News & Opinion » Election 2014

The Myth of the Unbiased Media

Mainstream news organizations, particularly the San Francisco Chronicle, are often biased toward centrist politicians. The problem is they won't admit it.



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Some media critics say the problem is not that mainstream reporters, editors, and publications like the Chronicle are biased. After all, we are all biased in some way. The problem is that these reporters and publications steadfastly maintain that they are neutral, and constantly try to convince the public of this assertion, when there is ample evidence that they are not.

Readers of the Express know full well that the paper has a bias toward liberal politicians, issues, and causes. We purposely make our bias overt. We're proud of our point of view and believe it's important to be honest with readers about where we're coming from. But we also try not to be blinded by political ideology. We strive to provide accurate, in-depth reporting based on verifiable facts; to hold liberals accountable when we believe they have done something wrong; and to give centrists and conservatives credit when we believe they're in the right.

Sometimes called "advocacy journalism," reporting from a left- or right-leaning perspective has long been a tradition among alternative newsweeklies throughout the country and is practiced by numerous national publications, such as Mother Jones and The Nation on the left, and the National Review on the right.

"Objective journalism," by contrast, is a construct of the twentieth century that coincided with the rise of mass media and storied journalistic enterprises like The New York Times and the Washington Post, and with modern professional journalism schools and associations. Over time, it became axiomatic that the most "trusted" form of journalism was unbiased, objective, and balanced — because it purportedly never took sides. It also was highly profitable, attracting both news consumers and advertisers from across the political spectrum.

But it also drew critics, who argued that the mainstream press was, in reality, practicing a sort of "he said, she said" stenography, particularly in political reporting, in which "both sides" of a debate receive equal weight even if one side speaks the truth and the other spouts falsehoods. A classic example was The Times' decision in the Aughts to refer to the waterboarding of prisoners by the CIA as an "enhanced interrogation technique" rather than torture because the George W. Bush administration insisted on using the more innocuous-sounding phrase. At the time, The Times decided that referring to waterboarding as torture would have amounted to "taking sides" in a political debate, even though waterboarding — the pouring of water over a prisoner's face until he feels as if he's drowning — is clearly torture under any plain definition of the word.

Many media critics also contend that such "he said, she said" reporting does, in effect, take a political point of view, because it seeks out a middle ground between two opposing sides and tends to prize compromise and pragmatism over liberal and conservative ideologies. Mainstream journalists "feel that, rather than take sides, they're going to be in the middle — but that's a political statement," Froomkin noted.

The mainstream press' ban on allowing reporters to express political points of view also can force journalists into disguising their politics in different ways — such as taking it easy on politicians they like or zealously pursuing every nugget of dirt on those they do not. And sometimes, reporters may not even be consciously aware of what they're doing. "Basically, it comes from being prohibited from having any politics themselves — they're preferences, in fact, become hidden, and sometimes they're disguised even from the reporters themselves," Rosen said.

In a brief interview, the Chronicle's Marinucci denied that her coverage of political campaigns has been biased toward centrists and against liberals. "I stand by our coverage," she said twice.

Before his upset of longtime liberal Congressman Pete Stark in 2012, Eric Swalwell was a little-known Dublin councilmember who had served just two years as an elected official. Redistricting two years earlier had made Stark's Congressional district more moderate politically, and Prop 14 opened the door for an ambitious centrist to launch a competitive run against him.

Swalwell's campaign painted Stark as a Washington, DC insider who was out of touch with his constituents and prone to crude outbursts. Marinucci amplified this message with a series of stories and blogposts during the 2012 campaign that were highly critical of Stark and repeatedly questioned whether the longtime Congressman was fit for office.

For example, after an endorsement interview that Stark had with the Chronicle, Marinucci wrote a piece titled "Dazed and confused?" The story ridiculed Stark for confusing solar company Solyndra with electric carmaker Tesla — two Bay Area businesses that had been in the news quite a bit at the time. Another Marinucci story, "Stark raving Pete?" was based on a single source — ex-Assemblymember Alberto Torrico — who claimed that Stark had erupted into an "angry tirade" because Torrico had endorsed Swalwell. Marinucci then employed the stark raving mad metaphor one more time in a story titled "Stark raving again?" which concerned a political attack ad from Stark's campaign against Swalwell. The ad accused Swalwell of engaging in pay-to-play politics with developers. But Marinucci contended that Stark was being hypocritical because he had solicited campaign donations from a homebuilding trade group.

However, Marinucci chose not to write about the pay-to-play politics to which Stark was referring. Instead, she continued to remind readers that Stark had accused Swalwell of taking "bribes," and then had apologized for it. But as the Express noted in an October 2012 report, there was ample evidence of pay-to-play involving Swalwell (see "Eric Swalwell and Pay to Play," 10/24/2012). As a Dublin city councilmember, Swalwell had voted to award a no-bid contract to a local garbage company after four executives from that company had donated more than $15,000 to his campaign. In addition, Swalwell had accepted thousands of dollars in donations from a development team just days after he voted in favor of the team's request to rezone Dublin property. Some cities, including Oakland, forbid such pay-to-play donations because they can be construed as bribes, but Dublin does not.

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