I heard over the weekend from a retired night city editor from an Ohio newspaper who sent me an article from the New York Post about media bias and the presidential election.
He, and the authors of the article, believe the mainstream media is outrageously in favor of Hillary Clinton. Not that the old editor was especially a Donald Trump supporter.
“There’s never been an election with two less-qualified candidates,” he said, but added, “but that still doesn’t give journalists the right to choose sides so blatantly.”
I thought he raised an interesting question.
What I say on the air, by the way, is clearly labeled opinion – my own, similar to columns and editorials in newspapers.
Journalists tend to assume everyone can tell the difference.
Well, everyone hasn’t been to journalism school, and when newspapers put columns denouncing Trump on the front page, it is easy to not be able to tell that this isn’t supposed to be seen as news.
The article in the New York Post was actually over the top on the other side, and I stopped reading it after it claimed that the mainstream media treated ISIS better than Trump.
Further emails from my old friend revealed that he in fact had become one of those who believe there was a conspiracy between the evil Clintons and the president he calls “Obummer.”
But there is a problem here, if not exactly the one the retired editor sees.
I think that the New York Times in particular has allowed its horror over the prospect of a Trump presidency to influence its straight news coverage.
Bias in journalism is often like pornography; you can’t necessarily define it, but if you’ve been around for a while, you know it when you see it.
However, something else is going on here that is different from any other campaign. According to various fact-checking news organizations, somewhere between 70 and 91 percent of Trump’s statements are blatant lies. Clinton is no saint to be sure, but has only been shading the truth about half the time. Of course lying, or at least grossly exaggerating, has been standard operating procedure in politics ever since George Washington left the building.
But it is also apparent that Trump has no idea how government works, how complex and delicate agencies and networks like the Federal Reserve or nuclear command and control work, and even worse, couldn’t care less.
Journalism is not stenography.
If a nutty doctor were to start alleging that eye surgery was best performed with a chain saw, I would view it as unethical to merely print that unchallenged.
That, by the way, was how the 1950s demagogue Joe McCarthy gained so much power; he kept saying outrageous lies about communist infiltration of government, which newspapers printed without comment, causing people to assume they were true.
It took someone with the stature of Edward R. Murrow to bring him down, and he had to sacrifice his career to do it.
But there is no Murrow or Walter Cronkite today, someone respected by both left and right. Increasingly, Americans tend to watch and read only media that doesn’t challenge them, and plays to the biases they start with.
And that may just be the most ominous thing of all.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.