Let’s start with the first myth of journalism, that the media are independent and objective, only out to find the truth of a story and nothing more. The assumption is patently false. Simply put, there is no such thing as objectivity in reporting, editing, broadcasting, or publishing and truth depends on who is interpreting the story. Everyone has a point of view and everyone brings that to what they do in the media. Choices are made about what to include in a story, what words to use, subjects to interview, and more. The idea that newspapers and other media are anything but subjective is ridiculous. Believing otherwise is not much different than believing Santa Claus will climb down your chimney to deliver Christmas gifts to good boys and girls.
With that said let’s take a look at what Gannett Newspapers recently announced in Wisconsin, where an effort to recall Governor Scott Walker this past year resulted in a million signatures being turned in to recall him and almost another million turned in to recall five other Republicans, including the Lieutenant Governor and four Senators. Genia Lovett, President and Publisher of the Appleton Post-Crescent, one of Gannett’s holdings in Wisconsin, wrote an editorial announcing that nine of their employees and 25 Gannett employees throughout the state had signed the petitions to recall Scott Walker and that they would be facing disciplinary measures. The editorial also noted that employees were not allowed to have yard signs, to join political campaigns, or even to sign nominating papers (which doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll vote for the person). This is the same newspaper that proudly broke a story that 29 circuit judges had signed the petitions.
While we’re at it let’s throw out the idea of judicial impartiality as well. While judges do not run as candidates of a particular party all of them are human beings with their own viewpoints. There is such a thing as judicial activism and it goes both ways. Even Supreme Court Justices like David Prosser appear at party fundraisers and other functions that make it clear where their political persuasions stand. Did anyone not know in his last election which of the candidates was conservative and which was liberal? If so, they were not paying attention at all. Most judges do their best to keep their own political opinions out of their judicial decisions, but their belief systems certainly can have an influence on how they rule. To be blunt they are not impartial. Period. They bring their life experiences, political beliefs, and value systems to their decisions. They cannot do otherwise without being automatons and it is precisely their capacities as human beings that we rely upon when they interpret law.
The question is not one of impartiality in either reporting or rendering judicial decisions. The question is this: are certain citizens, whose jobs are founded upon the myth of objectivity, to be precluded from taking full part in the rights and responsibilities of citizenship? Are the judges who signed the recall petitions to be held accountable as jurists who cannot maintain impartiality when their fellow judges’ failure to sign the petition could be construed as tacit endorsement of the Governor? Can a private business like Gannett, even one that pretends to be impartial in all that they do and has employees sign an ethics agreement, tell their employees what they can and cannot do politically in their personal lives outside of work? Do they, or any employer, have the right to oversee employees’ conduct outside of work in any way? In the 1800’s schools could monitor who their teachers dated and impose certain moral codes upon them. Do we really want to return to that? Apparently Gannett, and presumably other newspapers, has maintained this policy for years, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is either right or Constitutional. The concept is chilling.
It is particularly chilling because it is predicated upon a lie, a myth. Granted, a newspaper must appear to be as neutral as possible. These days it is likely not so much out of truth-seeking as protection of their own interests. Newspapers that clearly fall on one side of the political spectrum could soon face the possibility of losing half of their potential advertising revenue if they appear to have too much of a political point of view. Astute subscribers read between the lines to know where their hometown paper stands. The newspaper’s views come across in ways like editorial decisions and other more subtle choices. Newspapers have also set up the editorial page as the one place where opinions are openly allowed and these pages further the illusion of impartiality by allowing letters to the editor and occasional guest columns. The editorial staff still decides which of these get published and also reserves the right to edit for length or content.
Newspapers also, through their editorial pages, endorse candidates for public office. To be fair the Post-Crescent, which is generally considered to be a conservative newspaper, did endorse Walker’s opponent, Tom Barrett, in the 2010 gubernatorial election. But to tell employees of a newspaper that they cannot engage in certain political activities because the public has to trust them to be neutral while at the same time endorsing any candidates for political office and also taking positions on matters of public interest seems to be the height of hypocrisy.
Back in the old days editors didn’t even pretend. They would boldly christen their newspapers with names like the Democrat, the Republican Journal, the Independent, and other names which clearly told their readers where they stood on issues of the day. Maybe we should go back to that and abandon the pretense. It would at least be more honest, and employees could engage in the political process to their hearts’ content.