Column: Media trend comes at a bad time

It was June 2004 and I was sitting in the room at Columbia University where the Pulitzer Prizes are awarded, alongside some of the best and the brightest people in the world — most of whom I believed to be a heck of a lot smarter than me.
But I was smart enough to know that a string of speakers — all Columbia Graduate School of Journalism faculty — taking jabs at President Bush on the first day of classes was bad form. Weren’t journalists supposed to be impartial, at least in public? This seemed like a strange start to the master’s degree program, no matter how legitimate some of the criticisms.
I wasn’t really that surprised by the professors. But it was disconcerting to peek into one of the big rooms on a November night after class to watch the first 2004 presidential debate on a large screen, and see about 150 reporters-in-training cheering wildly each time the Democratic candidate for president, John Kerry, delivered a blow against Bush. Even instructors joined in, smiling, nodding or applauding Kerry’s answers. So much for not taking sides.
The point is this: The American media is dominated by liberals — big-time. Although I’ve met plenty of independent-minded people in four media companies over about 10 years, I have yet to meet one writer who admitted to conservative leanings. And that’s pretty astounding.
To be fair, real-world newsrooms are less partisan than the halls of Columbia. Most journalists I’ve worked with try their very best to write accurately and fairly, no matter how they vote on Election Day. Few are true ideologues and even fewer are consciously partisan in their reporting.
But that’s not to say news doesn’t get shaped subconsciously. Even if the journalists are highly trained, story ideas coming out of a room of left-leaning thinkers are going to be different from those pitched by a team of right-leaning thinkers. And, of course, the opinion pages of most of the country’s top newspapers over the last century ­— during which time our modern conception of an objective media developed — have leaned overwhelmingly to the left.
That’s why I always thought Fox News Channel had its place in the country’s political discourse. Fox isn’t fair and balanced and never has been, but it has served as a sort of overall equalizer in a liberal-dominated media, as has talk radio. Same goes for the New York Post opinion pages. Sure, the Post doesn’t run any liberal columns, as it should, but before Ruport Murdoch bought the newspaper one would have been hard pressed to find conservative viewpoints in papers such as Newsday and The New York Times either. The papers do run them now, but sparingly. TV news coverage was no better. Then Fox News came along in 1996 and Republicans breathed a collective sigh of relief after decades of frustration.
But things have gotten out of control at Fox. I have a litany of complaints, among them much conscious misreporting of obvious facts, which doesn’t contribute to the discourse and just isn’t fair to the other side. But here I’ll attempt to focus on one glaring conflict, and why Fox is taking the country down the wrong path.
There are now four potential Republican presidential nominees on the Fox News payroll: Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. Night in and night out, these people give their spin on things, offer half-truths and sometimes serve up outright lies — as partisans and politicians do — unchecked and unchallenged by hosts who have become continually more beholden to Republicans over the last decade. Fox even has exclusivity agreements that bar these people from appearing on other networks. Of course, the presidential hopefuls don’t mind; I’m sure Sarah Palin is quite pleased about not having to face such tough questions as “Which newspapers do you read?”
Still, the station seems to operate with impunity among its viewers; just look at its steady ratings. Since when is it patriotic to listen to some career politician’s self-serving baloney and take whatever he or she says as gospel? Conservative radio hosts will criticize the liberal media for giving President Obama and other Democrats a “free pass” and then implore their listeners to watch the intentionally, overtly biased Fox News. It’s really all quite laughable.
Fox News is changing journalism as we know it, in a way that may be good for parties and politicians but bad for America. The station’s success has helped spawn another hyper-partisan news network, MSNBC, and it’s doing well in the ratings, too. It’s only a matter of time until MSNBC follows Fox’s lead and puts on its payroll a slate of big-name Democrats with dreams of high political office. If the trend continues, would-be elected leaders won’t ever have to face real journalists to get on TV, because folks at the “friendly” 24-hour networks will always be there waiting with cameras. They will be able to avoid the tough questions and we’ll never know who they really are. Even the presidential debates could be threatened by this trend.
Given these uncertain times and a government bureaucracy that has grown enormously over the last decade, we need a free and independent press ­— the so-called fourth branch of government — now more than ever. Instead, we’re moving toward media outlets as unabashed party propaganda arms.
Part of me has to wonder how much to blame viewers’ wide embrace of Fox News’ antics on a media dominated by the left for decades. For too long, the left-leaning American media took advantage, probably because it could. It was, after all, the only game in town. Consider this: There was no good reason why The New York Times and Newsday, to name just two newspapers, couldn’t have run more conservative viewpoints all those years.
Mr. White is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The North Shore Sun. He can be reached at 631-298-3200, ext. 152