Impartial Journalism Must Be Saved

Journalism by definition must be impartial and non-partisan, but it is rapidly disappearing in a landscape dominated by media feverishly wedded to either of two political camps.

By Joe Lauria
Special to Consortium News

The term “impartial journalism” is redundant. If it’s not impartial, it’s not really journalism.

Aside from the Five Ws, the most basic thing a cub reporter learns is that there are two or more sides to every story and a reporter must put her or his biases aside to fairly tell it. Newswriting demands a neutral point of view, favoring none of the sides. The facts will determine who might be the villain.

In reporting on conflicts—the essential drama inherent in journalism—there’s plenty of gray area. One side is rarely completely right and the other side totally wrong. It’s a journalist’s responsibility to lay out the complexities of the story and not not feed the readers’ biases. (In international news a journalist should shed his national biases and not report from the outlook of only one side, i.e, America is always right and its adversaries always wrong.)  An open-minded audience that seeks as close to the truth as possible will welcome this.

While there has always been bias in journalism, reporters used to be trained to at least try to play a particular role as a detached observer. It was considered the essence of professional journalism.  Today that effort is clearly being abandoned.

Limbaugh. (Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia)

This change in American journalism began  during the Reagan administration with the 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which mandated equal air time to candidates, and with the rise of right-wing media (Rush Limbaugh in 1988 and Fox News in 1996), a topic fully explored by our late, founding editor, Robert Parry.

Parry criticized the rise of right-wing talk radio and Fox News for putting a dent in objective reporting and openly promoting a Republican agenda. In his last published article, he wrote:

“It seems that since I arrived in Washington in 1977 as a correspondent for The Associated Press, the nastiness of American democracy and journalism has gone from bad to worse.

In some ways, the Republicans escalated the vicious propaganda warfare following Watergate, refusing to accept that Richard Nixon was guilty of some extraordinary malfeasance (including the 1968 sabotage of President Johnson’s Vietnam peace talks to gain an edge in the election and then the later political dirty tricks and cover-ups that came to include Watergate).

Rather than accept the reality of Nixon’s guilt, many Republicans simply built up their capability to wage information warfare, including the creation of ideological news organizations to protect the party and its leaders from ‘another Watergate.’ […]

Though I don’t like the word ‘weaponized,’ it began to apply to how ‘information’ was used in America. The point of Consortium News, which I founded in 1995, was to use the new medium of the modern Internet to allow the old principles of journalism to have a new home, i.e., a place to pursue important facts and giving everyone a fair shake. But we were just a tiny pebble in the ocean.”

CIA Director William J. Casey (Central Intelligence Agency)

Parry began Consortium News a year before Fox News was launched.  He especially delved into the Reagan administration’s and then CIA Director William Casey’s role in “perception management.” 

Parry unearthed documents which exposed a propaganda campaign under Casey’s direction that was described as “an inter-governmental network to promote and manage a public diplomacy plan designed to create support for Reagan Administration policies at home and abroad.”  Parry wrote:

“This commitment to what the insiders called ‘perception management’ began in earnest with the Reagan administration in the 1980s but it would come to be the accepted practice of all subsequent administrations, including the present one of President Barack Obama.

In that sense, propaganda in pursuit of foreign policy goals would trump the democratic ideal of an informed electorate. The point would be not to honestly inform the American people about events around the world but to manage their perceptions by ramping up fear in some cases and defusing outrage in others depending on the U.S. government’s needs.”

Parry quoted one of the documents:

“As a result of Reagan’s decision directive, an elaborate system of inter-agency committees was eventually formed and charged with the task of working closely with private groups and individuals involved in fundraising, lobbying campaigns and propagandistic activities aimed at influencing public opinion and governmental action.” 

One of the “private groups” involved was Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Parry reported:

“In February 1983, global media magnate Rupert Murdoch volunteered to help the Reagan administration’s propaganda strategy for deploying U.S. mid-range nuclear missiles in Europe by using his newspapers to exacerbate public fears about the Soviet Union, according to a recently declassified ‘secret’ letter.”

“We’ll know when our disinformation program is complete, when everything the American public believes is false,” Casey said at Reagan’s first staff meeting in early February 1981, according to Barbara Honegger, assistant to the chief domestic policy adviser to Reagan, who was there. This is a chilling statement when considering how corporate media in the U.S., in their national security and foreign affairs reporting, have essentially become mouthpieces for the intelligence agencies, who routinely launder disinformation through big media.

