“Influential news outlets have set aside traditional notions of balance…”

Something happened in journalism two weeks ago that I want to examine before we all forget about it and election season rolls on.

21 Dec 2015 2:22 am 11 Comments

On December 8, Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed and before that a political reporter, wrote a memo to his staff that he made public. This is a screenshot of the memo:

Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 7.24.12 PM
The same day, NBC Nightly News broadcast what could only be called an editorial or “column” by Tom Brokaw, Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 1.49.52 PMalthough it was not described that way by NBC. Lester Holt simply tossed to Brokaw, the face of the brand for 22 years as lead anchor at NBC, for what Holt called “reflections” and “some perspective” on Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. (Watch.)

“Trump’s statement, even in a season of extremes, is a dangerous proposal that overrides history, the law and the foundation of America itself,” Brokaw said, speaking directly into the camera. “In my lifetime alone, we have been witness to the consequences of paranoia overriding reason.”

As CNN’s Dylan Byers reported on Dec. 10:

With Trump’s call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, several of the nation’s most esteemed journalists and influential news outlets have set aside traditional notions of balance and given themselves license to label the Republican front-runner a liar, a demagogue, a racist and worse… news organizations are abandoning concerns about impartiality and evenhandedness and stating what they believe are objective truths about the Republican’s most popular presidential candidate.

“What Trump is doing is wildly outside American traditions and values, and that’s what we’re covering and responding to and I think you see that across major media outlets,” Smith told CNN. “I’ve never seen a candidate base his campaign on vilifying a minority group. So it would be misleading to characterize it any other way.”

What happened here?

On one level it’s simple: Trump went too far. As David Folkenflik of NPR put it on Dec. 11, Trump has been making pronouncements and taking positions “that are increasingly alien to mainstream American thought.” His proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. was denounced by leading Republicans (including Paul Ryan, speaker of the House) as well as Democrats, so journalists could feel comfortable joining in the condemnations. End of story.

But this tells us something about what Byers called “traditional notions of balance.” They are only partly about lending fairness and a sense of proportion to news reports. As journalism scholars have been observing since the 1970s, the practices that are variously known as “objectivity,” or in political coverage “neutrality” — or, as Folkenflik put it, the “non-ideological” approach — as well as workplace rules against expressing an opinion on social media… these practices have purposes beyond rendering the world in an accurate and truthful way.

Ben Smith in his memo referenced “the need not to needlessly undermine the work of reporters on the beat.” What is he talking about there? Well, reporters covering the presidential campaigns need certain things from those campaigns: information, interviews, phone calls returned, a minimal level of cooperation. If a stray comment on social media from a Buzzfeed staffer on a wholly different beat persuades the communications staff for a presidential campaign that Buzzfeed is “against” their candidate, that would amount to “needlessly undermining” the political reporter who has to deal day-to-day with those people. The reporter can protest: hey, I have always been fair with you. But the candidate’s people can answer: your publication is biased, look at this comment on social media. What does the reporter say then?

It may sound trivial but it’s exactly this, what people “can say” — for which there is no effective reply — that accounts for a lot of the rules and procedures that journalists associate with “credibility,” a term with no precise meaning that has outsized importance in their internal deliberations, and their automatic thinking.

Vulnerable to criticism

The way scholars of journalism look at these events is different. In 1972 sociologist Gaye Tuchman published her (justly) famous article, “Objectivity as strategic ritual.” In it she analyzed the behavior of journalists, whom she called newsmen, working within hierarchies that had to reproduce a report on the state of the world every 24 hours. Whereas a sociologist could take six months to study a situation, assemble the data, and draft a report, the journalist had to complete this act in a single day, often under enormous pressure.

Inevitably mistakes happen. The most serious of these could lead to a libel suit, which in turn could threaten the entire enterprise. There were editors charged with removing mistakes, and checking up on reporters in the field, but they too were human, and also under pressure. On top of that, the product that these “newsmen” made — news — was destined for wide distribution, including people who knew a lot more about the story than the reporter ever could.

A situation like this was made for second guessing. The city editor second guessed the beat reporter. The managing editor second guessed the city editor. The informed reader second guessed the editors. (And the ignorant reader too!)

Improvised, imperfect, incomplete, telling of events that are still in motion, but then broadcast widely, the daily news report was vulnerable to criticism on a hundred and one counts. This vulnerability had to be managed somehow, the risks of it systematically reduced. In Tuchman’s eyes, that’s what “objectivity” in newsrooms was: a way of coping with the criticism that was sure to descend on a product that was hastily made.

