The first cries of “media bias” may not have been sounded here, but the charge certainly found its voice in the Tar Heel State.
As my colleague Rob Christensen observed at a recent N&O/ABC 11 forum on “fake news,” Jesse Helms returned to the subject often in the regular commentaries he delivered on WRAL-TV from 1960-72, launching his Senate career.
In the decades since, the chorus has intensified thanks to the rise of conservative talk radio, Fox News and partisan watchdog groups including the Media Research Center.
As an ink-stained Pollyanna, I half expected my liberal brethren to take these criticisms seriously. When tens of millions of people point out that you are too often failing in your core mission to report without fear or favor, an honest reckoning is the only response.
Instead, the media has hunkered down behind a rhetorical swivel, dismissing the criticism as partisan “media bashing.” The fault lies not with them, but the vast right-wing conspiracy.
Charges of bias have become their rationale for doubling down on bias. They blithely flick away all criticism because, well, Rush and Fox and all the rest – i.e., about half the nation – are delusional at best and willful liars at worst.
Instead of serving as honest brokers that provide their audiences with information they need to make up their own minds, CNN, NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other outlets have become nakedly partisan outfits.
I wouldn't include the N&O in that list, but its readers might have a hard time appreciating that our state has done just fine since Republicans won power in 2010. The thrust of coverage has focused on wedge issues – especially the Moral Monday movement, HB2, election reform and illegal immigration – through stories that invariably cast conservatives in a harsh light. Today, there is less and less space between the political coverage and its editorial pages.
For their part, the national media have been engineering a slow-motion coup since Trump’s election, betraying our profession by peddling fake news.
Despite the breathless coverage, there is still zero evidence that Trump colluded with the Russians to steal the 2016 election.
Despite the ugly smears and gross innuendo, there is no evidence that Trump or the “deplorable” and “irredeemable” Americans who elected him are white supremacists.
But boy, do these fantasies have legs.
So does the phony charge that Trump is an authoritarian bent on destroying the constitution. Again there is zero evidence for that charge. Zero.
In another incoherent irony, media heavyweights lambasted Trump last week as “cruel” and “inhumane” for rescinding President Obama’s illegal grant of temporary amnesty to illegal immigrants brought here as children. Never mind that Obama himself had repeatedly admitted that he lacked such authority before subverting the Constitution. But in the newspeak of modern news, he’s a hero and Trump is a fascist.
Similarly, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was attacked last week for saying we should revisit the “Dear Colleague” letter sent by the Obama administration in 2011 regarding how schools handle sexual assault. Forgoing the customary “notice-and-comment” period, the letter demanded radical changes, including the gutting of due process. In our upside world, those who acted by fiat are celebrated and DeVos, who is working through proper channels, is cast as a threat.
The far greater threat to our Constitution are those unhinged writers and Democrat officials demanding that some small group of experts be empowered to remove our democratically elected president from office because, they claim, he’s unstable. Do they have any idea of how dangerous that is? Do they care?
As disheartening as all of this, it’s not surprising. Journalists are people, too. Most live in deep blue urban areas – from New York, Washington and Los Angeles to Wake and Mecklenburg counties. They share the views of their neighbors in our angrily divided nation.
Journalism is also a business. As audiences fracture into partisan echo chambers, there is increasing pressure to tell customers what they want to hear. With their fragile bottom lines, news outlets, like politicians, are wary of alienating their base.
The Pollyanna in me wishes my colleagues would see this ugly madness as a wake-up call and embrace the values of fairness they claim to hold. That’s not going to happen. But maybe they could stop the charade. Go back to the old tradition where news outlets proclaimed their partisan leanings – maybe put Democrat or Republican back in their names.
Instead of pretending to be guardians of The Truth, just be honest.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.