Matthew Jordan

Matthew Jordan, associate professor of media studies at Penn State.

When the Associated Press fired Emily Wilder for violating its social media policy, it caused a firestorm in the media industry.

Critics noted that the firing came only days after GOP activists called her biased, re-animating an ongoing debate about how responsible news organizations should deal with such accusations.

Wilder’s alleged violations had nothing to do with her reporting. As a student at Stanford, she had been sympathetic to the Palestinian peace movement. After being hired by the AP, she also questioned, in a tweet, how the media framed its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This was enough to feed a right-wing social media frenzy that eventually led to a story in the conservative Washington Free Beacon containing the claim, “AP’s objectivity in question.”

Without pointing to anything in her work, management, within days of partisan attackers going after her, fired her to protect the AP from the appearance of bias, and told Wilder in its dismissal letter that the campaign against her prompted a probe of her social media conduct.

The AP has acknowledged that “mistakes of process” were made in the way it handled the situation but despite that, the outcome would have been the same.

Regardless of how the decision was made, this isn’t the first time that a news organization has validated the smear campaign of a special interest group by giving the group exactly what it wanted.

For half a century, crying bias has been a strategic communication tactic used against newspapers and broadcasters who strive to adhere to professional norms of dispassionate objectivity. It’s like kryptonite for responsible news organizations: the stronger their piety to journalistic ethics and the ideal of objectivity, the more vulnerable they are to accusations made in bad faith.

The emergence of journalistic norms

In broad strokes, the idea of journalistic objectivity dates back to the mid-19th century, a time when most newspapers were decidedly partisan.

That’s when terms such as “neutrality” and “objectivity” started to appear in textbooks for students learning the trade, alongside ideals deemed crucial to a democratic press: verifying facts, being a watchdog and holding the powerful accountable.

Interestingly, many scholars have linked the emergence of a neutral, objective news style to the rise of the AP after the Civil War.

The ‘Truth Trust’ beats back attacks

It wouldn’t be long before other outlets would try to knock the AP and The New York Times off their mantle of objectivity.

During the Progressive Era, muckrakers, who were reform-minded journalists, tried to counter the dominance of the AP and the Times by crying bias against both outlets for favoring the interests of the powerful against those of the public.

In 1913, Max Eastman, editor of the socialist magazine The Masses, called the AP a “Truth Trust” and accused it of bias against labor in its reporting on mining strikes in West Virginia and Colorado. The AP responded to this allegation by using its political leverage to have Eastman charged with criminal libel.

Because Eastman had accused the AP of intentionally suppressing and concealing facts to readers of its 894 newspapers, he had thus impugned the AP’s objectivity – and, in doing so, satisfied the elements for a charge of criminal libel.

Journalism historian

Michael Schudson argues that most mainstream media outlets adopted the AP and The New York Times’ style of objective reporting after World War I. Exhausted and demoralized by the amount of propaganda churned out at home and abroad during the war, newspapers turned to reinforcing professional ethics.

That’s when they adopted a dispassionate writing style and started labeling opinion as a different type of writing located on a special page.

Regulating airwaves

When news moved beyond the printed page to radio in the 1930s, the newly created Federal Communications Commission took its cues from Progressive Era reformers and affirmed that unbiased objectivity was the best way to serve democracy.

“The public interest can never be served by a dedication” to a broadcaster’s “own partisan ends,” the commission argued. Democracy depended on “fairly and objectively presented” news.

Later, the FCC instituted the Fairness Doctrine, which called for broadcasters to present “all sides of important public questions, fairly, objectively and without bias.” As television emerged as the dominant medium for consuming the news, the Fairness Doctrine obliged broadcasters to remain neutral in their reporting.

Mainstream broadcasters had to appeal to the widest possible range of opinion so as to attract advertisers.

Powerful weaponize charges of bias

But while good faith muckrakers cried bias in the name of protecting the public from those with the most power, powerful special interests soon found it worked for them, too.

After the 1968 Democratic convention, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley showed the effectiveness of crying bias as a way to manipulate the media and neutralize the value of public-interest journalism.

Networks had been critical of the Chicago police department’s violent response to protests. Yet Daley demanded free airtime to respond to what he called “biased coverage.”

Mostly, he got what he wanted: Broadcasters bent over backward to prove they were unbiased, and Daley got time on TV to frame protesters as the villains.

Future of the democratic press

Today, crying bias is the go-to tactic for neutralizing critical reporting and eroding trust in competitors. A search on Fox News’ platform produces more than 18,000 articles and videos about media bias.

Though right-wing media outlets and personalities appear to use the tactic the most, they certainly aren’t the only special interests doing so.

So what’s to be done when political actors cry bias in bad faith?

One solution could be to offer more protection to journalists who are the target of smear campaigns, as some of the AP’s reporters argued the organization should have done in the case of Emily Wilder.

Matthew Jordan is an associate professor and head of the Department of Film Production and Media Studies at Penn State. The article is republished from The Conversation under a creative commons license.

Matthew Jordan is an associate professor and head of the Department of Film Production and Media Studies at Penn State.

The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Licenced as Creative Commons - attribution, no derivatives.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/emily-wilder-and-journalisms-longstanding-achilles-heel-partisans-who-cry-bias-161552.

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