How Professional Journalism Reinforces Partisanship

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It is quite well known by now that there is two-party dominance in the United States because of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) — or plurality — electoral system. Third parties can have an unintended “spoiler effect” on contests by stealing votes from the ideologically similar — but more viable — candidate.

For instance, in Virginia’s 2013 gubernatorial election, Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis siphoned nearly 150,000 votes from Republican Ken Cuccinelli’s total, which was enough to give Democrat Terry McAuliffe a 55,000 vote edge, and the governor’s seat.

What is less acknowledged, however, is the way professional journalism reinforces this partisanship, discourages political independence, and precludes independent thought.

First, a microhistory:

"Professional journalism reinforces partisanship, discourages political independence, and precludes independent thought."Andrew Gripp, IVN contributor
Until roughly the 1890s, most Americans got their news from local newspapers. The country’s major cities offered a smorgasbord of print options, including several major corporate publications in addition to a smattering of thriving independently-owned dailies and weeklies catering to niche audiences.

At the turn of the century, paralleling the rise of major industrial operations during the Gilded Age, several major outfits achieved national distribution, including Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.

These new media giants did not want to alienate potential customers, so they went about professionalizing their craft by affirming its antipathy toward biased reporting. In 1922, the American Society of Newspaper Editors was founded, and it quickly codified its arch principles of independence, impartiality, and truth and accuracy under its statement of principles, originally called its “Canons of Journalism.”

The detached observance of the professional journalist replaced the crusading zeal of the investigative muckraker.

This “facts-only” approach, however, gradually devolved into a species of “he-said-she said” stenography. Since professional journalists refrain from injecting their own opinions into their work, they instead aim to capture “both sides” of a story.

According to media historian Robert McChesney, when it comes to political reporting, “professional journalism has a strong inclination to simply publicize the positions of the leadership of the two parties.”

This trade’s embrace of “balance,” of portraying the Democrat and Republican side of the issue, set the stage for a professional journalism that reinforces partisanship. In recent years, this kind of reporting has become the new normal.

With Americans getting their news predominantly from online sources rather than staining their fingertips with printed papers, many media outfits have seen their revenue plummet, and some publications have gone extinct all together. Those that have survived have downsized their staff to cut costs, sometimes axing multiple reporters.

Because they lack the time and resources that are required for hard-nosed investigative work, including building close relationships at the statehouse or digging through archives, many news networks have become increasingly reliant on simpler, more affordable means of acquiring their raw material.

As McChesney puts it, the streamlined method is to “just plant reporters near people in power and have them report.”

Studies have confirmed that reporters do depend overwhelmingly on official statements to guide their stories. A 2008 survey of the media in Baltimore found that 86 percent of stories were initiated by the words and deeds of “higher authorities,” such as press releases, public relations statements, and the like rather than at the journalist’s own initiative.

As a result, the public often learns about what embedded members of the two-party political class think at the expense of fresh, outside, independent perspectives.

To see this kind of professional journalism in action, here are two excerpts of a story posted on Friday, May 30, on the “front page” of the Washington Post’s website. The article is titled “GOP candidates show signs of retreat on full Obamacare repeal as midterms approach.”

Democrats such as Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the latest shifts show that the GOP’s plan to repeatedly attack the Affordable Care Act has “backfired.”

 

“Now they’re promising fixes but won’t be specific,” Israel said in a statement. “That’s like a car dealer offering you a trade-in without telling you the car you’re getting in return.”

 

[…]

 

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said deliberations will continue and a vote on a GOP plan remains a priority. Many GOP lawmakers are unsure whether the party should unveil their plans now or wait for a possible Senate takeover.

 

House Republicans had initially planned to test different health-care messages during the spring recess.

The wave of the election is already within sight, and I believe we are going to do well,” said House Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.). “I don’t think we need a replacement bill to win the election, but it is something that would be helpful in guiding our governing agenda for next year.”

 

A significant number of GOP Senate and House aspirants still back the idea of fully repealing the Affordable Care Act, including Senate candidates Tom Cotton (Ark.), Terri Lynn Land (Mich.), and Thom Tillis (N.C.).

As a result, only a handful of ads on behalf of Democratic congressional candidates attack Republicans for wanting to abolish the law. Minnesota Democrat Mike Obermueller has a commercial showing the dance party that would break out among insurers if his opponent, GOP Rep. John Kline, were able to reverse it. The pro-Democratic House Majority PAC has aired an ad targeting the GOP challenger to Rep. Nick Jo Rahall (D-W.Va.), warning that the law’s repeal would undermine benefits for residents who suffer from black lung disease

 

Most Democratic Senate incumbents have been more cautious, although they all say they stand by the law they voted for 4 1 / 2 years ago. Only Sen. Brian Schatz (Hawaii) has run an ad touting his support for it, and Grimes made a point of saying last week, ““If I had been in the Senate, it would have been a different law.”

