Thirty years ago I wrote a column about the pitfalls of advocacy journalism in which I spotlighted A. Kent MacDougall, who routinely and proudly abused his trust as a “reporter” for 24 years with The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times. Writing in the November and December 1989 issues of the Monthly Review, a periodical that describes itself as “an independent socialist magazine,” MacDougall proudly outed himself.
He bragged about his undercover operation as a Marxist mole and propagandist who despised capitalism and spun his reporting to advance his ideology, citing socialist Eugene V. Debs as his “all-time favorite American” and communist Karl Marx as his “all-time favorite journalist.” I did my bit,” he proclaimed, “to sop up the surplus value generated by productive industry and channel it into the wasteful sales effort, thereby helping capitalism stave off crisis and creak a while longer…At The Wall Street Journal, I exposed the simplistic, jingoistic editorial policies of such leading retrogressive periodicals as the New York Daily News, Time magazine and Reader’s Digest. I introduced Journal readers to the ideas of radical historians, radical economists and the left-wing journalist I.F. Stone in sympathetic page one stories. I helped popularize radical ideas with lengthy, sympathetic profiles of Marxist economists Paul Sweezy and John Gurley.” “I made sure,” he boasted unabashedly, “to seek out experts whose opinions I knew in advance would support my thesis.”
“The day after my 55th birthday,” he gloated, “I announced my resignation from The Times. I picked up a pension (opposing the system is no reason to pass up an opportunity to make it work for oneself) and joined the faculty of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley as a professor. Tenure gives me the luxury of coming out of the ideological closet at last.”
Keep in mind, these are the words of a so-called reporter, not an editorialist. It’s not unlikely that he would indoctrinate his students as a journalism professor.
Now, the MacDougall story is anecdotal and, I’d hope, extreme. I don’t claim it’s representative of most journalists in their role as reporters. But it’s certainly true of some, in relative degrees, and obvious in their work. MacDougall’s manipulative device of featuring experts who he knew would echo his own opinions and ignoring others who wouldn’t is all too common in “news” stories today.
Even fair-minded reporters who attempt to filter out their biases don’t always succeed. We’re all the product of our learned or instinctive, subjective perceptions, perspectives and experiences. Perfect objectivity is an idealistic goal, not realistically achievable. And it’s indisputable that the dominant culture of journalism is liberal advocating for causes like social justice, income inequality, collectivism, gun control, open borders, and global warming alarmism consistent with the liberal Democrat agenda. Yes, there are some journalists with a conservative bias who advocate for their favored causes like limited government, Constitutional originalism, property rights, meritocracy, free markets, border security and strong national defense. But conservatives are greatly outnumbered in the profession of journalism.
The notion that liberal advocacy journalism is a noble undertaking is preached in college journalism classrooms and reinforced in liberal newsrooms, asserting that the role of journalists is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Ironically, that phrase goes back to 1902 in the words of Finley Peter Dunn, a political satirist who actually believed that journalists should do no such thing. He put those words in the mouth of a fictional, curmudgeonly Irishman he created, “Mr. Dooley,” who proclaimed them in this sarcastic rant: “The newspaper does everything for us. It runs the police force and the banks, commands the militia, controls the legislature, baptizes the young, marries the foolish, comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, buries the dead, and roasts them afterwards.”
Through Mr. Dooley, Dunne was actually damning the journalists of his day for their bias and presumptuous sanctimony in picking winners and losers, cheerleading for their favored causes, factions and persons, and editorializing in the guise of reporting. Objectively, the comfortable don’t necessarily deserve to be afflicted, and those who are self-destructively afflicted or indolent don’t automatically deserve to be rewarded. Honest, ethical reporters should stick to reporting, not opining.
Journalists play a vital role in a free society holding miscreants accountable. But they’re not philosopher kings with superior standing over others to judge morality, justice and public policy. They’re just people with a voice, a pen and an opinion ─ which ought to be confined to the editorial pages.
Longtime KOA radio talk host and columnist for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News Mike Rosen now writes for CompleteColorado.com.