Politics & Policy

Come Clean!

Craig Crawford's call to the MSM.

In his new book Attack the Messenger, Congressional Quarterly columnist Craig Crawford argues that politicians have joined forces with “advocacy journalists” to discredit the mainstream media. To be sure, Crawford acknowledges, the MSM have brought much of it on themselves. But in Crawford’s view, that makes it no less dangerous that most Americans no longer trust the major national dailies and network news broadcasts. Part of Crawford’s proposed solution entails encouraging journalists at mainstream news organizations to acknowledge their political biases, and thus remove bias from the media debate.

As someone Crawford would probably call an “advocacy journalist” and as someone who agrees with Crawford that there should be more transparency in journalism, I asked Crawford to square his argument that journalists should acknowledge their biases with passages from his book such as, “Opinionated journalism, although an oxymoron, dominates today’s news media.” First, Crawford explained why journalists should admit their biases:

I think what we’ve seen is a real revolution in the power of the media. One of the reasons for [the demise of the elites] is that a lot of biased reporting was outed, but it gets covered to such an extent that I think it’s overrated. Bias exists and I think the problem for the media nowdays is that the bias isn’t as bad as people think, but there has been enough of it that imaginations run wild… now you can write the most objective story possible and still be suspected of bias, even if your story isn’t.

I think that if you’re covering a campaign, you can get better faith in your objectivity by acknowledging your bias, even though that seems like a contradiction. I think it might actually impress people if they know you support one candidate, but you are as hard on that candidate as you are on his or her opponent. People can still do an objective job, even though they have an opinion.

Then, Crawford explained how he distinguishes “acknowledging bias” from “advocacy journalism”:

What I would call “advocacy journalism” is becoming really prevalent, and it has a place, but you’ve got an environment where no one believes the objective coverage and it’s almost taking a backseat to advocacy journalism. It’s not that I think there should be less advocacy journalism, but I think we should restore faith to the objective reporting so that we can see the differences between someone who’s advocating a point of view and someone who’s reporting a point of view.

Crawford said there’s a difference between advocating a point of view and drawing conclusions based on extensive reporting:

I think there’s a distinction between opinion and conclusions. What I try to do is “conclusionary” journalism–where you’ve presented both sides and then you draw a conclusion about which side has the best argument. Journalists can draw conclusions about what they’re covering without coming off as advocates.

I like what Crawford says about transparency in journalism. In fact, I’ve written about it before, but in a profile in the August 29 edition of The New Yorker, radio personality and blogger Hugh Hewitt said it far better than I could:

Hewitt is absolutely unwilling to concede that the work of journalists isn’t deeply affected by their opinions. “The vanity that people can divorce themselves from their bias is just that, vanity,” he said. “Len Downie”–the executive editor of the Washington Post–”doesn’t vote. So what? That pose is fundamentally dishonest. He’s asserting a greater level of objectivity, or truth-telling, than–well, let’s just say that I am unwilling to trust the conclusions of somebody who won’t tell me their opinions and background.”

The word “advocacy” brings to mind lawyers, lobbyists, and other hired guns. Hewitt does not keep his conservative views a secret, but does that make him an “advocacy” rather than a “conclusionary” journalist?

I think Crawford’s concept of the distinction comes from his own experience as a journalist. Crawford is a pretty moderate guy, politically, and sees himself as someone who draws conclusions without advocating a point of view. But opinions inform judgment–wouldn’t it just be easier to say that Crawford advocates a moderate point of view, and Hugh Hewitt advocates a conservative one? Both Crawford and Hewitt are fair-minded journalists who are faithful to the facts–why punish Hewitt for consistency?

Crawford told me that when he wrote this book, “I had in mind the news consumers much more than those of us who deliver the news. Perhaps the book doesn’t have a lot of new ideas for people in the trade.” Crawford’s suggestion that MSM journalists “reveal bias in order to remove bias” might not be a new idea, but it’s a good one, and it bears repeating. Crawford’s MSM “messengers” are under attack because they are engaged in stealth advocacy. They would do a lot for their own credibility and for the quality of debate in this country if they just dropped the pretense.

Stephen Spruiell reports on the media for National Review Online’s new media blog.

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