 

Jahan Wilcox, spokesman for the Republican National Committee, wrote in an e-mail to reporters that Democrats will soon discover that the law remains a serious political liability. He pointed specifically to Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), along with Senate candidate Michelle Nunn of Georgia.

At a deeper, structural level, this mode of reporting (one of its co-authors, Robert Costa, is a Beltway reporter who has a knack for such stenography) has two interrelated consequences.

First, the focus in this excerpt is almost entirely on image over substance; the reporters mention the GOP’s health care place in passing, for instance, but they are content not to dig deeper and uncover at least an outline of its contents.

"The public often learns about what embedded members of the two-party political class think at the expense of fresh, outside, independent perspectives."Andrew Gripp, IVN Contributor
Instead, we read that the Republicans are expressing their divided views over how to convert a piece of controversial legislation to their electoral advantage, while Democrats are discussing how to embarrass Republicans who want to undo the law in one way or another and deprive sick people of coverage.

Here, the two parties are concerned with posturing, gamesmanship, and political competition rather than the real-world application of the Affordable Care Act and how we can better understand its effects on consumers, insurers, and health care providers so that we can reform the law and maximize the access, affordability, and quality of health care in America.

Second, and relatedly, what stands out here is the passive echoing — directly or indirectly — of statements made by partisan officeholders and consultants. By simply regurgitating the opinions of Republican and Democratic loyalists, political independents are excluded from the discussion — a non-aligned perspective goes unacknowledged, and the possibility of independent thought is precluded all together.

By overlooking the voices of regular citizens, from health care experts and providers to consumers and concerned citizens, professional journalism prevents the debate over important policy matters from advancing beyond the shortsighted interests of politicians.

In other words, professional journalism reinforces partisanship and sediments the endurance of our political duopoly in place by adding a protective layer of journalistic deference to Republican and Democratic officials on top of an institutional design that already favors a two-party system.

If our political system is to be reformed to better accommodate the voices of independent voters and the ambitions of independent politicians, then there will have to be an equivalent and simultaneous shift in mainstream journalism that halts the propagation of partisan squabbling and instead makes room for, and celebrates, independent thought.

Photo Credit: Singkham / shutterstock.com

The Independent Voter Network is dedicated to providing political analysis, unfiltered news, and rational commentary in an effort to elevate the level of our public discourse.


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  1. Robert Polityka Reluctantly agree. It's rare you hear about an average congressman unless there's scandal coming around...or is a radical. It would be nice for a news program on a Sunday morning to dedicate five minutes to an ordinary Republican member of the House and 5 minutes of a Democratic Congressman..talk about family, ideology, maybe marriage. Something to let the American people know that there are real people representing the US in Congress outside your state.
  2. Stacy Kuta that is not journalism, though, someone does pay them...
  3. Hazel Howle Agree
  4. Debra Goudy agree
  5. Reuben Goldenstein I can see the parallel, but I think you misunderstood why the press got that label in the early 20th century.
  6. Brian Daniel Gallof Not only do they publicize positions... They also, even beyond politics, push the Public Relations line of products, press releases, and such. The advent of PR had had journalists become lazy. PR staff is who push the political party lines, what they want the press to do, and it's a journalistic embarrassment of immense proportions.
  7. Larry Woodruff The problem is not government! The problem is the people!
  8. Larry Woodruff Mark Baland Really!!
  9. William Woodburn Bernie Sanders has been getting some decent press lately. I'd like to see the same occur with respect to Angus King and other national Independents.
  10. Jon Robles Ideally, journalism/media should be a watchdog for the people. And reporting events truthfully, presenting each side in a fair, nonpartisan manner. But as Reuben stated, those days are long gone.
68 comments
Robert Polityka
Robert Polityka

Reluctantly agree. It's rare you hear about an average congressman unless there's scandal coming around...or is a radical. It would be nice for a news program on a Sunday morning to dedicate five minutes to an ordinary Republican member of the House and 5 minutes of a Democratic Congressman..talk about family, ideology, maybe marriage. Something to let the American people know that there are real people representing the US in Congress outside your state.

Stacy Kuta
Stacy Kuta

that is not journalism, though, someone does pay them...