Reagan meeting with Murdoch in the Oval Office on Jan. 18, 1983, with Charles Wick, director of the U.S. Information Agency, in the background. (Reagan presidential library)

Said Democrats Should Fight Back

Parry argued for Democrats and liberals to fight back against this hijacking of journalism. But in his later years, Bob began to decry the rise of an equally partisan Democratic media, in particular how it covered Ukraine and Syria (equally as badly as Fox) and especially the 2016 election with the rise of the Russiagate theory, which he led the way in demolishing.  In that last article, a month before he died, Parry said: 

“The trend of using journalism as just another front in no-holds-barred political warfare continued – with Democrats and liberals adapting to the successful techniques pioneered mostly by Republicans and by well-heeled conservatives.”

This was never more evident than in the obsessive and erroneous coverage of Russiagate by MSNBC, the Democrat’s Fox News, and other liberal media in an era when even the attempt at impartial journalism—literally falling into neither partisan camp—is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

Given the hyper-partisanship into which the media has devolved, Consortium News can be perplexing for some readers. While we publish many articles critical of Donald Trump and his policies, we also run many pieces critical of Joe Biden and the Democratic Party.

Because Consortium News was in the forefront of Russiagate skepticism, partisan Republicans may have falsely thought that we were in their camp and can’t accept that we criticize Trump and their party.  Partisan Democratic readers ignore our criticism of Trump and focus only on our critical views of the Democratic Party.  But this is unfortunately what happens when one reports and analyzes facts without political party bias.

A few weeks ago someone pitched a series of articles to us that would document Trump’s lies and fraudulent behavior. We agreed, but only if we ran a series of articles on Biden’s lies. Not surprisingly, that condition was turned down. The idea that a media outlet would look objectively and skeptically at both major presidential candidates, the job journalism is supposed to do, was a non-starter. It was a statement about the sad state of journalism.   

Consortium News is also faced with a pernicious trend of condemning an entire publication because one disagrees with how one subject is covered out of the hundreds of other articles that the reader might agree with.  If you don’t like one or two of our writers, consider that newspapers are meant to appeal to various audiences. 

None of this is disorienting if one understands what impartial—that is—what journalism should strive for:  a sophisticated look at politics in which the public’s interests as a whole are represented, not just the interests of one party. This now firmly established hyper-partisan, even fanatical journalism of both camps threatens the survival of journalism and a website like Consortium News. 

That’s why we urge you to help a bastion of impartiality like our site to continue.  The size of a media outlet does not indicate its worthiness. We may still be a pebble in the vast sea of perverse partisan propaganda, but we believe it’s a pebble crucially worth saving.

Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston GlobeSunday Times of London and numerous other newspapers. He began his professional career as a stringer for The New York Times.  He can be reached at joelauria@consortiumnews.com and followed on Twitter @unjoe .

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18 comments for “Impartial Journalism Must Be Saved

  1. Jeff Harrison
    June 14, 2020 at 19:52

    As Cara said a good historical review. I would like to add this is not solely an American concept lots of people from Joe Friday’s “Just the facts ma’am” to the world’s most mendacious newspaper under the Soviet governments – Pravda – a Russian word that means the ultimate truth, people have tended to want to know what is actually going on but at this point they’ve been lied to so much I suspect that many don’t believe it’s possible to actually find out what’s going on. It is possible but you won’t get it from the MSM. That’s where CN and other “alternate” (or, as I would have it, frequently honest) news outlets come in. CN needs your financial support and I was surprised to find when I went to the Apple store to buy a game of solitaire, that I could (and did) donate a dollar to the consortium for independent news.

  2. Farhad
    June 12, 2020 at 03:54

    I wonder what is in it for an eight year presidency to justify all these issues ?????

  3. DH Fabian
    June 11, 2020 at 19:15

    There is no “impartial journalism.” The leading form of censorship in the US consists of the issues and crises today’s media choose to disregard.

  4. John Drake
    June 11, 2020 at 18:17

    Having been a psychotherapist at one point, among a number of other more hands on jobs: I don’t believe there is any such thing as objectivity. To put it briefly, it is all about perception which is highly influenced by ones values; and perception determines analytic response. This is why the Rorschach inkblot test is so useful.

    That said I would have more confidence in someone who knows their values and prejudices; than someone who claims impartiality. Of course we must try, being able to see multiple conflicting ideas and sort them out relatively fairly is the mark of mental acuity and flexibility. That is, someone who can change their mind when they realize they are wrong.

    On another note, I would like to add to the information on Murdoch. He made a deal with Reagan for the government to relax some of the media ownership rules-designed to prevent a monopoly of information and news- in return for overtly supporting Reagan editorially and in “news” columns. This is how he got so big, so quick. He had done the same deal with Thatcher; and the rest is history, disgustingly enough. Another of ways Reagan damaged this country.