The people who made it needed some kind of protection against charges that would inevitably come their way: that they didn’t know what they were talking about, that they were unqualified to say what was true, that they misunderstood. And today of course we would add: that they are biased, “against us,” part of an opposing camp. Tuchman in 1972 wrote:

The newsmen cope with these dangers by emphasizing “objectivity,” arguing that dangers can be minimized if newsmen follow strategies of newswork they identify with “objective stories.” They assume that, if every reporter gathers and structures “facts” in a detached, unbiased, impersonal manner, deadlines will be met and libel suits avoided.

Probably the best example of a “strategic ritual” that meets the journalist’s vulnerability to criticism and provides a veneer of objectivity is the use of quotation to say: Hey, I’m not saying this is true, but it is definitely a fact that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said today when he met with reporters….

Bring it on

Which brings us back to Trump and his “plan” to ban Muslims who are not already citizens from entering the United States. The ritual would say: report what Trump said, report what his critics said in reply, let people draw their own conclusions. And many news organizations did exactly that. But others made a different call: Objectively speaking, Trump is a racist and if you work for us you are free to say that. (Buzzfeed) Objectively speaking, this is a dangerous proposal that goes against what America is about. (NBC News) They didn’t think they were vulnerable to criticism for calling him out. Or they didn’t care. Of course there is a big difference between those two.

Trying to protect yourself against criticism, against what people “can say…” is perhaps understandable — Gaye Tuchman understood it exceptionally well in 1972 — but that does not make it legitimate.

A different approach would be to accept with equanimity: Yes, as journalists charged with reporting things that are complex and still in motion we are uniquely vulnerable to criticism. Bring it on! Protection will come from being specialists in verification who are allergic to any party line. Accountability journalism blows “balance” out of the water. Intellectual honesty is far more important than a ritualized objectivity. Recover your voice and people will have reason to listen. But journalists must listen also, and stand ready to correct.

During that odd interval, December 8-11 of 2015, we caught a small glimpse of a different press. To let it fade would be an error in pressthink that I cannot in good conscience allow my readers to make.


Spot on Jay. But I wanted to dwell for a moment on one point you make at the end: “Protection will come from being specialists in verification who are allergic to any party line.” I couldn’t agree more (I created VerificationJunkie.com after all) but I do think protection can and should arise from another source: community. For those newsrooms that can 1) adjust their political coverage to better serve people’s needs 2) reflect the concerns or their communities in their coverage and 3) actually give people on-ramps to engage and participate in that coverage, I think it will help insulate and protect the press (not just from criticism, but also more serious kinds of suppression of information and press rights). I know you know this – your past projects like Off the Buss and the Citizen’s Agenda embody these ideas.

Yes, I could have added something about that in the final paragraph.

One could think of ritualized balance as protection on the cheap. Or “crappy” insulation, in which a formalism takes the place of that strong bond with actual people and real communities that you mention.

Thanks, Josh.

(By the way, folks. It’s only a matter of time before the ideological hacks and bias warriors discover this thread and ruin it, so it’s good to discuss actual ideas before they get here and I have to close comments. It’s sad but that is the way it is these days. The jackhammers arrive and start drilling.)

LandersJ says:

> “… so it’s good to discuss actual ideas before they…”

What type of “actual ideas” do you seek here?

The issues surrounding news media bias & imbalance seem well examined over the past 25 years. What remains undone?

Is it new “solutions” you specifically want discussed?

No, I meant anything but bias complaints, which is really just partisan politics and culture war finding another forum to play itself out in: “the media.” There is nothing more to say on that subject after, as you put it, 25 years, and nothing more I can learn.

Tim Schmoyer says:

“But journalists must listen also, and stand ready to correct.”

This may be implied, but I would add: “reduce the harm from each error and each slippage from the objective news ideal by reducing the majesty of your claim to know.”


I think the “Intellectual Honest” approach is a dead end for non-niche journalism. Without even getting into philosophical discussion let’s talk practicality.

So I am not talking about if Trump is a fool, I am talking about the commercial logic of this burst of “intellectual honesty”.

When you call Trump a bigot and a racist you are also calling everybody who agreed with Trump a bigot and racist by extension. How many people is that? Take a look at this well done CBS Focus Group with Charlie Rose and Frank Luntz https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ca39ze7tEM The answer is nationally 40% of your potential audience agrees with Trump. Yes that number would be lower if Obama did not give an uncharacteristically bad press conference in Turkey and bobble the issue of ISIS in general, but then if that was the case Trump would have made a different outrageous statement.

It gets worse. The media statements were NOT along the lines of “We may have problems in this country but Trumps grandstanding goes too far.” i.e. We have multiple views of this issue (Muslim immigration and integration) in this big country of ours, but Trumps views are anathema. Instead they used words like “bigot”, “racist”,” vilifying a minority group”.