Reuben Goldenstein
Reuben Goldenstein

I can see the parallel, but I think you misunderstood why the press got that label in the early 20th century.

Brian Daniel Gallof
Brian Daniel Gallof

Not only do they publicize positions... They also, even beyond politics, push the Public Relations line of products, press releases, and such. The advent of PR had had journalists become lazy. PR staff is who push the political party lines, what they want the press to do, and it's a journalistic embarrassment of immense proportions.

Larry Woodruff
Larry Woodruff

The problem is not government! The problem is the people!

William Woodburn
William Woodburn

Bernie Sanders has been getting some decent press lately. I'd like to see the same occur with respect to Angus King and other national Independents.

Jon Robles
Jon Robles

Ideally, journalism/media should be a watchdog for the people. And reporting events truthfully, presenting each side in a fair, nonpartisan manner. But as Reuben stated, those days are long gone.

Rahburt Kappar
Rahburt Kappar

Not journalism. Journalism died in the 70's. It was bought. Journalism cannot be a prize to the highest bidder.

Irrianna Regole
Irrianna Regole

Your actual article is garbage. It starts with a leadoff about "siphoning voters", which supposes that 100% of the eligible voters vote every election, and that 100% of the eligible voters would vote for one of the two main parties if no third party existed. In fact, most people who vote for third party candidates would refrain from voting if their candidate was not running, and a majority of voters are completely disenfranchised, and thus, do not vote at all. If you can't stop spreading lies and propaganda of the two central parties, perhaps you should stop calling yourself "independent voter".

Irrianna Regole
Irrianna Regole

They have plenty of choice. Non-mainstream media reports quite truthfully. If you're having problems with the bias, pick a different channel.

Irrianna Regole
Irrianna Regole

To be fair, that seems to have been a very tiny fraction of history that had that. We're back to the yellow journalism of 100 years ago.

David Bakker
David Bakker

Yep false equivalency is a major factor problem for science journalism as well. The large media outlets have become lazy and/or understaffed with the change in business.

Lou Damey
Lou Damey

If you think abc nbc and cbs are conservative, you are so far left on political spectrum that anyone who is barely right of center must seem like a right wing extremist! I don't care who owns them, if their news people spew left wing crap then that would be a liberal media!

Mark Baland
Mark Baland

99% of the world's media is owned by 5 companies, and big companies are conservative. There is no liberal or progressive mass media. There is the conservative media, and then the more conservative media, like Fox News.

Siegfried Rambaum
Siegfried Rambaum

That's a good one, Reuben, a real thigh slapper. You missed your vocation. In stand-up comedy, people would worship the ground you walk on.

Siegfried Rambaum
Siegfried Rambaum

The question is stupid, as it presumes the existence of 'journalism' in America. That profession died out a while ago, all that's left now is 'journaille' ... people who pretend to be journalists.

Nancy Gerrier
Nancy Gerrier

their not professionals anymore ,you should be neutral on both sides and just give the facts that are true,and let the people decide,and not hide everything..they've all been bought.

Herb Laing
Herb Laing

And they tend to slant their stories in favor of one party or the other

Wayne Suzanne Gisler
Wayne Suzanne Gisler

Professional Journalism is a ms-nomer. There are no longer any "Professional Journalist.

Gil Sery
Gil Sery

He's referring to you! Blaming the Democrats without blaming the Republicans as well is what Kevin Is referring to.

Gil Sery
Gil Sery

DUH!!! Fair and balanced reporting died with Edward R. Murrow.

bobj72
bobj72

;  ...  "Lame Street (Liberal)

“Non-FOCKS..NOOSE..Media” ..... Really?"  NOTE:

“THE CONSERVATIVE OBSESSION WITH LIBERAL MEDIA BIAS IS “FRIGHT-RIGHT WING PROPAGANDA”

“PoliticusUSA has covered this subject in this space before. But never in the depth you’re about to witness. The “LIBERAL MEDIA”, is a TIRESOME AND WHOLLY INACCURATE SCREED that is the CENTERPIECE OF RIGHT-WING PROPAGANDA.”…

…“Another FASCINATING FINDING, a 1996 American Society of Newspaper Editors found that all the presidential votes aside, EDITORIAL WRITERS were more likely to be CONSERVATIVE or independent than staffers. So, those who could mold opinion were in fact, NOT LIBERALS.”…

…“An obvious starting point indicative of MASSIVE POLITICAL BIAS ON THE PART OF THE MEDIA IS TALK RADIO.This medium is WELL OVER 90% (PERCENT) RIGHT-WING, or more accurately, EXTREMELY RIGHT-WING.…

On TV, FOX NEWS IS EXTRAORDINARILY RIGHT-WING to the point of providing a stage to further the fortunes of Republican Presidential candidates by hiring them as commentators.

