RIP John S. Carroll: Author of classic memo defending old-school, balanced journalism

The late John S. Carroll was known, among American journalists, as a strong advocate of investigative journalism, a famous Vietnam War correspondent, a White House beat reporter, a great headline writer and, in the end, a man who was willing to be shown the exit door at The Los Angeles Times rather than obey a Tribune Co. order to radically cut his staff.

Carroll was an old-school American journalist, by all accounts, who led The Baltimore Sun before heading to Los Angeles. He also spent time as the metro editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, among his many jobs in the top ranks of his craft.

The Sun began its obituary like this:

John S. Carroll, former editor of The Baltimore Sun and The Los Angeles Times who became a seminal figure in American journalism and operated on the principle that no detail was too small when it came to producing a great newspaper, died Sunday at his Lexington, Ky., home of a rare, non-treatable disease. Mr. Carroll was 73.

Here at GetReligion, however, Carroll is remembered for another reason -- one that I should have mentioned 11 years ago in our "What we do, why we do it" overture on Day 1. It was Carroll who, in 2003, wrote a memo to his staff about media bias that inspired me to start thinking about creating a site about the mainstream press and its struggle to, well, "get religion."

The memo -- dated May 22, 2003 -- focused on the editor's concerns about media bias in a Los Angeles Times story focusing on debates about alleged links between induced abortions and breast cancer. Carroll sent the memo to his section editors, but the full text soon surfaced in The LA Observer. Here is the heart of the letter.

The apparent bias of the writer and/or the desk reveals itself in the third paragraph, which characterizes such bills in Texas and elsewhere as requiring "so-called counseling of patients." I don't think people on the anti-abortion side would consider it "so-called," a phrase that is loaded with derision. 
The story makes a strong case that the link between abortion and breast cancer is widely discounted among researchers, but I wondered as I read it whether somewhere there might exist some credible scientist who believes in it. 
Such a person makes no appearance in the story's lengthy passage about the scientific issue. We do quote one of the sponsors of the bill, noting that he "has a professional background in property management." Seldom will you read a cheaper shot than this. Why, if this is germane, wouldn't we point to legislators on the other side who are similarly bereft of scientific credentials? 
It is not until the last three paragraphs of the story that we finally surface a professor of biology and endocrinology who believes the abortion/cancer connection is valid. But do we quote him as to why he believes this? No. We quote his political views. 
Apparently the scientific argument for the anti-abortion side is so absurd that we don't need to waste our readers' time with it. 

This brings us to Carroll's defense of what, in journalism history books, would be called the American Model of the Press, with its emphasis on accurate, balanced reporting that shows respect for people on all sides of hot-button public debates.

No one has ever said what needs to be said better than this. Let us attend.

The reason I'm sending this note ... is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times. 
I'm no expert on abortion, but I know enough to believe that it presents a profound philosophical, religious and scientific question, and I respect people on both sides of the debate. A newspaper that is intelligent and fair-minded will do the same. 

And all the old-school journalists said: "Amen." There was a time when there was no need to defend this approach to journalism. However, in this age when "Kellerism" is on the march, it's good to stop and praise Carroll for his brave words in defense of basic journalism.

Writing at Real Clear Politics, journalist Carl M. Cannon offered this tribute to Carroll:

Newsrooms under his direction were known for fearless investigative reporting, serious coverage of public policy issues, numerous Pulitzer Prizes, and high morale among the staff.
Publishing newspapers that made a difference in the lives of its readers was John’s calling. Even as a digital revolution undermined newspapers’ traditional economic model, he stuck to his guns.
“Today’s journalists are constantly being reminded that they are functionaries of business, yet they know in their hearts that the stock price is a hollow god,” he said in accepting the National Press Foundation’s Editor of the Year award in 1998. “They sense that newspaper work can, and should, be a wonderfully satisfying and entertaining way to engage the world, and that in a free society there is no mightier sword than the written word.”
John Carroll took joy in mentoring young reporters, often in ways that changed their lives. If you were all-in, he managed to be your editor, your boss, and your friend all the same time. We miss him already.

Carroll worked at the Inquirer under the famous editor Eugene L. "Gene" Roberts Jr., -- who was also a former war correspondent -- from 1972 to 1990. At the time Carroll left for his post in Los Angeles, Roberts told The Sun the following, which was included in the obituary:

"I think he is one of the very best editors and newspapermen in the country," Mr. Roberts told The Sun. ... "He has a firm set of values, he does not blow with the wind or go from fad to fad and fashion to fashion."
At The Los Angeles Times, he was credited with raising the standards of the news operation, while the paper received 30 Pulitzers nominations and won 13.

Here's to rejecting fads and to editors who refuse to blow with the wind. Here's to news coverage that is -- in Carroll's words -- "intelligent and fair-minded," even when dealing with controversial issues that are haunted by religion. Here's to an editor who demanded that journalists in his newsroom show respect to the people whose lives and beliefs were covered in their stories.

Please respect our Commenting Policy