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Published: Friday, 7/25/2008

Firewall between news, opinion crumbling in media outlets

IN 14 years of writing an op-ed column for The Blade, my biases have been unabashed. They're right out there on everything from people to policy. Frequently, they provoke strong reader reaction, some virulently opposed, some favorably disposed.

But that means I'm doing my job as an opinion writer in telling you what I think whether you like it or not. By contrast, the journalists who file news reports operate under a distinctly different set of rules - or should. While they may deliver their stories with admirable style and skill, their personal biases about whatever they're covering should not be evident.

When they are, it's clear the person assigned to report the news has inserted himself or herself into the story, coloring or subtly interpreting the facts instead of simply reporting them. The result, of course, is slanted news coverage that reflects not only the particular bias of the reporter, but the newsroom gatekeepers who allow or even encourage such reporting to occur.

Unfortunately, the firewall that used to separate news from opinion either no longer exists in many sectors of the media or has become so blurred as to be irrelevant. Fox News, for example, has made a media niche for itself by injecting a blatant conservative bent into whatever news it reports.

Today it is undeniably the Republican cable network for news and analysis just as MSNBC could arguably be called the Democrats' domain for coverage and commentary. Certainly the major networks could join the latter in liberal leanings, with the way they often position and cover some news stories.

Truth is, many news organizations, both electronic and print, increasingly permit a prevailing liberal or conservative opinion to influence news judgment and change the way a story is cast for public consumption. But occasionally such bias is so transparent that the public calls the media out on its group thinking.

In the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq - and for too long afterward - media reports were infused with patriotic fervor instead of objectivity, which might have produced more critical questioning of the administration's disastrous pre-emptive war policy. In 2008, the ridiculously lopsided press coverage of candidates in the presidential race has not been lost on many Americans.

According to a new poll by Rasmussen Reports, half of us think the media is trying to help Sen. Barack Obama win the White House. Rasmussen found 49 percent of likely voters, out of survey of 1,000 respondents, believed news coverage would definitely favor the Democrat in the fall.

Only 14 percent of those surveyed expected reporters' stories to boost Sen. John McCain's campaign. Never mind that the job of those reporting on the presidential election should have nothing to do with favoring or boosting anyone involved.

Yet try convincing Americans of that journalism tenet after watching the anchors for ABC, NBC, and CBS fawning like fools over Senator Obama's overseas trip. No wonder the poll reveals that less than a quarter of voters- 24 percent - now trust the news media to report on the election without bias.

News honchos have plenty of reasons to explain why press coverage of Mr. Obama vastly outstrips that of Mr. McCain, including the newness of the candidate and the historical significance of his candidacy. Unspoken explanations may be that the very junior Illinois senator is simply a more interesting candidate than the one who's been on the scene a lot longer.

But more than frustrating the McCain camp - and the Clinton camp before that - the perceived preferential treatment of Mr. Obama by the press is unsettling to many within the journalism ranks. Preferences, platitudes, and polarizing opinions belong here, in a clearly designated opinion piece, or on the editorial page, where the opinions of a paper are expressed.

News reporting, on the other hand, is supposed to take no position or include any personal sentiment affecting the tenor or content of a story. But of course it does, numerous times, in local and network reporting that is heavily weighted to one side.

The danger of opinions making news instead of the other way around is that truth becomes subjective. And with news outlets across the country constricting as revenues fall, with staff reductions and closed bureaus, less and less objective journalists are left to ask the critical questions, to report the facts without prejudice.

The view the public receives of controversy or chaos or presidential candidates gets narrower and narrower. And the result is a country more confused, broadly uninformed, and distrustful of its dwindling news sources than ever, at a serious loss to decide who will lead it the next four years.

At least that's my opinion, like it or not.



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