LIES AND MISREPRESETATIONS are the coin of the media realm on FOX.”  [Fox even went to court, and “WON THE RIGHT TO LIE” in their On-Air Productions.”]

 ...“THERE’S YOUR LIBERAL MEDIA.”…

www.politicususa.com/2013/01/27

Bill Robertson
Bill Robertson

"Professional Journalism" died 6 years ago and was replaced with "Lapdog" journalism. I miss Walter Cronkite!

Lou Damey
Lou Damey

I believe the correct term would be liberal media, an inclination to simply publicize the position of the leadership of the Democrat party! Yes, yes, I know I know there's that scary Fox News that leans slightly to the right, ok that's 1 out of a 100! I know I'm gonna hear from all you leftists now!

Sean Porbin
Sean Porbin

Journalism reports the "brave" position of one party then the "unfortunate" position of the other... My opinion of the position is what that is reported to me

Les Freeman
Les Freeman

Disagree. Most media doesn't report they just give one side and become a propaganda arm of one side or the other.

DougGoodman
DougGoodman

The media only provides what the audience will buy. If people stopped accepting what now passes for reporting as such and demanded facts for their time and money, we could see a return to the days of objective reporting not commentary. Do I think that will happen? Not so long as people can identify the top pop stars or who the contestants are on the Bachelor or Bachelorette  but not their government representatives of where their state is on the map of the US. 

Electoral Reform for a More Favorable Congress
Electoral Reform for a More Favorable Congress

The article says “the ‘facts-only’ approach…gradually devolved into a species of ‘he-said-she said’ stenography. Since professional journalists refrain from injecting their own opinions into their work, they instead aim to capture “both sides” of a story.” But I say such reporting is not thorough as there are usually more than two sides to a story. In presenting only two sides, journalists now are focused more on the “horse race” than thoughtful presentations of issues. Even the polling organizations tend to approach their work in binary fashion because that’s the way the voting system is set up. If we had a prevalent system of approval with scoring voting journalists and pollsters would have a much more difficult time focusing on and predicting outcomes of the “horse races” and instead might focus more on issues from many perspectives. The news media organizations might even have to invest in more reporters. Voters would then be better informed even as the voting system itself would make them likely take more interest in informing themselves about the candidates.

Sam Freedman
Sam Freedman

There is no hard news reporting any longer. Anything that comes out of a "reporter's" mouth is dripping with partisan spin. If you agree with what they are saying, then you "think" it's "news."

William Tanner
William Tanner

Most journalism I see, especially the MSM type, is nothing more than the conveying of gossip. They take press releases and reprint them in whole without applying any critical analysis - there's more truth in the actual gossip pages of the paper.

Kevin C. Smith
Kevin C. Smith

"Journalism" and/or "mainstream media" has long since been just a conduit for press releases of the administration. Maybe, just maybe, they get to actually reporting something as it gets closer to an election.

Steven Copeland
Steven Copeland

The media shrouding the Democrat party in a coat of Teflon

Kevin C. Smith
Kevin C. Smith

Wow. If that were true it would be great! Pity it's pretty much the opposite of the truth.

bobj72
bobj72

"FOCKS..NOOSE"  leans slightly to the right?  You do realize, such a statement Immediately indicts you as a "WingNUT Tool," don't you?  ....... 

Joe Cucchiara
Joe Cucchiara

Unfortunately, that applies to at least 50 percent of the American population. The American population has become a band of parrots who repeat everything they hear or read. They don't know how to think for themselves! The newspapers, (pardon the pun) print what they are told by the political spin masters.The Hitler theory, that if you tell a lie enough times, people will start to believe it, works! Intelligent people make intelligent choices. 

Joe Cucchiara
Joe Cucchiara

@DougGoodman What about the morons on the radio. If nobody listened to their "SHOW", they would be selling used cars!

Drew
Drew

@ Electoral,


I agree, and you've restated my main point. By passively transmitting the words and deeds of those in power, Democrats and Republicans, professional journalists are limiting any story or discussion to those "two sides" and excluding an arrayof independent voices. That is how they reinforce partisanship.

bobj72
bobj72

Continue 'Hanging With' the Fabrications of "FOCKS..NOOSE."  .......