Q: Do you think a good journalist needs to be sceptical of authority?
A: Are you questioning my objectivity?
Sydney Morning Herald journalist David Marr caused a kafuffle in 2004 when he commented at the ACIJ’s George Munster forum that journalists naturally belonged to “a soft leftie kind of culture”. The forum was aired, as usual, on Radio National’s ‘Big Ideas’ program.
Marr’s comments were seized on by columnists like Paddy McGuinness as proof, not only of his personal bias, but the ABC’s: “the Herald is a commercial enterprise and no one is compelled to buy it or pay for it. It is what he reflects about the ABC that is the problem. …the Left team expects its propaganda to be financed by the taxpayer… Marr stands as an indictment of the ABC and the kind of journalism it breeds.”
Marr was not discussing journalists’ political opinions, but rather the underlying “culture” of journalism as “inquiry sceptical of authority”. “I mean, that’s just the world out of which journalists come. If they don’t come out of that world, they really can’t be reporters. I mean, if you’re not sceptical of authority, find another job…And that is kind of a soft leftie kind of culture.”
McGuinness was outraged: “What arrogance and bias is wrapped up in the assertion that only the “soft Left” is sceptical of authority!”
“This assumes that authority is anything and anyone whom the Left holds in opprobrium.”
McGuinness said that journalists like Marr are much more enthusiastic in their scepticism of John Howard than of, for example, the ACTU. He also referred to a history of support amongst the left for the authoritarian governments of Castro and Stalin.
Commentators from both the left and the right are fond of accusing the media of systemic bias. A survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center released this year showed that while US journalists are not predominately liberal, they are more liberal than the public at large. Only 9 percent of the 673 journalists interviewed described themselves as conservative, compared to 38 percent of the general public:
“Question: How would you describe your political thinking? Would you say you are very liberal, liberal, moderate, conservative, very conservative, or libertarian?
Very liberal 5%
Very conservative 1%
Don’t know 1%
This is the first evidence I have come across that journalists are to the left of the general population (or, more accurately, that they consider themselves to be more ‘liberal’ or moderate). The interesting question is why. Is Marr right? Is there some kind of inherent link between the characteristics of a good journalist and a ‘soft left’ philosophy? I think this depends on which political spectrum the journalist is on the ‘left’ of.
In McGuinness’ piece, he argues that the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ are now “devoid of real content”, other than as “a hangover of musty old ideological notions”. This idea is not a new one, and it put me in mind of a project called the ‘political compass’ – an attempt to update the old left-right spectrum for more complex times:
“On the standard left-right scale, how do you distinguish leftists like Stalin and Gandhi? It’s not sufficient to say that Stalin was simply more left than Gandhi. There are fundamental political differences between them that the old categories on their own can’t explain. Similarly, we generally describe social reactionaries as ‘right-wingers’, yet that leaves left-wing reactionaries like Robert Mugabe and Pol Pot off the hook.”
On the political compass, a ‘libertarian-authoritarian’ scale is added to the economic left-right scale to make a two-dimensional chart that takes both social and economic philosophy into account (click on ‘analysis’ and then ‘view the analysis’ to see the chart – unless you want to take the test first!).
Because most people describe the ‘top’ of the authoritarian scale as ‘right’, it is easy to see why Marr might have described journalistic culture as ’soft left’.
I would argue that the philosophy (if not always the practice) of journalism is profoundly anti-authoritarian. Free media is the first thing to be banned by authoritarian governments, and journalists are rarely applauded by their peers for ‘comforting the powerful and afflicting the powerless’. But where does scepticism of authority come from? University degrees? Observation of the behaviour of authority figures during the practice of their profession? Possibly. It could also come from an underlying political belief, such as the belief that power corrupts, or that power should not be concentrated in the hands of the few.
In ‘The Crowded Theater’, Douglas McCollam, a contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review, writes:
“Reporters often seem perplexed by the venomous attacks directed at them. They have a hard time seeing that it is not so much the idea of bias that infuriates their critics as the refusal to admit any bias at all. That line is getting increasingly hard to toe, so I’ll suggest an alternative that most reporters, of whatever political camp, might find acceptable: go ahead and admit an obvious bias — a bias against power. It is a presumption in keeping with the profession’s tradition of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Some may still call it liberal, and to the extent that it is suspicious of the status quo, they would be right in a way. But I am advocating admitting to an active suspicion of concentrated financial and political influence and those who stand to benefit from it, not the promotion of any particular ideology, cause, or agenda. This stance puts journalists directly in the crosshairs of any ruling cadre, which is just where they should be.”
The exhortation to be suspicious of of ‘concentrated financial and political influence’ provides some clues about where ‘journalistic culture’ might find itself on the economic spectrum. Every economic system contains the potential for the concentration and abuse of economic power – on the left this is usually in the hands of state bureaucrats, on the right in the hands of large corporations.
In a socialist country, a reporter following McCollam’s advice will probably spend a lot of time uncovering corruption and economic inefficiency, and may therefore find herself labelled as anti-socialist. In a free-market country, she will find herself investigating monopolies, political donations, and inequality, and may find herself labelled anti-capitalist.
The constant scrutiny of ‘concentrated financial and political influence’ could end up influencing a journalist’s political beliefs. By observing the abuse of power, she might end up in favour of polices to curb it – and these policies may well be towards the other end of the economic spectrum in which she finds herself.
Conversely, a philosophy that is at odds with the status quo may provide a strong incentive for journalists to have a ‘bias against power’ in the first place. How well could a passionate socialist critique Castro? How effectively could a passionate free-marketeer scrutinise the Fortune 500 companies?
Of course, journalists often do report in ways that conflict with their personal biases – in many cases they even overcompensate for them in attempt to attain that elusive ‘objectivity’. But I suspect that the best in-depth investigative reporting is driven by a bias against the status quo.
Paddy McGuinness, ‘Prejudice mars objective approach’ The Australian, March 18, 2005
‘The Crowded Theater’, Douglas McCollam, Columbia Journalism Review, 2005 issue 4