Public media journalists lean left: Admit it and relax

Journalist Adam Ragusea acknowledges a poorly-kept secret: public media journalists — and journalists in general — lean left. Why pretend?

Writing on — the public broadcasting news site — Ragusea defends talk-show host Diane Rehm, who advocates for assisted suicide in her off hours, drawing the concern of NPR, which distributes her show.

Ragusea acknowledges journalists have a responsibility to “reflect the views and values of everybody in the country,” but that isn’t best achieved through impartiality, he writes. To do so suggests journalism without values.

Everyone knows what’s under the fig leaf, but we hide behind it all the same. In part, that’s because we tell ourselves that it doesn’t matter what we’ve got under there.

Mohn’s response to Rehm — “we all have our own biases,” but we try “to put them aside to cover the news” — reflects what I consider to be a fatal flaw in the logic of impartial journalism.

That reasoning goes, “Yeah, we may be a bunch of left-leaners in the newsroom, but it doesn’t matter, because we only report facts. We apply the journalistic method, which like the scientific method, nullifies bias, if properly applied.”

But I don’t think it’s possible to do journalism without projecting your own values. Even if you stick to the “who, what, when, where and why,” your social and political values will influence what stories you do and which perspectives you deem worthy of inclusion. No mainstream news outlet feels obligated to include overt segregationists in stories about race anymore, even though such people still exist.

It doesn’t engender trust, he says, to pretend that coverage on public radio is morally neutral.

“Everyone wants the media to have a moral center; they just argue over where it should be.”

One day in 2012 when I was producing for Radio Boston, WBUR’s local midday show, I wrote a script for our hosts to read that characterized the same-sex marriage issue as one of “marriage equality.” In our post-show wrap-up meeting that day, a colleague argued that we shouldn’t say “marriage equality” since it’s a term that’s only used by the proponents of same-sex marriage.

That’s true — “marriage equality” is not the most neutral available language, and therefore conventional journalistic wisdom states that it should be avoided.

But then again, what was Martin Luther King, Jr.? What was his job description? “Civil rights leader,” right? Do you think any segregationist would have consented to that description of MLK back in the 1960s? Do you think they called him a civil rights leader? No. They called him an agitator, and that’s when they were being nice.

“Civil rights leader” was not a neutral description at the time, and yet, King was a civil rights leader. That is the accurate description of the man.

Likewise, I think that Mary Bonauto, the lawyer who led the charge on legalizing same-sex marriage in Massachusetts (and our interview subject that day in 2012), is a marriage-equality leader.

You might argue that even though the idea that black people deserve equal rights isn’t controversial anymore, it was controversial in the ’60s, and so maybe it’s OK for reporters to call King a civil-rights leader now, but it wasn’t back then. That logic would suggest that as long as same-sex marriage remains somewhat controversial, I shouldn’t call Bonauto a marriage-equality leader.

“I maintain that journalists telling you what they really think doesn’t have to be predictable, nor does that opinion have to be the focus of the story,” he says. “It just happens to have been the focus of this one.”

Feel free to discuss below. But read the entire piece first.