IF YOU'RE A REPORTER at the Washington Post and you aspire to write unsigned editorials, just send an e-mail to the ombudsman.
That was the lesson of an extraordinary late February column by Patrick Pexton, the Post man who, during his recently ended two-year term, represented “readers who have concerns or complaints” about “accuracy, fairness, ethics and the newsgathering process.” One such reader wrote to Pexton and a Post reporter to complain that the paper’s coverage of same-sex marriage gave “short shrift” to “the conservative, pro-family side of the argument.”
Pexton, who withheld the names of both the reader and the reporter “at their requests,” quoted the reporter’s response at length:
The reason that legitimate media outlets routinely cover gays is because it is the civil rights issue of our time. Journalism, at its core, is about justice and fairness, and that’s the ‘view of the world’ that we espouse; therefore, journalists are going to cover the segment of society that is still not treated equally under the law.
The reader wrote back:
The mission of journalism is not justice. Defining justice is a political matter, not journalistic. Journalism should be about accuracy and fairness.
Whereupon the reporter dug in:
Should the media make room for racists, i.e. those people who believe that black people shouldn’t marry white people? Any story on African-Americans wouldn’t be wholly accurate without the opinion of a racist, right? Of course I have a bias. I have a bias toward fairness. The true conservative would have the same bias. The true conservative would want the government out of people’s bedrooms, and religion out of government.
In addressing the disagreement, Pexton acknowledged his own bias on the subject and his incomprehension of opposing arguments:
Many Americans feel that allowing gay men and lesbians to marry diminishes the value of their heterosexual marriages. I don’t understand this. The lesbian couple down the street raising two kids or the two men across the hall in your condominium—how do those unions take anything away from the sanctity, fidelity or joy you take in your heterosexual marriage? Isn’t your marriage, at root, based on the love and commitment you have for your spouse, not what you think about the neighbors?
That’s a straw man. I’ve been following this debate for years, and I’ve never heard opponents claim that same-sex marriage would diminish or endanger their own marriages. Their arguments are based on morality, tradition, and worries about the effects on the institution of marriage and society as a whole. The merits of those concerns are of course debatable, but Pexton is either obtuse or disingenuous in reducing them to a nonsensical appeal to self-interest.
Even so, the reporter’s self-righteous rant went too far for the ombudsman. Pexton concluded by agreeing with the reader that “The Post should do a better job of understanding and conveying to readers, with detachment and objectivity, the beliefs and the fears of social conservatives.” Along the way he came very close to conceding outright the paper’s liberal bias:
And because our profession lives and dies on the First Amendment—one of the libertarian cornerstones of the Constitution—most journalists have a problem with religionists telling people what they can and cannot do. We want to write words, read books, watch movies, listen to music, and have sex and babies pretty much when, where and how we choose.
Of course most journalists are anything but libertarian in areas where that would mean siding against the left, such as guns, education, taxes, nonsexual health care, and corporate free speech (media not included). And Pexton’s disparagement of those who disagree with him as “religionists”—meaning zealots—is invidious. Was Martin Luther King a religionist?
The anonymous reporter, however, went far beyond mere bias, and even beyond bad faith—that is, beyond abusing his credibility as an “objective” reporter to further his cause. To judge by his e-mails to the reader, he has managed a perfect Orwellian inversion. He has convinced himself that objectivity and bias (or at least his bias) are one and the same thing.
Or has he? This is where the reporter’s insistence on anonymity is telling. If he really believes that propagandizing for same-sex marriage constitutes good journalism, why wouldn’t he leap at the opportunity to express that view openly in the pages of his newspaper? There are two possible answers. One is cognitive dissonance: Upon further reflection, he realized that his view was illogical and would make him look foolish. The other is social pressure.
Notwithstanding the pervasive so-called libertarian bias that Pexton describes, it is possible that enough of the old-fashioned ethos of objectivity survives in the Post newsroom that it would be harmful to a reporter’s career to be exposed as so brazen an advocate. In other words, while there seems to be little question that the Post is biased, it may be less biased than the anonymous reporter’s screed would indicate.
If that’s the case, then by granting the reporter anonymity and not affording other reporters or editors an opportunity to respond, Pexton depicted the problem of bias at the Post in an inaccurately harsh light. That would be a disservice to readers, but even more a disservice to the Post—and especially to any conscientious journalists who work there. Imagine you’re a Post reporter who covers the debate over same-sex marriage but, unlike Pexton’s secretive scribe, you make an honest effort to play it straight and be fair to both sides. Your reputation is now tainted by the supposition—propagated in your paper’s own pages—that Post reporters believe bias is objectivity.
WHY WOULD THE POST agree to grant one of its own reporters anonymity to ventilate views that make the paper’s own newsroom look like a den of bias and unprofessionalism? According to the paper’s website, Pexton “operates under a contract with The Post that guarantees him independence.” That presumably means he had complete discretion in interpreting the paper’s policies on source confidentiality, if he was expected to follow them at all.
In his column a week earlier, Pexton broke the news that “discussions are under way within the Post” about abolishing the position of ombudsman.
For cost-cutting reasons, for modern media-technology reasons and because The Post, like other news organizations, is financially weaker and hence even more sensitive to criticism, my bet is that this position will disappear….
Can I say for certain that an ombudsman makes The Post more credible? No, I can’t point to any good study saying that. But people’s trust in the media is declining. Eliminating the ombudsman seems a shortsighted move.
Post executives did just that, and who can blame them? Surely Pexton’s spotlighting of a particularly egregious example of journalistic bias didn’t enhance the Post’s credibility. And his agreement to conceal the reporter’s identity made it difficult if not impossible for the Post’s editors to take remedial action aimed at restoring readers’ trust.
One may salute Pexton for being honest enough to broach the subject of liberal bias and to report on a compelling example of it. But even that doesn’t do much to burnish the Post’s credibility. After all, Pexton operated under a contract that guaranteed him independence. And he may not have a successor.