week, writing that "The best press criticism isn't a column or a moan of disgust into a TV camera. It's writing a better story." Opinion, it seems, is inevitable. Bias, however, will stem only from our inability to decipher such opinion. A well written story is a well written story, and acknowledgment of any pre-supposed opinions can give footing to both the narrative and the reader.

That being said, I think you are right. Sure, Slate is undeniably left-leaning. But they never tried to be otherwise, and while it would be refreshing to hear voices from the other side, there is something to be said for their strong journalistic voice.

M. Dery said...

Thoughtful, well-structured piece that moves logically from point to point. This is what makes for breezily readable commentary that is, nonetheless, substantive. The rapid-fire volleys of brain pong that it inspired is evidence of that. Would have liked to have heard your own thoughts on Kinsley's distinction between bias and opinion, and wish you had adduced supporting evidence drawn from the various studies proving that most journalists' Democratic party affiliation does not make for A. liberal tendencies on every issue, and B. left-leaning coverage. There's some hard data to support this. Alterman digs into it in his book WHAT LIBERAL MEDIA? Also, wish you had held a magnifying glass up to the regrettable tendency to elide the difference, in popular argument, between "liberal," "left," and "Democrat." Some would argue America hasn't even had a left, in the Eugene Debbs sense of the word, since before WWII.