'Very Dangerous Game'
The traditional media are playing a very, very dangerous game -- with their readers, with the Constitution and with their own fates.
The sheer bias in the print and television coverage of this election campaign is not just bewildering, but appalling. And over the last few months I've found myself slowly moving from shaking my head at the obvious one-sided reporting, to actually shouting at the screen of my television and my laptop computer.
But worst of all, for the last couple weeks, I've begun -- for the first time in my adult life -- to be embarrassed to admit what I do for a living. A few days ago, when asked by a new acquaintance what I did for a living, I replied that I was "a writer," because I couldn't bring myself to admit to a stranger that I'm a journalist.
Platonic ObjectivityThere's always been bias in the media. Human beings are biased, so the work they do, including reporting, is inevitably colored. But we are supposed to be taught that even though there is no such thing as pure, Platonic objectivity in reporting, we are to spend our careers struggling to approach that ideal as closely as possible.
That means constantly challenging our own prejudices, systematically presenting opposing views and never, ever burying stories that contradict our own world views or challenge people or institutions we admire. If we can't achieve Olympian detachment, than at least we can recognize human frailty -- especially in ourselves.
This CampaignNothing, nothing I've seen has matched the media bias on display in the current presidential campaign.
Republicans are justifiably foaming at the mouth over the sheer one-sidedness of the press coverage of the two candidates and their running mates. But in the last few days, even Democrats, who have been gloating over the pass -- no, make that shameless support -- they've gotten from the press, are starting to get uncomfortable as they realize that no one wins in the long run when we don't have a free and fair press.
I'm not one of those people who think the media has been too hard on, say, Republican vice presidential nominee Gov. Sarah Palin, by rushing reportorial SWAT teams to her home state of Alaska to rifle through her garbage. This is the big leagues, and if she wants to suit up and take the field, then Gov. Palin better be ready to play.
The few instances where I think the press has gone too far -- such as the Times reporter talking to prospective first lady Cindy McCain's daughter's MySpace friends -- can easily be solved with a few newsroom smackdowns and temporary repostings to the Omaha bureau.
Coverage of the Other SideWhat I object to (and I think most other Americans do as well) is the lack of equivalent hardball coverage of the other side -- or worse, actively serving as attack dogs for the presidential ticket of Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Joe Biden, D-Del.
Why, for example to quote the lawyer for Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., haven't we seen an interview with Sen. Obama's grad school drug dealer -- when we know all about Mrs. McCain's addiction? Are Bill Ayers and Tony Rezko that hard to interview? All those phony voter registrations that hard to scrutinize? And why are Sen. Biden's endless gaffes almost always covered up, or rationalized, by the traditional media?
'Absolute Nadir'The absolute nadir (though I hate to commit to that, as we still have two weeks before the election) came with Joe the Plumber.
Middle America, even when they didn't agree with Joe, looked on in horror as the press took apart the private life of an average person who had the temerity to ask a tough question of a presidential candidate. So much for the standing up for the little man. So much for speaking truth to power. So much for comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, and all of those other catchphrases we journalists used to believe we lived by.
Why Are They Doing This?Picture yourself in your 50s in a job where you've spent 30 years working your way to the top, to the cockpit of power & only to discover that you're presiding over a dying industry. The Internet and alternative media are stealing your readers, your advertisers and your top young talent. Many of your peers shrewdly took golden parachutes and disappeared. Your job doesn't have anywhere near the power and influence it did when your started your climb. The Newspaper Guild is too weak to protect you any more, and there is a very good chance you'll lose your job before you cross that finish line, 10 years hence, of retirement and a pension.
In other words, you are facing career catastrophe -- and desperate times call for desperate measures. Even if you have to risk everything on a single Hail Mary play. Even if you have to compromise the principles that got you here. After all, newspapers and network news are doomed anyway -- all that counts is keeping them on life support until you can retire.
And then the opportunity presents itself -- an attractive young candidate whose politics likely matches yours, but more important, he offers the prospect of a transformed Washington with the power to fix everything that has gone wrong in your career.
With luck, this monolithic, single-party government will crush the alternative media via a revived fairness doctrine, re-invigorate unions by getting rid of secret votes, and just maybe be beholden to people like you in the traditional media for getting it there.
And besides, you tell yourself, it's all for the good of the country.
Michael S. Malone is a fourth-generation newspaperman. His great-grandfather was a newspaper editor in Abilene, Kansas, during the last of the cowboy days, then moved to Oregon to help start the Oregon Journal (now the Oregonian). His hard-living -- and when he knew her, scary -- grandmother was one of the first women reporters for the Los Angeles Times. His father, though profoundly dyslexic, followed a long career in intelligence to finish his life (thanks to word processors and spellcheckers) as a very successful freelance writer. He's spent 30 years in every part of journalism, from beat reporter to magazine editor. And his oldest son, following in the family business, so to speak, earned his first national byline before he earned his drivers license.
From "Media's Presidential Bias and Decline" by Michael S. Malone, Oct. 24, 2008. Copyright © 2008 ABC News Internet Ventures.