Commentary: Is There A Market For Nonpartisan News?

Such coverage is vital, but it's under economic and political assault

One of the worst by-products of our venomously partisan political culture is a growing distrust of anyone who claims to be nonpartisan. Red and blue combatants have systematically attacked the credibility of a wide variety of professionals whose jobs require objectivity: judges, pollsters, economists -- and particularly journalists. Many of these same ideological crusaders, in their eagerness to tip a closely divided electorate, have simultaneously worked to undermine the very professional standards that all of these occupations have developed through the decades to promote neutrality.

In the news business, things have gotten so bad that the term "mainstream media" has actually become an epithet in some quarters. Many Republicans are convinced that purportedly objective outlets such as CBS, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times are permanently tilted against them. Large numbers of Democrats, meanwhile, think these institutions have been so neutered by the traditional rules of balanced journalism that truly sharp analysis is available only on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Both sides increasingly get their information from ideological TV shows, radio networks, and Web sites that frequently ignore traditional ideals of editorial objectivity. As Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, puts it: "A lot more people are going to products called journalism that many journalists don't consider journalism."

All this is provoking an identity crisis among the Old Guard. As the once-faithful mass audience wanders away, Big Media is questioning its relevance -- and facing a darkening economic future. The Walter Cronkite era, when a handful of blue-chip outlets had the power to define the news for the whole country, is gone forever. The hot-growth strategy in the journalism business these days is to pander to the passionate fringe, not to try to provide balance to the indifferent middle. Consider the triumph of the rightward-leaning Fox News Channel (NWS ) over cable rivals CNN and MSNBC. Or the dominance of Ann Coulter and Al Franken on the nonfiction best-seller lists.

The anxious new mood was captured, the day after the election, by an article New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen wrote on his Web log, PressThink. It was titled "Are We Headed for an Opposition Press?" and examined whether America is moving toward a European model, wherein many leading papers have well-known party affiliations. This once-radical idea has suddenly gained highbrow intellectual currency based on the theory that reporters should show their true colors rather than pretend to be above ordinary human bias. Staffers at Web site Slate, for instance, disclose their party affiliations -- a big taboo in the Establishment media. "The press has been pretending for too long that its old operating system will last forever," argues NYU's Rosen. "It won't."

Ideological transparency is the type of apple-pie virtue that seems impossible to oppose. But while it may be appropriate for the world of opinion media, it has the potential to be quite destructive to the fact-seeking media. If every reporter at The New York Times had to disclose his or her voting record, every article in the newspaper could be easily discredited on narrow political grounds. And that would be just as simplistic -- in the opposite extreme -- as pretending that journalists can be perfectly neutral. The truth is, reporters are more than simple slaves to their party affiliations. The same New York Times that some Republicans love to demonize led the charge against Democratic President Bill Clinton over the Whitewater scandal and bought the Bush Administration's scare stories about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The professional guidelines that news organizations have developed through the years are more than just a form of fancy window dressing designed to disguise the hidden political agendas of reporters and anchormen. Rules for newsgathering, writing, and editing impose real restrictions on what journalists can do. "It is tempting to say that, since perfect objectivity is unobtainable, we should just say 'To hell with it' and go back to the days of nakedly partisan media," says John H. Hinderaker of the popular conservative blog Power Line. "I don't agree with that at all. It is important that there be media outlets that are reasonably unbiased [and] that are consumed equally by liberals and conservatives. Alongside them should be other news sources that are tilted in one direction or the other."

No Respect

While the partisan press has a distinguished history in this country, it has never been a substitute for the mainstream media. The spadework of the Fourth Estate -- investigating corruption, say, or scrutinizing 10-Ks -- is still done primarily by traditional journalists. Although the American press corps has many shortcomings, it is still widely envied in countries where the news is always served with an ideological tinge. "A free press that aspires to serve as an honest broker is one of the greatest sources of American strength," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the nonprofit Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington. This is not just a political issue; it's a business issue. In the Information Economy, the quality of information matters.

The difficult question is not whether we need an independent media but whether the nonpartisan press will ever be able to win back the respect it has lost. A June report by Pew Research Center for the People & the Press showed that the Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, and all three TV networks suffer from steadily eroding credibility. Asked if they agree with the statement: "I often don't trust what news organizations are saying," 53% of Pew's respondents said yes.

This is the real crisis. It has been caused in part by politically motivated outside attacks -- and in part by a long string of self-inflicted wounds. These include the Jayson Blair fiasco at the Times, Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc.'s (SBGI ) effort to pass off anti-John Kerry propaganda as news, and the false National Guard documents that CBS used to attack President George W. Bush's service record.

The political facet of this problem won't be easily fixed. Americans are becoming more ideological -- and ideologues will rarely accept the fairness of pieces that criticize their position. The journalistic issue is only a little easier. Large media outlets are taking ethics more seriously, but there's still ample room for improvement. Some alienated audience members could probably be won back if the press did a better job on such things as cutting back on shallow infotainment, admitting mistakes more readily, and coming clean about inconvenient facts that don't always neatly fit the thesis of a hot story.

Problem is, imposing higher standards would drive up the cost of journalism while cutting its dramatic value. And that leads to the second issue: The plain truth is that opinionated content -- such as Fox's The O'Reilly Factor with Bill O'Reilly -- is often simpler, snappier, and less expensive to produce than objective content. According to Larry Gerbrandt, a media consultant with Los Angeles-based AlixPartners LLP, it costs CNN and CNN Headline News about $300 million a year to put out the news, vs. about $65 million for Fox. "It is so much less expensive to operate a news channel that is primarily studio-based rather than having a worldwide newsgathering operation with people and equipment all over the globe," says Gerbrandt. "That is an enormously expensive operation."

So this is the emerging business model: You can make money targeting a small partisan audience on cable TV or on the Web, but it's much more difficult to cash in on the traditional mainstream audience for news. That's why NYU's Rosen speculates that CNN or MSNBC may try to attract more viewers by becoming a liberal alternative to cable leader Fox News Network. That may sound implausible, but given the overall business climate, the economic temptation to plunge headlong into the partisan fray is growing ever stronger. The independent press will never disappear completely, but it's not much of a stretch to imagine it shrinking.

By Mike FranceWith Tom Lowry in New York

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