Your weekend think piece: Is it really time to say 'Goodbye Nonpartisan Journalism'?

There is no question in my mind about which "think piece" to share with GetReligion readers this weekend.

For more than a decade now, I have used "A History of News" by Mitchell Stephens as the source for some of the key lectures in my "Journalism Foundations" seminar at both the Washington Journalism Center and now the New York Journalism Semester at The King's College. I have also appreciated the input that this historian had in the solid, facts-based history corners of The Newseum in Washington, D.C., which my students visited through the years.

So my eyebrows went way up when I saw Stephen's byline atop that Politico piece with this headline: "Goodbye Nonpartisan Journalism. And Good Riddance. Disinterested reporting is overrated."

On one level, this piece is simply (a) part of the news media's anger and grief reacting to life with Donald Trump and (b) a historian noting -- accurately -- that American newspapers used to be fiercely partisan in the days before faster printing presses and the rise of the American model of the press (with its professional standards striving for accuracy, fairness and balance). 

Let's dive straight into this, with a massive chunk of his thinking near the top of the essay. Note that Stephens is completely focused, in this essay, on national politics. What does this have to do with the religion beat? Wait for it.

The big news in American journalism today has been that reporters, editors and producers at legacy journalism organizations have become so eager to dispute the more questionable pronouncements and proposals of the Trump administration. Increasingly, they are prepared to label the president’s wilder statements and tweets “falsehoods” or even “lies.” The big news is that many of our best journalists seem, in news coverage, not just opinion pieces, to be moving away from balance and nonpartisanship.
Is this the end of all that is good and decent in American journalism? Nah. I say good for them. An abandonment of the pretense to “objectivity” -- in many ways a return to American journalism’s roots -- is long overdue.

Check out this journalism venom aimed at one George Washington by an editor back in the day: “If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by ..." 

The bottom line: There were newspapers targeting each and every political and social niche:

... There were so many newspapers in a large city like New York, that there was room for one or more representing most political points of view. The journalistic market was thoroughly fractured. You attracted readers by being strawberry or butter pecan, not vanilla. Joseph Pulitzer, America’s leading publisher at the end of the 19th century, was passionately progressive, as was his newspaper, the New York World.
This all changed in the 20th century.

The old days sounded rather like the Internet,  right?

It's interesting that Stephens is, from the cultural left, making many of the same anti-American model arguments that have been prominent on the political and cultural right, primarily in the writings of historian and pundit Marvin Olasky (see his classic book, "Telling The Truth").

It is fascinating, to say the least, to hear folks on the academic and journalistic left now bemoaning "false balance" and professional standards of "objectivity," after years of reading their attacks on Olasky for making similar arguments. Now, I guess, I get to debate both Stephens and Olasky in my main NYCJ seminar.

Just the other day, The Washington Post referred to GetReligion as "conservative leaning" because of a post in which our Mark Kellner pleaded with journalists to strive for old-fashioned accuracy, balance and fairness in stories built on the work of liberal activists at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In other words, defending what used to be considered a "liberal" approach to journalism -- in terms of seeking debates in which voices on both sides of issues were treated with respect -- is now considered "conservative" in the mainstream. The ground is moving.

In recent months, I have been amazed how many times M.Z. "GetReligionista emerita" Hemingway has been called a Trump defender. Why? Because of her commentaries in which she worries out loud that journalists have gone so over the top in biased attacks on the president that this trend is undercutting press credibility when it comes time to hit Trump hard on the many, many factual holes in his ethical armor. Critics can be called pro-Trump for the sin of criticizing the press, as well as Trump?

Let's go back to Stephens. 

American journalism has been changing in front of our eyes. And even after historians have taken over from reporters the task of investigating the depredations of the Trump administration -- the old “on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that” style of journalism is not coming back. The condition that created it -- a limited supply of news organs, which sought large audiences by not offending -- is gone. Its weaknesses are manifest. Journalists will not willingly slip that straightjacket back on. Our now unlimited supply of news organs is instead encouraging a robust, contentious style of journalism that George Washington might in some ways have recognized.
Better that journalists surrender the old pretense to objectivity entirely. Our best reporters must still dig and keep digging, check and double-check as they investigate. They must still be fair to those they cover and give credit or blame where due. But can’t we now acknowledge that the New York Times and the Washington Post -- in their take on the news as well as in their editorials -- are deeply skeptical about Trump’s presidency?

Note that we are talking about The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Associated Press, Reuters, NPR, CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, Comedy Central, Saturday Night Life, etc., etc., basically taking on -- What? -- the Drudge Report, the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, talk-TV shows on Fox and lots of small, openly conservative commentary websites? In terms of generating news and information, that's the new normal? That's a fair fight?

Some people are taking comfort in the fact that Stephens seems to focusing almost exclusively on political news.

But stop and think about it. Since, oh, 1973 or so, what have been the most divisive issues in American public life, especially once these issues are weaponized at the U.S. Supreme Court?

We are talking about moral, social and religious issues, of course, with America's current abortion regime and the Sexual Revolution driving most of the debate. How long does it take for health-care debates in America to veer into topics linked to abortion, gender, etc.?

So what happens to religion-news coverage?

If openly partisan, no-holds-barred advocacy journalism is now the norm in the political pages, what happens in America's crucial national-level debates about, oh, religious liberty? 

Just asking. 

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