Sacred Cows and Chicken-Fried Steak (or, the Bonfire of Objectivity)

I have provided media and campaign advice to San Francisco mayoral candidate Chicken John Rinaldi, and as a journalist and editor, this raises a few questions.

One the one hand, that means I cannot credibly provide “fair and balanced” coverage of the 2007 election.

On the other, what does this say about the rest of the San Francisco media establishment?

Consider: The city’s leading — or at least highest profile — newspaper is brazenly partisan in its support of the incumbent, running a sumptuous profile of Gavin Newsom, and so far offering no similar treatment in print to his opponents beyond describing them as a “cast of characters” and a “bad joke” in a pair of collective profile articles.

Interestingly, back on Sept. 6, CW Nevius (noted in these pages for his recent, front-page screeds against the homeless), decried the anointing of Newsom as the certain winner of the race; yet none of his Chron colleagues have taken him up on his call for “a vigorous airing of the issues, a debate on policy, and a clear-eyed look at the candidates.”

In fact, less than two weeks out from the election, the SFGate.com front page doesn’t even link to its rather disorganized elections page (where the lead item today is about 2008 presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani) — and in a headline earlier this week referred to the entire slate of candidates as “Gavin and the 11 Dwarves.”

This provokes serious doubts about the entire notion of fairness and balance in the commercial-media mainstream, at least in San Francisco.

How this can be “solved,” I will address a bit further along in this essay.

But: Keeping in mind that one of America’s most highly regarded journalists, Mr. Bill Moyers, was once the press secretary for President Lyndon Baines Johnson, I have decided that it really is OK for me — as a partisan of the arts and a reformed entertainment editor — to provide advice to a professional clown who knows he can’t win, but who nonetheless seeks to advance dialogue about San Francisco’s arts, culture and sustainability policies.

* * * * *
That advice, by the way, amounts to one dinner meeting as part of his “brain trust,” and a few email exchanges, in which I exhorted him a) to invite Mayor Newsom on a fact-finding tour of Amsterdam to study the Dutch approach to homelessness and “victimless crimes,” and, b) to summarize his campaign positions in bullet points and send them to the Chronicle, which had sought them for publication.

Chicken ignored those pearls of wisdom, stating that a) he wanted to advance his case for “a city of art and innovation,” not confront Newsom, and that b) the Chron was insincere in its offer, and only throwing a bone to public participation to keep up appearances.

He turned out to be right on that one. None of the candidates’ positions were ever intended for print in the newspaper itself, and can’t even be accessed from the Web site’s front page, but rather are buried in the aforementioned depths of its elections section, far from the eyes of the daily news browser.

The issue gets deeper still, however, and really, this particular rant isn’t about the Chronicle. It’s about me. And capital-J Journalism as an ideal and aspiration.

Walk with me, then, for a while …

* * * * *
In 2003, Matt Gonzalez made headlines with a near-miss run for mayor against his fellow member of the city’s Board of Supervisors, Gavin Newsom.

It was a heated campaign, amidst which Newsdesk.org conducted extensive interviews with both candidates, asking identical sets of questions, and arguably going more in-depth on the issues than any other Bay Area media outlet.

Fast-forward to summer 2007. Mayor Newsom is running for his second term, and in the polls is far ahead of the opposition.

Speculation is rife throughout the city, however, that Gonzalez is girding himself for a comeback. He’s making the rounds, meeting local community groups, and gauging their receptivity for another go at City Hall’s top job.

One such group was the Abundance League, a fabulous conversation salon focusing on social and cultural transformation, of which I am a member.

It was a bit of a dilemma for me to attend.

One the one hand, I wanted to cover the race as we did in 2003. Thus far, local media had largely anointed Newsom and ignored his opponents, which was and remains a dreadful breach of journalistic responsibility to sustain vigorous public participation.

An astute observer would consider that one hell of a news hole, ready for the filling — and there at the Abundance League was the race’s dark horse, in the flesh.

However, Newsdesk.org has no resources for serious campaign coverage right now. I was in no position to do additional reporting on the current mayoral race.

And, as Gonzalez was primarily interested in opinion and guidance about whether he should run against Newsom, I decided to keep my distance, and exited the meeting in the opening moments of the conversation.

In retrospect, considering my later support for Chicken, and considering the ongoing mayoral partisanship of the mainstream and alternative press here in town, I probably could have stayed and chatted with Gonzalez all night.

But I don’t want to be friends with politicians.

I don’t even want to be collegial with them.

There’s a glamour and charisma to these people that is entrancing, and as a reporter, you gotta keep your guard up.

And as a voter, too. Ask tough questions of them, and yourself, and the press that delivers you the facts. Above all, don’t believe the hype.

Chicken, for example, has some brash and fresh talk on arts and greenwashing, is witty to the point of being hilarious, can charm the socks off a shoe-store mannequin, and is a damn snappy dresser. But he’s also a loudmouth, alienates people, and freely confesses that he doesn’t have all the answers.

Snake oil or straight-talker?

Politicians and carnies are frighteningly similar, if you think about it.

So boot up those brain cells before punching out the proverbial chad, brothers and sisters, and hold your media and your candidates equally accountable.

