Three Cheers for Partisanship

Posted: Jul 06, 2004 12:00 AM

 American newspapers are struggling to survive. Most cities are down to one daily paper. So a trip to England is an eye-opener, because even the most dedicated reader couldn?t finish all of London?s 10 daily papers. But why are so many people over there reading newspapers?

 Part of the answer is that the free market works. The United States has always had a (relatively) free entertainment market. But in Britain, state support made television a socialist medium for many years. And while socialism is many things, it is not entertaining. London?s newspapers, on the other hand, have always been entertaining. That?s helped them thrive even in this television age.

 But a major factor in the survival of British newspapers is that they make no secret of their political bias. Most papers cover the same stories, but do so through slightly different political lenses. One newspaper will tend to support the Conservative side, while another will back Labour. And the reader always knows where his paper is coming from, not simply in its editorials, but on the front page, too.

 Compare this with the state of journalism in the United States, where the major media outlets all claim to be unbiased. But they?re not.
In a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, more than 40 percent of journalists surveyed admitted they believed reporters often allow their biases to come through in their stories. And, since the same survey showed that one third of national journalists describe themselves as ?liberal? (less than 10 percent called themselves ?conservative?), it?s pretty clear what those biases are.

  Meanwhile, as our media cling to the myth of ?nonbiased? coverage, the public at large becomes ever more polarized. ?This is the most deeply divided electorate in the post-World War II era. There?s no centrism here,? says David Bennett, a professor at Syracuse University?s Maxwell School.

 We already know the 2004 election will deal with some difficult issues, including the War on Terrorism, the Iraqi intervention and the Patriot Act.

Furthermore, voters already know President Bush?s stand on these issues. And they already know that Sen. Kerry opposes President Bush?s positions on these issues, even if his own policies aren?t always clear. Neither of these men is likely to change his positions between now and Nov. 2, so why should voters change theirs?

In fact, what?s surprising is that about 20 percent of registered voters still describe themselves as undecided. Then again, maybe they?re just hoping to get one of those coveted focus group slots on the major networks next fall.

Remember how, after the presidential debates in 2000, each network would roll out its panel of undecideds. ?Did this exchange help you make up your mind?? a kindly interviewer would ask. ?Well, I really liked what Gore had to say, but I agreed with Bush a lot, too. I still haven?t made up my mind,? the cheery voter would announce.
Let unsaid was the fact that, if the voter had announced he?d made a decision, he wouldn?t have been invited back after the next debate. When you reward indecisiveness, you get indecisiveness.

Indeed, it would have been more interesting to hear from a panel of harsh partisans.
Imagine an interviewer asking a viewer to explain why he still supported Bush, even though his candidate sometimes seemed lost during the debate. Or to tell us why she still backed Gore, when he seemed so condescending and programmed.

A bit of partisanship would actually be a return to our journalistic roots, since the British style has a long history on our side of the Atlantic. Alexander Hamilton founded the New York Post to serve as a vehicle for his federalist political ideas.
Readers back then knew what they were getting, and liked it.

In recent years, the Post has again started taking on a more partisan flavor, becoming something of a conservative counterpart to The New York Times. And in so doing, it?s come back from the dead to become one of the top-10 selling papers in the country.

Elsewhere, viewership is soaring at the conservative Fox News channel. ?Since 2000, the number of Americans who regularly watch Fox News has increased by nearly half from 17 percent to 25 percent,? a Pew survey found. Meanwhile, ?audiences for other cable outlets have been flat at best.? Clearly, viewers and readers are responding to a bit of media honesty.

Let?s give the British way a try. By finally admitting their biases, American news outlets would simply be coming clean for their readers and viewers. That should help boost circulation and ratings, and could as much as double the number of newspapers, assuming a conservative daily opens in every city to challenge the dominant liberal paper. Besides, in journalism, honesty would be the best policy.