This is the language of the African-American civil rights struggle. In civil rights there are NO two sides. There are innocent minority victims and then there are bigots. There is essentially no place for compromise. Again we are not talking about right and wrong, we are talking about the commercial logic of dividing the audience into the ‘rally around the civil rights of Muslim non-citizen camp’ and the ‘bigot camp’. I want you to keep in mind that in the U.S. only 43% of Democrats currently have a positive view of Muslims.

So this is just a long winded way of saying that the “intellectually honest” view just took a spectacular self-righteous dump on the majority of the people it needs to pay its bills in an age when many of those people can go somewhere else for their news.

The commercial logic is that you only piss-off your mass audience only when it is important -and ideally after you have built up some trust. So unless you really think that Trump is a real threat (and thus it is worth losing audience share to STOP Trump!) I think the media damaged itself for little return.

I looked at the video. It disturbing but typical to see how people talk past each other.

How does the national press form a bond with the 40% who may disagree with them, how do they serve them?

A cynic might think this is about setting the Overton window where the 40% may be ignored.

I can see why Ben Smith and NBC felt the need to make their statements and why you cheer them. I know it is pedantic but I would point out that Muslim is not a race and the plight of Syrian Christians has received little attention although they are both of the same race as the Syrian Muslims, and have been enduring a de facto ban due to their exclusion from refugee camps


In addition, if I may be allowed a little dig, once one starts denouncing one politician as a liar, I am not sure how one can maintain intellectual honesty without denouncing them all , but then again I am a pedant.

More to the point, Josh Stearns in the comments talks about journalists reflecting the concerns of their communities in their coverage. So does sentiments expressed by Ben Smith and NBC news, while noble and heartfelt, resonate better with the country at large, or with the small set of their peers in the elite and political classes? Do they care; reference the country at large, is a good question and gets to the heart of the Trump problem.

I would propose that normal people do not lay awake at night worrying about a Donald Trump Presidency, a week after a terrorist attack, they worry about their family’s safety. Focusing on whatever idiocy issues from Donald Trump’s mouth is listening to him, not the people you purport to serve. I would also propose that the populace would be better served by an accountability journalism actually looking for accountability in the government that has a duty to protect them, than accountability from Donald Trump.

The national press, the national political parties, neither listens nor hears outside their own little bubble anymore, and the, let’s call it legitimacy space this creates, Trump occupies. Talking about intellectual honesty is all fine and good, but to be honest the press, left, right or indifferent, is going to have to slay some of their own sacred cows if they want to reconnect with the beer drinking middle and get rid of Trump. And maybe reclaim some legitimacy in the process.

I work in a democrat, union, heavily Hispanic town; from my experience I believe those who feel Trump’s appeal is limited to white, male, republicans are mistaken. YMMV

Too many catch phrases in original post — a glossary is needed. Read it repeatedly and still can’t discern a clear central point.

What exactly is “traditional balance”?
How does one recognize “intellectual honesty” in journalism… and in contrast to to “ritualized “objectivity”. What is the difference between “objectivity” and “ritualized “objectivity”?

That NBC/Brokaw/Holt/Trump episode was clearly and absolutely a case of political bias — but that’s taboo to mention here, apparently. I don’t like Trump either, but he was correct that the Federal government has a long established law & policy history of blocking immigration based on national origin and ethnicity.

“And so on Feb 22nd 1966, Dinsdale blew up Luton. Even the police began to sit up and take notice.”

Monty Python

Richard Aubrey says:

On such and such a date, Paul Ryan said the following, “….”
Okay. Now what is the reporter supposed to do?
“conservative opponents said…….”
Okay. Now what?
Does the reporter judge the merits of each side and let us know The Truth? Is that the third step? Who’s certified the reporter as an expert?
Ryan is supposed to have said he didn’t like the omnibus bill but he didn’t have a choice due to various political issues mumblejumblestumble, rentedatent. Presuming there were such conflicting issues, pretty much everybody would have a different view of each factor’s weight and thus a different view of where Ryan ‘ought” to have ended up. Is it the reporter’s job to give us the Right Answer among all the possibilities?
Trump got a lot of ink over his Muslim ban but, as some have noted, he’s a deal maker. Deal makers start out with outrageous positions and negotiate toward what they want and can get. If they start where they want, they’ll be negotiating away what they want. Now it seems Congress is looking at pausing immigration until vetting is improved. Most people think effective vetting is a good idea, given how the feds biffed the Russian intel gift of of the Tsarnaev clan and reports that the investigation of the San Bernardino shooters was called off as “problematic”. So, since various big shooters in DC say effective vetting is not likely in any useful time frame, what do we do about those who are willing to have Muslim immigration when vetting is shown to be useful?