Charges about biased reporting are as old as journalism itself. President-elect Donald Trump’s accusations against The New York Times—and journalists in general—during and after his campaign would sound familiar to one of his predecessors. Six years into his second term as president, Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1807, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” And yet, one of Jefferson’s most frequently quoted beliefs came in correspondence years earlier, before he endured the scrutiny that comes with being president:
The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
In our time, as newspapers struggle, news outlets proliferate. Traditional networks, cable news channels and the digital entities collectively known as social media have assumed the dominant role that newspapers once played. Do those sources of news recognize their responsibility for the free flow of unbiased information upon which democracy depends? That disturbing question carries serious implications for the country’s future. It has been disturbing for much longer than I have been a journalist. But in New York it came to a head when a reporter declared that he could also be a political advocate. Here is a 1972 commentary that I did for a program called New York Closeup when I was at WPIX-TV.
WABC-TV’s solution to the Geraldo Rivera problem is to give him a leave of absence until after the election so that he can campaign for Senator George McGovern in his bid for the presidency. Rivera is a reporter for Channel 7 who claims that he has the constitutional right to engage in partisan politics regardless of the company’s policy against newsmen taking public stands on issues. He says he doesn’t report on politics, he reports on social issues, therefore he doesn’t have to be objective on political matters.
By its decision to give Rivera time off to campaign for McGovern, Channel seven is approving a newsman’s claim that he doesn’t have to be publicly nonpartisan in order to be a trusted reporter. They are saying—in effect—that, having become an advocate in one area, the reporter can nonetheless function as an independent, fair and objective journalist in another.
Perhaps he can, but it’s going to be much more difficult for his audience to accept his reporting as independent, fair and objective than it was before he declared himself on the political issue.
Rivera thinks and speaks of himself as an advocate. He reports passionately and often tearfully on social issues, and he has drawn attention to some deplorable conditions. In a situation like this, it would be realistic of his employers to halt the fiction that Rivera is a journalist in the traditional sense and label his work for what it is—social commentary. In that way, the station can be honest with itself and its news audience, help solve an ethical crisis in the broadcast journalism profession, and in good conscience take advantage of the colorful attraction they have developed in Rivera.
As television news struggles through a period in which show business values and news values often seem locked in mortal combat, the Geraldo Rivera phenomenon is likely to arise more and more frequently. Only the most hard-bitten journalist would deny a news operation the right to employ colorful people for their audience-attracting virtues. And only the most naïve would deny a station the right to expose social evils.
The challenge is in recognizing news as news, social commentary as social commentary, and show biz as show biz. There is now a confusion of those elements.
In 2016 has the confusion been resolved?