Imprimis

Political Correctness in the Newsroom

Robert Novak
Columnist


Robert NovakRobert Novak writes “Inside Report,” one of the longest-running syndicated columns in the nation. With his partner, Rowland Evans, he also edits a newsletter, the Evans-Novak Political Report, and hosts CNN’s interview program “Evans and Novak.” Additionally, Mr. Novak is a roving editor for Reader’s Digest, a frequent cohost of “Crossfire,” an interviewer on “Meet the Press,” and the co-executive producer and host of CNN’s weekend roundtable, “The Capital Gang.” He has written The Agony of the GOP: 1964 and cowritten Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power, Nixon in the White House, and The Reagan Revolution.



A free press is one of the foundations of a free society. Yet Americans increasingly distrust and resent the media. A major reason is that many journalists have crossed the line from reporting to advocacy. They have, in effect, adopted a new liberal creed: “all the news that’s ‘politically correct’ to print.”

 


How does one define “political correctness” in the newsroom? One need look no further than the new style book of the Los Angeles Times, one of the largest, most influential newspapers in the nation. It forbids reporters to write about a “Dutch treat” because this phrase is allegedly insulting to the Dutch. Nor can one report that a person “welshed on a bet” because that would be insulting to the Welsh, and one certainly cannot write about a segment of our population once known simply as “Indians.” They must always be referred to as “Native Americans.” Jokingly, I asked one of the Los Angeles Times editors, “How do you refer to Indian summer? Is it now Native American summer?” He replied that he would substitute “unseasonably warm weather late in the year.”

This is what political correctness can do to language; it destroys meaning. It also demeans the ethnic groups it supposedly protects. Do we really think that these groups are so unintelligent as to be unable to distinguish between conventional idioms and genuine prejudice? Is their identity so fragile that it must depend on censorship?

People who believe in the real dignity of the individual, no matter what his race, sex, ethnicity, or other condition, shouldn’t embrace political correctness because it is bad philosophy—and reporters shouldn’t because it is bad journalism.

Elitist Reporters

Twenty-two years ago, I wrote a paper in which I alienated many of my colleagues (and won the approval of a few) for publicly stating that the national media—the five hundred or so reporters and editors based mainly in Washington, D.C. who work for newspapers, wire services and television networks—had become elitist. I noted that reporters were no longer the typical working-class populists of earlier years who lived on small salaries and who had constant contact with ordinary people, problems, and views.

But the members of the Washington press corps are even more elitist today. I am not just referring to “media stars” like, Diane Sawyer, who is earning $7 million annually. Most run-of-the-mill reporters and editors in the national media are in the top 1-2 percent of income earners in the nation. A Washington bureau chief makes over $100,000 a year; a senior reporter makes over $70,000 a year. Is it surprising that many of them have trouble understanding and appreciating the difficulties other Americans face or that they think differently from other Americans about such issues as taxes, government regulation, crime, family values, and religion?

I also declared twenty-two years ago that members of the national media tend to share a uniformly liberal ideology. This does not mean they are secretly meeting every other week in someone’s basement to get their marching orders. Rather, their ideology originates from a number of left-of-center experiences in their university education, in their tightly-knit peer groups, and in the milieu of popular culture since the Sixties.

Am I exaggerating the impact of this liberal ideology? Of the five hundred or so reporters and editors I mentioned earlier, I am aware of only two who are well known, admitted conservatives. Nationwide, there are only about ten editorial pages in America that could properly be called “conservative” and that stance does not extend beyond the editorial page at more than a handful. At the very least, this striking imbalance speaks volumes about the potential for liberal ideology to dominate the news.

Liberal Axioms Held by the National Media

Of course, many journalists hotly deny that they are liberals. Others claim that they do not allow their liberalism to influence their reporting. But here are some unquestionably liberal “axioms” that I believe (based on polls and other sources as well as my own experience) are held almost universally by the members of the national media:

  • The “rich” (and this covers many middle-class Americans) are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
  • The income of the rich should be redistributed to the poor.
  • Americans are undertaxed.
  • Our taxes are well below those imposed in Europe, and the federal government should therefore raise rates, especially for those who earn more, save more, and invest more.
  • Government is, on the whole, a positive force in America that has done vastly more good than harm.
  • The balanced budget amendment is a dangerous idea.
  • Term limit amendments are even more dangerous and are also undemocratic.
  • There is a nationwide health care crisis, and only the government can solve it by establishing universal coverage for health insurance.
  • The “religious right” (a term that lumps millions of ordinary believers together with a few extremists) is a serious menace to the future of American society.
  • Being pro-choice is not enough; there should be absolutely no interference with the reproductive rights of women.
  • To support school choice, whether through vouchers or tax credits, is to support the destruction of all public education.
  • It is far better for the forces of the United States to be under multinational command than for them to be controlled by our own military commanders.
  • Conservatism is a narrow philosophy; liberalism, by contrast, is more broad, unprejudiced, and compassionate.

Advocacy Journalism

There is no doubt that the strongest trend in the media industry is toward advocacy journalism. The news sections of most newspapers are even more ideological than when I first criticized them twenty-two years ago. Once the editorial page was the place for journalists to express their opinions, but now they do so on every page, including the front page—under the misleading banner of objective reporting.

Increasing selectivity is also leading to increasing bias; members of the media are not only more subjective in determining whether a story will make it into the news but in determining what kind of “slant” it will be given and how much coverage it will receive. Even the wire services have succumbed, running (and not running) stories that in the past would have gotten the reporters and editors responsible for them fired. And, of course, the worst examples of bias and selectivity are seen on network television programs, which have come to value “entertainment” more than the news.

Liberals often argue that conservative bias—as evidenced by a growing number of conservative journalists ranging from William F. Buckley, Jr., to Rush Limbaugh—makes up for any liberal bias in the media and leads to “balance.” But they are being disingenuous, and not just because liberals greatly outnumber conservatives in the journalistic profession. Buckley, Limbaugh, and others like them are opinion journalists. They have never tried to represent themselves otherwise. Moreover, bias of one kind cannot possibly “make up” for other kinds. By all means, liberal and conservative views are welcome in certain areas of journalism, but when they intrude on the objective reporting of the news, they are both equally harmful.

Reforming the American Media

How do we return to the old standards of objectivity and “a fair press”? It is important for Americans to make their views known and to convince the media that reform is not only desirable but necessary. But this is not enough. Twenty-two years ago, I remarked that the pressure of public opinion would surely force the media into more responsible behavior, but it has not happened.

That is why we must also take special care to educate properly the young men and women who want to pursue a career in journalism. This is not an automatic recommendation for journalism school; unfortunately, most of these institutions are in the business of spreading bias and political correctness, not curbing them. And there are none (with the notable exception of the National Journalism Center in Washington, D.C.) that challenges the dominant liberal ideology in the media. But one does not have to attend journalism school to learn the fundamental principles of good writing, reporting and editing, or to understand bias and how to avoid it. A good liberal arts education can provide ethical as well as academic training.

Finally, action must be taken at the top; people who are dedicated to the principles of good journalism as well as the principles of good business must take leadership positions at or even buy newspapers, magazines, and television stations. They cannot merely wait for the current establishment to change—they must lead the way. The stakes are high. When the media is out of touch with its citizens, the nation is vulnerable—when facts bow to bias, truth is also in jeopardy.