One of the virtues of liberalism is its empathy and its willingness to see the good in human nature. Empathy, however, can run amok, as it did in a front page Washington Post story from 1991 that sought to balance the good side of Henry “Little Man” James, age sixteen—he’d give the mothers of his kids cash, diapers, and other caring gestures—with the bad side—riding in the backseat on 295, he told his buddies he felt like “bustin’ somebody,” rolled down the window, and shot Patricia Diann Bigby Lexie, age thirty-six. James had already been accused of two random, motiveless shootings, was described by police as running a violent crack cocaine ring in his neighborhood, and was implicated in a third shooting. The day after his arrest, 200 neighbors signed a petition asking that he be kept in jail without bail. The Post headlined the story “Conflicting Views Of I-295 Suspect; Teenager Seen as Mean, Nurturing,” The response of many readers was outrage.
The Van Jones and ACORN cases are the extremes, but the more pervasive and subtle form liberal ‘blindness’ takes is in routine coverage. Stories, local and national, of virtually every culture-war issue commonly reflect reporters’ allegiance to social insurgents against traditionalists—and readers, who include many with traditionalist leanings, sense this. The facts and quotes from the school board meeting or Congressional debate are accurate. But something is missing in the reporting on the parents who do not want explicit sex education taught in the third grade, or the pro-lifers who are convinced that abortion is murder. These people exist all too often as stick figures or caricatures whose views are delegitimized.
The liberal outlook of reporters and editors is clearly not an easily resolved issue. But perhaps the worst strategy is to avoid recognizing it—taking steps to hide one’s own views, for example, by not voting.
Attempts by journalists to conceal deeply held political convictions can be dangerous. While no agreed-upon mechanism or forum exists, at present, for editors and reporters in the mainstream media to declare personal ideology and partisan leanings, the goal of improved objectivity is more likely to be achieved through individual self-scrutiny and institutional honesty among those in authority. A reporter fully aware of his or her own relevant political and moral beliefs, and conscious of how those views influence what and how he or she reports, is likely to produce better journalism, in which both left and right get their due, without resorting to the bland, forced neutrality found in many publications seeking to conceal the beliefs of their staffs.
Although it is the subject for another essay, the fact is that there are very few good conservative reporters. There are many intellectually impressive conservative advocates and opinion leaders, but the ideology does not seem to make for good journalists. In contrast, any examination of the nation’s top reporters over the past half-century would show that, in the main, liberals do make good journalists in the tradition of objective news coverage. The liberal tilt of the mainstream media is, in this view, a strength, but one that in recent years, amid liberal-bias controversies, has been mismanaged.