Meanwhile, the possibility that reporting from a specific ideological perspective might, at times, be helpful, goes unmentioned in the report. The Washington Independent, AINN’s now-defunct flagship, produced lots of excellent work that stood apart from the output of commercial media, and was informed by the outlet’s liberal leanings. (See for example Annie Lowery’s August 2010 article, “Death and Joblessness.”) And the watchdog.org family of sites, classified as ideologically conservative by PEJ, uncovered widespread errors in the official data on federal stimulus spending. I’m not a close reader of the Watchdog sites, but their impact seems thin overall; the importance of those errors turned out to be overstated. But if that’s the case, it’s not because there’s an inherent problem with a right-leaning news operation dedicated to exposing government waste and inefficiency. It’s because the sites need to do better work. (In fact, ideology can be an important motivator of valuable investigative journalism.)
The PEJ report is suffused throughout with a sense that it’s the obligation of the new non-profits to reincarnate as best they can the status quo ante, when newspapers around the country sought to deliver, to lift a phrase from the report, a “high level of neutral reporting.” But it’s worth remembering that, in many times and many places, the status quo ante wasn’t all that good. Investigative reporting was rarely written and rarely read, too much political journalism leaned on a he-said-she-said formula, policy was often poorly understood, important stories went untold.
Today, many non-profit sites are working in that tradition of “neutral reporting.” At their best, they do outstanding journalism—often, better than what many readers had access to in an earlier era. Other non-profit sites are working from clear ideological perspectives—and at their best, they too produce reporting that can stand up to anything, and brings value to readers and the democratic conversation.
Isn’t that something to be happy about?