In the fight to save democracy, journalists need to pick a side

By Tara McGowan and Mark Jacob

Just a few days after taking over Twitter, Elon Musk shared a bizarre conspiracy theory blaming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul, for his own assault.

“There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye,” Musk wrote.

The tweet (later deleted) reflected a dangerous and growing view that all theories are worthy of wide public attention and that opinions are as valid as facts.

This view helps right-wing liars, of course. It’s why so many people don’t believe that one of the cleanest elections in modern American history was riddled with fraud. It’s why a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. was shot up over a ridiculous lie about a child sex-slave ring. It’s why anti-Semitism is being mainstreamed today.

Yet the idea that every elaborate lie or whack-job theory deserves attention has seeped into mainstream media. Under the guise of “objectivity” and deference to “free speech,” news media amplify voices they know are either sadly deluded or intentionally trying to mislead their audiences.

Why do the media do this? Do they think this performative “objectivity” serves the public? Or are they actually trying to serve their own desire to protect themselves from criticism and market themselves to a wider customer base?

Those questions come up a lot when you read legacy newspapers or watch the new CNN. As CNN has purged some of its voices most critical of the rise of MAGA Republican extremism, it’s clear that the network is turning in a “more neutral direction,” as one news report described it. For CNN, that means putting disinformation specialists like Kellyanne Conway and Mick Mulvaney on the air. CBS even pays Mulvaney to appear as part of its attempt to appeal to “both sides,” or at least to preserve access to both sides.

It wasn’t always this way. In fact, CBS’s history provides great examples of journalists uncovering facts and then courageously drawing conclusions when those facts pointed in a clear direction. Edward R. Murrow confronted the fraud of McCarthyism. He didn’t “both sides” it. Walter Cronkite took a reporting trip to Vietnam and then told Americans they were failing to win the war there.

Would a CBS news anchor be allowed today to tell the American people that the Republican Party is systematically attempting to overthrow our election system? The evidence is obvious that this is occurring. But if a CBS anchor said that today, would they be in the chair again the next day?

Part of the problem is that the two-party system in America has created a mentality in which the news media have ceded their role as an arbiter of truth and decided instead to be a moderator in a debate between the parties, with each side given its say, however honest or dishonest that say is.

But this is a fairly modern convention in American journalism. A century ago, most newspapers staked out sharply defined positions along the ideological spectrum. They took policy positions. They embarked on crusades. And to the extent that their positions were supported by the facts, they developed credibility.

Today, though, many major news outlets are posing as objective. They want you to think that reporters could cover a beat for three decades and not reach any conclusions about where the truth sits. In reality, the reporters have come to conclusions. They just won’t tell you what they are. 

This posture of objectivity actually hurts the credibility of journalists. It’s a performance — a mutually agreed-upon myth. The very act of an editor assigning a story to a reporter is a value judgment. Editors are not assigning every possible story. They’re assigning stories based on what they deem important on any given day. And the best journalism rarely looks objective. When reporters confront liars, they make the liars look bad. And strong journalism presents facts that are so compelling that they inspire action.

In his Nobel Peace Prize speech. Elie Wiesel had something to say about making a commitment.

“We must always take sides,” he said. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Too many people in the news industry are afraid of telling the whole truth and dealing with the impact and criticism that it brings. They fear that the right wing will call them “woke” leftists. Of course, these right-wing critics do not really want fair and objective coverage. They want coverage that amplifies and enforces their spin. They will never be satisfied. And this defensive posture by news organizations certainly isn’t preventing the right from calling them “fake” or accusing them of having a “liberal bias.” Yet major news operations keep trying to satisfy them.

It would be more honest for journalists to come clean on where they stand. And to embrace clearly established facts instead of pretending that anything could be true. After all, they’re not basketball referees tossing up jump balls. 

COURIER is an example of the rise of “values journalism,” with a thoughtful and deliberate focus on impact. COURIER is a network of local newsrooms that adhere to hard facts and present them in the context of its clearly stated left-leaning values. What’s more, at COURIER, we measure the impact of our reporting to ensure we are achieving our mission to build a more informed and engaged electorate — what action did our journalism inspire? Did this reader register to vote? Did they change their mind? Did they vote in their local elections?

This is part of a “here’s where I’m coming from” movement in journalism. Tech journalist Casey Newton and New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen encourage news people to write their own “coming from” statements, declaring their values and what they see as their mission.

That is a step toward transparency and credibility. And it is a step away from journalists serving as mere delivery systems for lies that bad actors on the right wing of American politics want to dump into the national conversation. Disclosing where we’re coming from is not only the right thing to do but also a way to succeed in a challenging news environment. Many consumers distrust performative “objectivity” and support content creators who earn their trust by telling it to them straight. For example, email newsletters that gain strong audiences are those that have a distinctive voice, not those that use the phrase “on the other hand” a lot. And social content creators are gaining larger audiences than most media start-ups today.

News organizations must respond to the current political crisis by trumpeting the democratic values that oppose fascism and support a free press. They must reject the policy of neutrality that makes media outlets willing partners in their own potential demise. For journalists who understand their role in society as holding the powerful accountable so that our democracy remains strong, the only way to live up to those ideals is to shed the conventional wisdom that elevates objectivity over the courage to report the truth, at any cost. 

Tara McGowan is the founder of Good Information Inc., a public benefit corporation that operates COURIER, a network of local news operations in eight states. Mark Jacob, former metro editor of the Chicago Tribune and former Sunday editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, is a consultant to COURIER.