Weekend thinking about the greatest threat to journalism and American public discourse

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Republicans have always loved to complain about media bias.

I mean, who can forget hearing the soon-to-fall Vice President Spiro Agnew proclaiming: “Some newspapers are fit only to line the bottom of bird cages.” Here’s another one: “Some newspapers dispose of their garbage by printing it.”

However, the serious study of media bias issues didn’t really get rolling until Roe v. Wade, an issue that transcended mere partisan politics — even more than the fighting in Vietnam. Slanted coverage of abortion and related cultural issues (classic Los Angeles Times series here) created a link between media-bias studies and debates about the coverage of religion in the mainstream press.

I began my full-time work in journalism in the late 1970s, when all of this exploded into public debate. Here is a big chunk of my graduate project at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, as published as a 1983 cover story by The Quill:

According to a study by S. Robert Lichter of George Washington University and Stanley Rothman of Smith College, editors, producers and reporters of the nation's "prestige" media do not share the public's interest in religion.

"They're very secular," Lichter told George Cornell. The leaders of American media are "much less religious than people in general," he added.

In each "elite" news organization, Lichter and Rothman selected individuals randomly. At newspapers they interviewed reporters, columnists, department heads, bureau chiefs, editors, and executives. In broadcast newsrooms they interviewed correspondents, anchormen, producers, film editors, and news executives. A high proportion of those contacted, 76 percent, took part in the survey. In the blank on the survey labeled "religion," 50 percent of the respondents wrote the word "none." In national surveys, seventy percent of the public claims membership in a religious group. Gallup polls indicate 41 percent of Americans attend church once a week. In a report in Public Opinion, Lichter and Rothman said:

"A predominant characteristic of the media elite is its secular outlook. Exactly 50 percent eschew any religious affiliation. Another 14 percent are Jewish, and almost one in four (23 percent) was raised in a Jewish household. Only one in five identifies himself as a Protestant, and one in eight as a Cathiloc. . . . Only 8 percent go to church or synagogue weekly, and 86 percent seldom or never attend religious services."

In the Associated Press story reporting the results of the survey, Lichter said the "non-religious aspect" of the media simply showed up in the data. "We asked the standard things, and it just jumped out at us," he said. " It seemed to be a cultural milieu which they reflect to a greater degree than the average citizen." He called the media's outlook a "cosmopolitan, Northeastern, liberal, highly educated point of view."

The late Associated Press legend George Cornell — an urban Episcopalian, if there ever was one — had a chance to examine the paper copies of the survey, He told me that he was stunned by how many elite-zone journalists wrote the word “none,” and then underlined it.

This brings me to this week’s think piece.

Before we get there, please glance at the Business Insider chart at the top of this piece, then click here — “These Charts Show The Political Bias Of Workers In Each Profession?” — to examine similar charts for other kinds of work in today’s America.

Now you are ready to read a sobering piece by journalist John Solomon that ran at The Hill with this headline: “The greatest threat to American journalism: the loss of neutral reporting.”

You see, to state the obvious once again, debates about media bias have been around for a long time.

The issue now is larger than that. The issue now is whether many journalists — in the age of MSNBC and Fox talk-news — have quit TRYING to produce news that will be taken seriously outside the concrete ideological silos of their target audiences. You could make a case that accurate, balanced news that shows respect for people on both sides of hot-button issues (many of which are related to religion) is a failed business model in this age of mouse clicks and rising digital-choir subscription totals.

Here is a crucial thesis statement in this must-read piece:

We journalists have more freedom, more reach, and more ability to inform today than ever before. But with those advantages comes an even greater responsibility to the public, one I fear is being denigrated by journalists who substitute opinion for facts and emotion for dispassion.

Beyond the killings, the threats, and the vitriol, what most threatens journalism today is the behavior of its own practitioners.

We have become too full of our own opinions, too enthralled with our own celebrity, too emotionally offended by warranted and unwarranted criticism, and too astray from the neutral, factual voice our teachers in journalism school insisted we practice. …

And it was that relentless but emotionally detached commitment to truth, context and fairness — even when enemies sought to discredit us — that exposed such wrongs as Watergate, the Tuskegee experiments and the deplorable treatments at Walter Reed Hospital.

The traits that have made journalism great and respected and impactful for most of the past century are sorely lacking in many of today’s practitioners.

Instead of facts, many journalists today trade in supposition and opinion. Instead of dispassionate neutral coverage, many have offered emotional rants that border on disrespect. Instead of covering all sides of the story, entire news organizations have chosen to pick one side over another. And Donald Trump’s broadsides have only forced reporters to hunker down even more with these harmful practices.

Want more, before you read it all?

With rare exception, the wise elders of the profession have not spoken up forcefully enough to denounce this creeping cancer of POV journalism, nor stem the demise of the profession’s core values of fairness, accuracy, precision and neutrality. In fact, some are gleefully cheering on some of the bad-boy behaviors.

Bob Woodward, my former colleague at The Washington Post, is one of the rare voices of consternation. He quickly recognized that President Trump’s double-down battle with the media risked evoking emotional responses from a profession that requires neutrality under fire. …

If you are angry as a journalist, he suggested, don’t sue, opinionate or denigrate. Instead, strap on a camera or a notebook and break some meaningful news that illuminates what is wrong without tainting it with the soapbox.

Is anyone listening?

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