* * * * *
And we, the media, must too hold ourselves accountable.

Consider: I have plenty of opinions about local politics and issues — globally, nationally, and where I live, my home town of 15 years, San Francisco.

How, then, do I handle the ethics concern of covering issues I care about with fairness, not to mention a little grace?

Well, certainly not through “objectivity,” a sacred cow of the journalism world long overdue for ritual slaughter — and not just because it can be falsified to mask hidden (and not so hidden) agendas, but also because, as Brent Cunningham argued in the Columbia Journalism Review, devotion to objectivity can “make us [journalists] passive recipients of news, rather than aggressive analyzers and explainers of it.”

The solution advanced by the advocacy-journalism community — namely, disclaim your bias and express your viewpoint with vigor — is legitimate enough, but entirely unsatisfactory to me, personally.

Why? Because it closes doors to other readers or news-seekers who do not share your opinion.

Because journalism as I idealize it needs to provide EVERY reader with the chance to educate themselves fully, and make up their own minds.

I would propose that a real solution to the problem of bias in journalism is as follows:

  • Full disclosure of potential influences on one’s reporting (which I have done here)
  • A standards-driven approach to coverage of sensitive issues that enforces, through strict methodology, the daily practice of fairness and accuracy in coverage
  • A fully functional online interface that enables the Internet community to continue developing its role as “at-large ombudsmans” for a given news outlet (i.e., welcome to the blogosphere, darlings)
  • A mechanism by which reporters or editors with genuine conflicts of interest — such as ties to a candidate during election season — would address the conflict by recusing themselves from covering the topic, to be replaced by qualified staffers selected by an oversight board

By this reckoning (and if Newsdesk.org had a budget to actually do any coverage right now) I would absent myself from the SF 2007 mayoral election beat (and any other race that Chicken participates in), and my replacement would be selected by, say, the Newsdesk advisory board, or the local SPJ chapter.

* * * * *
The fact is, I could write a totally evenhanded, very in-depth article on the whole campaign, and never emit a whiff of bias, overt or covert.

This is surely true of any decent journalist who, being human and prone to any number of opinions, nonetheless gives the upper hand to her or his sense of reportorial duty.

However, if you have a reporter who is NOT decent enough to be fair and accurate when covering a topic they care about, but who is good enough to hide that bias, the problem of false objectivity returns with a vengeance.

So the methodological approach to preventing this is invaluable, and should be both respected and protected.

In that light, I’m probably also not the best guy to cover arts or transport policies. I’m an activist in both those arenas — through my work with Independent Arts & Media in the former case, and as a Critical Mass rider, op-ed writer and essayist in the latter.

Though I’ll write you one heck of an op-ed on either topic, if you like.

What do you think? Please advise. This is complex and emotional territory, and above all, I want to do the right thing.

p.s. Chicken John for mayor.

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2 Responses to Sacred Cows and Chicken-Fried Steak (or, the Bonfire of Objectivity)

  1. Tom Murphy says:

    Simply put, journalists cannot concurrently advocate a position on an issue/candidate and strike a neutral posture in coverage. And there’s no way to analyze one’s own objectivity when one in deeply involved in advocacy. It’s easier to see this in someone else’s context: If one is actively advocating bombing Iran to prevent the development of nuclear weapons, that person cannot be relied upon for obective reports about Iran’s intent to develop nuclear weapons. And I would not trust the press aide for, oh, say, Tom Trancedo, to provide fair coverage of the Democratic primaries.

    Can a devout Catholic cover abortion? Can Democrats cover Republicans? Can Iraqis cover the war? The answer to all these questions is yes, but only if the reporter is not actively involved, respectively in the antiabortion movement, a candidate’s campaign, or an active military militia.

    That is not to say one cannot advocate a position and then provide coverage with full disclosure of that bias. This happens regularly in the alternative press on both the left and the right; It tends to be celebrated by those who agree with it and villified by those who disagree. All’s fair, I say.

    At RedwoodAge.com, we encourage critical thinking about topics connected with aging in America. We recognize that the way aging is viewed in America must change in the next 20 years due to the sheer number, political will and economic reality of the baby boom. We even encourage our readers to “think critically” and “share information” and “act on thier beliefs,” but we do not say what those beliefs should be. We believe an informed public is best-positioned to make those choices. Our mission is to inform. Our bloggers complement our news stories with commentary in a way columnists and op-ed writers have garnished newspapers for centuries. But our bloggers do not speak for RedwoodAge; RedwoodAge maintains a position of journalistic objectivity.

    To the question in your second paragraph: Right. You cannot provide fair and unbiased coverage, but you can cover it from an admittedly biased perspective that might add real value to the debate, so long as you disclose that bias in your coverage.

    As for the Chronicle…well, it’s readership is declining, rapidly. Never underestimate the intelligence of the reader, and never try to fool them with biased coverage. They can smell crap as well as most reporters, and they vote with their subscriptions and their quarters. The Pew poll you referenced testifies loudly on this point.

    As journalists, we are servants, and our masters will only be pleased if we serve them well. We all must strive to do better on every story.

  2. Yumi says:

    Josh …
    Thank you for prompting thoughtful discussion. Please keep up the pursuit!

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