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Crafting an appearance, shielding reality

Imagine a candidate for office, maybe one seeking a newspaper’s endorsement, saying something like this: “No, I’m not going to tell you what I really think about that hot-button topic. I’m a politician. So I’m going to craft a stance that artfully straddles the issue to avoid offending anyone, while carefully dodging any disclosure of my real thinking. That bit of truthiness is good enough to pass, right?”

And of course it wouldn’t be: Reality is what’s important to journalists, not just image, right?

Well, tell that to Seattle Times news management, which is (not that this is unusual among American newspapers) discouraging news employees, especially those having anything to do with political coverage, from any political activity which might go public and indicate – gasp! – what personal opinions they might have.

The Times’ political editor, David Postman, writes that Executive Editor David Boardman has posted a memo which begins: “Our profession demands impartiality as well as the appearance of impartiality.” And goes on, “Staff members should avoid active involvement in any partisan causes that compromise the reader’s trust in the newspaper’s ability to report and edit fairly.”

Let’s rewrite that unkindly: “We all know you guys have opinions, at least we hope so, since if you didn’t that would indicate you’re not informed or smart enough to be here. The reading public is obviously aware of that too. We just don’t want to level with the public; we’d rather pretend that you’ve all somehow managed to deaden the opinion-making parts of your brains.”

Outside the news business, there’s a real lack of clarity about how a journalist can be opinionated and nonetheless fair and neutral in reporting. It can be done. On a day to day basis (speaking from background of working in newsrooms for 15 years or so), that’s not hard to understand. Widely understood and commonly accepted standards go into news reporting, and there’s a real professional pressure against reporting that veers too far positive or negative. The reconciliation of personal opinion with straight reportage is not as far-fetched as many people think; we’ve seen people with a wide range of personal views pull it off with solid professionalism.

At the same time, the violation of those standards, which of course happens too (and altogether too much nationally in recent years), happens in many of the best shops and in many of newsrooms where some of the toughest don’t-get-involved policies are posted.

Of himself, Postman writes, “I vote in all elections except for the presidential primary. I have not wanted to put my name on a list that identifies any party preference. And I would never participate in a caucus given that that is a party operation and not a public vote.”

Okay. But suppose he actually did the radical thing – you know, exercise his franchise to participate politically – and got himself listed and went a-caucusing. Would his writings on politics be less credible somehow?

Someone out there may think so, but we wouldn’t. In the end, what Postman (and his many counterparts major and minor) actually writes and reports is what matters, and that either stands up – is fair, accurate and makes sense – or it doesn’t. The only difference is that at present, we’re just left to guess at Postman’s (and other Timesians’) views and leanings, and how they may relate to what we read.

Not to mention that most of the political activists in Washington state already have plenty to say, regularly, about the horrible bias in the Times and every other news organization in sight. Newsroom policies notwithstanding.

And of course you know how political junkies are when a guessing game is afoot . . .

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