    • Joe Lauria
      June 12, 2020 at 00:12

      This article is about journalism not aligning with a political party, which is certainly doable, as Consortium News does not report from the point of view either party and is therefore impartial. Being neutral was a challenge reporters underwent to achieve the aims of the profession. It is possible to overcome one’s own biases to do a job, like a doctor treating the enemy on the battlefield. There are many fine examples of impartial, objective journalism, but they are becoming harder to find. If your profession weres journalism, you would understand this.

    • robert e williamson jr
      June 14, 2020 at 17:28

      John far be it for my crazy ass to tangle with a psychotherapist, something I hope to avoid. I do happen to agree with the idea Reagan damaged the country, boy did he ever. Him and 41 & the Co.

      Your second paragraph seems to me to be very revealing. Again I agree with much of what you write here and I believe you have hit upon the biggest problem with objectivity these days.

      In my humble opinion, Americans at large cannot be expected to exhibit truthfulness, mental acuity or flexibility. I certainly see few signs of it myself. For the sake of Dog no one seems to have the ability either change their mind or admit they are wrong. The reason for this as I see it is lying. Lying, telling the lie has become acceptable because no ever is held accountable. The lie lingers , distorting and hiding the truth and no one seems to care. Why, maybe because everyone does it. Ask Ruppert Murdoch. Hell Reagan didn’t know sick em’ anyway, he had Alzheimer’s.

      I see being objective much as the same as being truthful. Undoubtedly few of us can be totally objective about everything, few will admit that, even fewer possess the ability to assess their own values and prejudices honesty, it’s a lack mental acuity, flexibility and being honest with themselves. The result of spiraling downward dumbness.

      We might recover some objectively if individuals could discuss issues without the emotions of feeling they “have” to right about everything. I readily realize I have no objectivity when it comes to the U.S.’s two political parties. Little of either truth or objectivity can be found these days in the congress. It’s so bad that I really don’t want to hear their BS anymore.

    • aNanyMouse
      June 14, 2020 at 20:40

      When Joe refers to “what journalism should strive for: a sophisticated look at politics in which the public’s interests as a whole are represented”, I must stress, that a neccessary condition for this goal is, at a minimum, to accurately report what the parties actually say, rather than the hatchet-job straw-man reporting which has become ever-more common.
      It was bad, when the MSM creamed Gore over “inventing the internet”, when that’s not what he said.
      It got worse, when the MSM creamed Trump over “calling Mexicans ‘rapists’ “, when that’s not what he did.

      Had he actually called Mexicans ‘rapists’, that ought to have precluded him from being PoTUS.
      Instead, when the MSM hurled such a false but incendiary charge at him, it boosted his backers’ (and some fair-minded folks’) suspicions, that the purportedly “professional” MSM were mostly partisan hacks.
      There’s bias, and then there’s hyper-bias. Only fools or monsters can’t see any difference.

  5. June 11, 2020 at 17:38

    Let’s not forget the pernicious influence of corporate control either. When the objective is to get more readers, viewers or clicks, tuning your “journalism” to your target audience is very effective. When controlling/reducing cost is more important than doing real journalism, then we get faux-investigative journalism which consists of asking establishment figures on ‘both sides’ of the aisle to comment. If both are lying, we never hear about it. If neither side wants to discuss it, we never hear about it. Real investigative journalism costs money and sometimes results in stories that advertisers and consumers don’t want to hear.

    Very few internet news sites apply a standard of objectivity. We get only one side of the argument or we get a free-for-all where the reader has to take responsibility for separating the actual news and analysis from the conspiracy theories, racist diatribes, and rampant speculation. I’ll be making a donation and I hope most other readers will do the same.

  6. dean 1000
    June 11, 2020 at 12:53

    Websites like CN really important now given the sad state of journalism. If news organizations want to keep their readers and viewers they must provide accurate timely news. People will not come back to TV, radio, newspapers if they are getting lies, distortions, disinformation, pap, propaganda, etc. If news organizations want the eyeballs they will have to maintain an objective and non-partisan approach. Fox and MSNBC are the exceptions that the prove the rule. When a dramatic event occurs, most people will go to a station or website that has a reputation for accuracy and objectivity.

    Good link to the Fairness Doctrine, Joe. The fairness doctrine was a good start but it is not enough. It has a closer relation to self-defense than to free political speech. The US will not get closer to free political speech than every federal election district having a TV/radio station where candidates can debate and speechify w/o paying tribute to a TV station that has a government granted monopoly. It would take a majority vote of congress rather than a constitutional amendment.

