Should news organizations simply admit that they have some biases, and then move on to report as objectively as possible?
Consider the events at NPR.
Earlier this week, conservative activist James O'Keefe released a video that showed two high-ranking NPR employees making disparaging remarks about the Tea Party's influence on the Republican Party. O'Keefe, known for similar videos targeting ACORN and Planned Parenthood, and an associate disingenuously presented themselves as Islamic activists seeking to make a multi-million contribution to NPR. Ron Schiller, head of the NPR Foundation, discussed his views on the Tea Party, calling them "racist, racist people," and after clarifying that he was speaking for himself and not for NPR, laments what he described as an anti-intellectual tide sweeping across the United States.
In response to this growing distraction, the chief executive of NPR, Vivian Schiller (no relation to Ron) resigned, adding fuel to the Republican-led effort in the House of Representatives to strip the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, which gives money to local NPR stations who in turn buy programming from NPR, of all federal funding, totaling about $500 million.
Setting aside the merit of public funding for journalism, is anyone really surprised that executives at NPR lean to the left? Would anyone be shocked if Fox News employees were disparaging the Democratic party, or if it were shown that the New York Times leaned a bit left while the Boston Herald goes right? Certainly not.
News organizations are staffed by individuals, journalists and directors who not only report on the world, but who live in it as well. Should they have an opinion on current events? I would hope so. Ideally all citizens will have views that shape how they participate in a democracy, including those whose job it is to report facts. But the fact that those reporting the news and those supporting them have opinions does not make them unable to serve as effective journalists. Even organizations that sit comfortably in the far ends of the political spectrum have something to offer.
Take the Eternal Word Television Network, or EWTN. I read their stories during the day for updates on the church, its politics and place in the world. I turn to them even knowing that they don't share my political leanings, but because they offer a solid product that I believe is largely effective in presenting facts.
Today, EWTN reported on Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Catholic Democrat who signed a law abolishing the death penalty. The article offered commendations from US bishops, both in Illinois and across the nation, hailing the move as a victory for justice and the pro-life movement. The story then ended with this line:
Gov. Quinn, a Catholic who supports legalized abortion and has signed a bill legalizing homosexual civil unions, says that he sought counsel from the Bible and the writings of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.
The report was about the abolition of the death penalty and how some bishops reacted to it, but EWTN, ever vigilant against the threat posed by left-leaning Catholics, threw in this last line to insinuate that Quinn supports abortion and gay marriage because of Cardinal Bernadin's writings. Does this blatantly political zinger discount the entire story, or EWTN as an organization? Of course not. If the reader is aware of the biases of the organization, no harm done. A responsible consumer of media could look to a more left-leaning Catholic publication (where would one find such a thing?) for a different viewpoint, and come to a reasonable conclusion somewhere in the middle.
So NPR has liberals running its philanthropic arm, and perhaps its news division skews center-left as well. Its journalism is still professional and accurate, mostly objective and well-balanced. A listener can listen to a report on All Things Considered in the morning, and then read the Wall Street Journal for a different view later in the day. This is the beauty of the journalism marketplace. We should aim to stock it with a wide variety of organizations that offer different vantage points and insights. And instead of expressing indignation when people hold and express opinions, media consumers can simply turn to a couple more reports for a fuller and balanced picture.