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Newspapers in New York, NY. Photo credit: Richard B. Levine/Levine Roberts via ZUMA Press

Should the News Be “Fair” or Be Right?

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Some people complain that the media has an anti-Trump bent. 

Others note that the media as a rule seems reluctant to give the Biden administration its due when it does its job well. 

Both can be true. 

And there’s a reason for this.

One thing every serious professional journalist knows is that we’re supposed to be — or at least at one time were supposed to be — “fair and balanced.” 

That meant we were not supposed to go into our work with a bias that predetermined what or how we report. 

The problem is that people also expect us to assess information and tell them what we think it means. 

So what if we did assess, say, Joe Biden and his administration, and concluded that, while far from perfect — indeed, flawed in many respects — it is light years away from Donald Trump and his administration on almost every substantive measure of a broad public interest? 

Or, to put it more simply, that Biden and his team are generally performing diligently and honestly? What then? 

Is there any way we could report those conclusions and still uphold traditional journalistic values? 

One way to do it may be to just report all relevant facts so that readers have enough material to make up their own minds. With the caveat that readers might still be drawn to a particular conclusion based on the “fact pattern” presented.  

I raise this because WhoWhatWhy, which I founded and run, is a nonprofit news organization, meaning we are dependent on funding from members of the public — and some of them have shared a range of concerns, often conflicting, about what they expect from us. 

Such concerns surely reflect those of the populace at large. 

Some believe that the media are too hesitant to “call a spade a spade” — while, at the same time, millions believe we are unfair to Trump. 

Those who want tougher coverage of Trump believe there is a national urgency for a more aggressive presentation of facts leading to particular conclusions. That’s why there’s a growing trend of ventures set up to look like traditional news sites, but with the explicit intent of driving the public to vote for one party or the other. 

There’s method in that particular madness: The public is more divided than ever before. Misinformation and disinformation are rampant. Gerrymandering, voter disenfranchisement, and other tactics have led to an ever more even split in voting blocs — even when opinion polls suggest the public is not really split, and actually broadly agree on many things, such as gun control, reproductive rights, the social safety net, global warming action, and the rule of law. 

Because of this artificially created near-50/50 split, those advocating for partisan “journalism” are correct in understanding that the game now is largely around persuading people who are decided, but do not vote, as well as appealing to a small segment that is highly likely to vote, but uncertain whom they will vote for. 

Some political operatives believe that by creating new local “news” organizations that target these segments with specific, cherry-picked information, they can win the war for control.

Even before the pace began quickening in recent months, we’ve seen the insidious emergence around the country of partisan media masquerading as “news,” perhaps starting with the growth of so-called “pink slime” entities, given that pejorative moniker because the content was so far from reliably accurate. 

Many have been Republican-inspired and right-wing oriented. But because a host of national “news” outlets like Fox, OAN, and others have already managed to claim for themselves a portion of so-called “real” journalism, growth of partisan outlets on the Left is a more recent phenomenon. 

It all gets murkier because major outlets like MSNBC can appear partisan, especially with their mix of straight news and almost Fox-worthy commentary. 

We at WhoWhatWhy face the same challenge since, as a news organization, we must present both reported pieces and opinion/analysis; the public’s appetite to be “told what to think” has grown in recent years, a result of not knowing what — or whom — to believe any more, because of all the news labeled “fake” — even if real. (And sometimes we can’t even believe our own eyes because the tools of deception have become so sophisticated.) 

Related: Truth? WTF Is That? – WhoWhatWhy

In any case, once told what to think, people tend to congregate in places that attract other people with whom they agree. 

Among Democratic Party-oriented entries in this category are Courier Newsroom — which was started by Acronym, founded by Tara McGowan, who worked for Barack Obama’s reelection campaign and Democratic super PAC Priorities USA — and what at least at one point was called “Local Report Inc.” which has a “co-publishing agreement” with  American Independent, which is tied in with operative David Brock. 

