Let's say you were part of a group designing the news media from scratch. Someone says that it would be a good idea to have competing news media -- daily newspapers and weekly magazines, radio and television news programs. Sounds like a good start.
Someone else says that it would be a good idea to staff these news media with people who are literate and well-educated. Check. Then someone says let's have 90 percent of the people who work for these organizations be from one of the nation's two competitive political parties and 10 percent from the other.
Uh, you might find yourself saying, especially if you weren't sure that your party would get the 90 percent, maybe that's not such a good idea. But that's the news media we have today.
Surveys galore have shown that somewhere around 90 percent of the writers, editors and other personnel in the news media are Democrats and only about 10 percent are Republicans. We depend on the news media for information about government and politics, foreign affairs and war, public policy and demographic trends -- for a picture of the world around us. But the news comes from people 90 percent of whom are on one side of the political divide. Doesn't sound like an ideal situation.
Of course, a lot of people in the news business say it doesn't make any difference. I remember a conversation I had with a broadcast news executive many years ago.
"Doesn't the fact that 90 percent of your people are Democrats affect your work product?" I asked.
"Oh, no, no," he said. "Our people are professional. They have standards of objectivity and professionalism, so that their own views don't affect the news."
"So what you're saying," I said, "is that your work product would be identical if 90 percent of your people were Republicans."
He quickly replied, "No, then it would be biased."
I have been closely acquainted with newsroom cultures for more than 30 years, and I recognize the attitude. Only liberals can see the world clearly. Conservatives are prevented by their warped and ungenerous views from recognizing the world as it is.
The New York Times and The Washington Post have often hired as reporters writers who have worked on liberal publications like The New Republic, The Washington Monthly and The American Prospect -- and many of those writers have produced fine work. But they have never hired as reporters writers who have worked on conservative publications like National Review, The Weekly Standard and The American Spectator. News media executives like to brag about the diversity of their staffs, but there is precious little political diversity in most newsrooms.
And of course this affects the work product. Consider two stories in the New York Times last month. On March 8, the Times ran a long story about a woman from Biloxi, Miss., and her problems getting aid from the government after Hurricane Katrina. Turned out she wasn't from Biloxi, was not a Katrina victim and had been fraudulently obtaining government aid.
"For its profile, the Times did not conduct adequate interviews or public record checks to verify Ms. Fenton's account," the Times admitted in a correction on March 23.
On March 11, the Times ran a story about an Iraqi identified as the man in a famous photograph of the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Turned out he wasn't the man in the photo. On March 18, the Times ran another correction: "The Times should have been more persistent in seeking comment from the military."
Both of these too-good-to-check stories of course reflected badly on the Bush administration, which seems to be a requirement for getting your story in the Times these days. The relentlessly negative coverage of Iraq in most news outlets falls in the same category. Stories about American heroes, stories about soldiers building schools and water systems, stories about the successes of Iraqis -- you have to look awfully hard to find them in most news media today. What you do see is a determination to make Vietnam and Watergate happen again.
All of which brings to mind an old politician's comment on an idealistic young colleague: "He actually thinks this place is on the level." The good news is that many Americans have caught on. Newspaper circulation is down, and so is viewership of broadcast TV network news. New media offering a different point of view -- talk radio, Fox News, the blogosphere -- are thriving. We can't design the news media from scratch, but we can scratch some of the news media we have.