  7. Aaron
    June 10, 2020 at 21:25

    I see this perception management manifested when I observe people in public, not taking the virus seriously, it’s clear that they’ve been carefully brainwashed by guys like Casey to not worry anymore about it.
    Abraham Lincoln believed “All I have learned, I learned from books”. Imagine the level of a mind who has “learned” all of their ideas from Limbaugh/Murdoch/Thomas Friedman/Presidential tweets, etc. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but that’s just what many people are doing to their minds.

  8. rosemerry
    June 10, 2020 at 16:45

    Thanks to Joe and CN for the work they, the team and the commenters do for our benefit. How anyone can pretend that the “Democratic Party” cannot be criticised because Trump is so extreme amazes me, but I am not a US citizen or resident, but as a person anywhere in the world I am influenced by US policies.

    My understanding is that one of the big lobbies against the “Fairness doctrine” was apparently the Evangelical Christian groups, which before Reagan tended not to vote in large numbers but once they did, needed the help of lack of refutation by media in order to gain influence, and Reagan’s removal of the doctrine, after nearly 40 years, had this effect. The relentlessly partisan mass and social media of today show us the result.

    • Josep
      June 11, 2020 at 21:30

      I think it was in 1987 when the Fairness Doctrine was removed, so I’d say it’s been nearly 33 years.

  9. Cara MariAnna
    June 10, 2020 at 16:01

    Thank you, Joe. Very good, if sickening, historical overview of the sad decline of journalism in the U.S. I very much appreciate CN (and CN Live) and all you do.

  10. June 10, 2020 at 15:02

    Too bad it’s fictional. Journalists are human beings, last I looked, and human beings have points of view and pre-judgments. This is obvious even reading relatively dispassionate local news: you can tell what the writer really thinks about, eg, the behavior of the police.

    Originally, American newspapers were almost all affiliated with a political party, quite openly. This was true even into the 50’s, when I was growing up. There was, for instance, a sharp contrast between the Indianapolis Star, quite conservative, and the Louisville Courier-Journal, quite liberal – and generally more informative, or so my parents thought.

    I think full disclosure is more useful than the pretense of “impartiality”. That has lead mostly to “balanced” journalism with a he-said vs. she-said style. Of course, a competent journalist can still pick quotes that make one side look like an idiot and the other look “presidential.” And the most important control is over what is reported at all; that happens at the editorial level, with little public responsibility. He who chooses the questions controls the “conversation” – aka, the propaganda. Better to just take responsibility for your own views.

    • Joe Lauria
      June 12, 2020 at 00:07

      It’s not a pretense. It is possible to purse the profession without aligning with a political party. That is what this article is about.

  11. michael888
    June 10, 2020 at 12:59

    Not only did Nixon go behind LBJ’s back for a “better” peace offer to North Vietnam, George Herbert Walker Bush also sprung the October Surprise offering a “better” deal to the Iranians if they held off on releasing the American hostages; a major reason Carter lost to Reagan. We recently saw John Kerry working on behalf of the Iranians, which may explain their reticence to come to the negotiation table.
    Agreed that Republicans pioneered the right wing talk shows and media, but arguably this was just the free market and private actors spewing their slants (televangelists did it much earlier, to bigger effect, and profit). The Democrats have amped up the narrative control, doing away with propaganda laws (“modernizing”– essentially abolishing– Smith Mundt), allowing six owners to control all mass media, and having the intelligence agencies work for the DNC, fighting Trump even after they lost in 2016 (the CIA “whistleblower” and impeachment over Trump’s slow release of funds to Ukraine– although Biden bragged of doing the same thing, withholding money until Ukraine replaced Shokin with Lutsinko). It is one thing to have Rachel Maddow pushing Russiagate for three years, a neocon balance to Trump, quite another to have the federal bureaucracy continue allegiance to the previous administration and not do their jobs. While Obama was President, the MSM pushed his agendas and narratives along with the Establishment. With outsider Trump, both the MSM and federal bureaucracy have undercut him at every turn (see three years of Russiagate investigation BS, a dangerous racist attempt at yet another war). Look for the Republicans to rachet up the same partisan gamesmanship, when they get the chance. The ones who will suffer first are the Progressives, not Establishment Democrats.

    • John Drake
      June 11, 2020 at 17:56

      I think you meant to say South Vietnam. This is explained fully in the link from ..”1968 sabotage of President Johnson’s Vietnam peace talks…” This and the USS Liberty incident under LBJ are the most treacherous things a US president has done in modern history.( see USS Liberty Veterans site for a disgraceful shocker).

    • Joe Wallace
      June 15, 2020 at 04:50

      In an article by Robert Parry if I’m not mistaken, he stated that at Consortium News, “We don’t care WHAT the truth is; we care what the TRUTH is.” Seems to me you’re strongly committed to impartiality if you pursue the truth, and don’t care where it leads.

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