One apparent problem is that, just as their primary purpose is to convince people to agree with, fund, and vote with them, they may also make some improbable, seemingly exaggerated claims about their reach and impact. 

Newsguard, an entity set up with the self-appointed mission of policing journalistic accuracy, claims that these entities, as Axios reported, sometimes stretch and twist “the facts” in their own stories, and, especially, are less than upfront about their own brand and who and what is behind it. (FYI, this is an evolving landscape, and you’ll see that some of these entities have identified themselves and their agendas and owners further since facing criticism — though readers may or may not notice or even care.)


Clearly, the news vs “news” dichotomy sets up a classic dilemma, as played out in a message exchange I had with a prospective supporter of our own journalism:

I wrote:

We’re discussing these developments, which, I instinctively feel, are not great, since they basically amplify the notion that real journalism without a partisan orientation is not a thing, and that everything is partisan. I frankly wish the donors backing these things just gave to “real” news orgs that run on a mission of finding out and reporting the truth, period. 

He replied:  

All the truth in the world won’t help us if it doesn’t get read by convincible or influenceable people.

Which raises the issue: What was wrong with the “traditional model” — at least since the beginning of the 20th century — where journalists did the journalism, and partisan interests “distributed” talking points based on the journalists’ findings? That is, rather than simply claiming to be, and essentially supplanting, journalists and their particular role in society?

According to the Democratic operatives, “real” news organizations don’t do enough to report the issues honestly; and also, because of “news deserts” resulting from the disappearance of so many traditional local news outlets, they must fill that void. 

I would argue that the failure to properly support “real journalism” in the end leads to new and perhaps greater dangers. 

It’s all a slippery slope. The imperative to combat rising authoritarianism and proto-fascism does not necessarily mean that we want to dispense with useful institutions of clear and long-lived value. 

You’d see what I mean if we were to invite you into our WhoWhatWhy newsroom discussions and editors’ markups of articles. You might be surprised by the extent to which we debate and explore every possible interpretation of facts, and how assiduously we try to consider “the other side,” even when we don’t think the sides are even. 

 In a proper newsroom, for example, we look at, say, people accused of something — anything — to see whether there is some defense or merit to their position, while a truly partisan outlet wouldn’t bother. 

And yet it seems inarguable that the United States and all non-authoritarian countries are in a new era and must negotiate dangerous, uncharted territory in which the meaning of “partisanship” has to be redefined. 

From a journalistic standpoint, this means that our commitment to truth-telling must now accommodate another mission — to defend democracy against those who would degrade and even, for personal gain, destroy it. 

The side that Trump holds in sway is willing to — in fact, obligated to — lie incessantly and believe every lie, and the MAGA minions seem increasingly drawn to the edge of a violence that would likely be ruinous. 

That is not your grandma’s partisanship, nor your dad’s, nor even our own of a few years ago. 

In this new political and moral landscape, telling the truth is partisan; going to bat for democracy is partisan; calling out the Trumpist schemes and depravity is partisan. But it is a partisanship that we cannot fail to embrace, given our own mission to preserve our republic.

This then makes the following even more tricky, but no less important: 

How to balance the short-term urgency with the long-term need to preserve “actual journalism,” which goes about its work with no preconceived notions, and with an established methodology, ethical considerations, and more? 

The answer, I think, is to acknowledge that we are in historically fraught times — that we cannot subscribe to any false equivalency between a largely rational and humane approach to governance, and a poisonous, ignorant, fear-driven response to the complexities of the modern world. 

The challenge is this: At the same time we acknowledge the gravity of this historical moment, we must insist on the highest standards of accuracy and fairness in our continuing pursuit of truth-telling. 

We should still be able to reason with people, to present nuance and background, and to trust that, given credible information, people will arrive at sound conclusions and, ultimately, do the right thing. 


  • Russ Baker

    Russ Baker is Editor-in-Chief of WhoWhatWhy. He is an award-winning investigative journalist who specializes in exploring power dynamics behind major events.

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