Is "Partisan Journalism" The Cure?

A posting by former Wall Street Journal and Time magazine staffer G. Pascal Zachary is making the rounds today (thanks to Romenesko). In it, Zachary argues that the old model of journalism has failed and calls for a new creed for the profession:
Veteran journalists know that the objectivity ethos is the "big lie" of their profession. Actually, journalists are beholden to various points of view, and their commitment to balance is a convenient way of not talking about the rat's nest of commitments, concerns, biases and passions that animate the life of every good journalist and most of the bad ones.

Commercial pressures also force journalists to choose sides, to root for one outcome over another, to seek out some sources and never even speak to others. Professional values, meanwhile, force journalists to routinely rule out certain points of view, notably those deemed "irresponsible" or "out of the mainstream." In a world of complexity, journalists cannot square the circle; they cannot smooth the rough edges of reality.

Partisan journalism is thus not an aberration but an ideal. Today, this ideal is never professed and instead confusingly denied. Openly taking sides is a necessary but not sufficient condition to reform journalism.
Change is needed, now. It is already clear that a new journalism ethos is required, a new way of thinking and acting that acknowledges the criticisms from the Left and the Right while at the same time presenting a powerful new rationale for journalistic professionalism and independence.
So what are Zachary's solutions? Let's take them point-by point:
Let subjects have their say, but tell readers why one side is fudging, lying or worse. Subjects have grown too adept at manipulating reporters. Punish liars.
Sounds great, lies ought to be exposed and liars punished. But is it always that easy to discern The Truth? As much as journalists may be "beholden to various points of view," subjects and sources are beholden to interests, hold hidden agendas and can easily present select information. Is telling the truth, but not the whole truth, a lie? And, as a practical matter, they hold the bulk of the power. For every reporter who would publicly "out" a source or subject who was less than forthcoming, or even flat-out lied, there are ten more standing in line with their hands out. Guess who's going to get the next story? I would argue that it is the reporter's burden to avoid being manipulated. Next point:
Take personal responsibility for the accuracy of your story. Outcomes are more important than process. If your sources prove incorrect, say so in a new story. The critical measure of a journalist's stature is whether they got the story right, not whether they were fair and balanced. Admit mistakes. Hold accuracy, not intent, as the highest standard. Get the "right answer." If you can't, keep trying until you can.
This is a suggestion I can get behind 100%. Sure it's hard to say you were wrong or that somehow you allowed yourself to be misled. But nothing says "credibility" better than the ability and willingness to do just that. Back to Zachary:
Declare your agenda. All journalists have one. Be honest about yours. Readers appreciate candor and will judge a story more sympathetically when they plainly see where the journalist is "coming from."
Of all the suggestions about how to "fix" journalism, this is one of the most common. If we just knew where this organization/reporter/editor was "coming from" on this issue, we would better understand this report. If only the human condition were that simple. I'm not exactly sure how one declares one's "agenda," but consider a couple possibilities. The journalist could identify themselves with a particular political party as part of their byline or chyron: Vaughn Ververs (R). Great, everyone knows I'm a Republican so they'll be able to translate this post. Only I'm not really that much of a Republican.

See, like most people, I have a more complex view of the world than you'll find in a political platform. I generally, but not always, vote Republican but it's often done while holding my nose at the same time. There are many issues I disagree with that party on. I doubt seriously that you're going to find many people in journalism marching in lockstep with one political party or another on each and every issue. It would be misleading to say an individual agrees with every position the leadership of a party might have on a given issue. Not even every elected member of a party agrees on everything.

OK, then, let's have reporters give their opinion on the individual issue they are covering, that ought to solve the problem. I'm not sure about that. Most of these issues are so complex and nuanced, it could take a minute or two just (or several paragraphs) to explain it. Say a reporter is doing a story on immigration reform and that particular person believes immigration does indeed need reformed but is not supportive of any of the particulars that have been advanced to do so? Not an uncommon position, but what in the world does that have to do with reporting the story?

Maybe journalists should reveal how they voted in the last presidential election. Informal surveys have indicated most journalists vote for Democratic candidates, so we already know that. Again though, what does that say about any individual's beliefs on a given subject or issue? And what is to say that individual won't vote differently the next time around? If any journalist wants to reveal his or her political affiliation, I have no problem with that (I would warn them they'll be forever tagged with that label), but to make it a necessity for the profession doesn't seem to me like a solution. Back to Zachary:
Fair and Accurate. Stop talking about journalists' "objectivity" and instead promote the concept of journalistic "integrity." This means we must substitute the concept of fair and balanced with the concept of fair and accurate. Having an agenda raises the importance of ethics and honesty. Because a journalist is trying to prove a point, his choices of sources become a legitimate area of reader scrutiny. Anonymous sources can still be used, but journalists must take responsibility for whom they quote, whether they quote them by name or not. The days of hiding behind a source are over (thank you, Judith Miller). Passion is important. Partisanship is inevitable. Journalists should not be embarrassed to admit to either.
Again, accuracy is one of the most important elements of journalism. Fairness is certainly an important goal, but so often what constitutes it is in the eye of the beholder. Some would argue that "balance" is an attempt at fairness by giving each side a say, others believe that it simply allows an indefensible position to be defended. But there is no doubt that sourcing of stories, particularly of the anonymous kind, is one of the major reasons the media finds itself having discussions like this. Many major news organizations have attempted to tighten their rules on sources, here's hoping that trend continues – and that they live up to those rules.

Zachary gives us all a lot to think about, some of it part of an ongoing conversation and some presented in a new way. I would simply say that his "ideal" of "partisan journalism" seems to me to be riddled with troubling holes. Aside from the above concerns, here's a bigger question: Which is preferable, an independent press that, while imperfect, at least attempts to hold all to account or a "partisan" press that essentially would serve as house organs for one interest or another while keeping the other side accountable?
  • Vaughn Ververs


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