On Saturday, several notable journalists, including two distinguished Haverford College alums, lead a discussion in Sharpless Auditorium about partisanship in the news. The occasion was the annual Silk Journalism Panel, which Haverford Director of Communications Chris Mills ’82 called “a treasure in the annual calendar,” in his introduction. This year’s panelists included Juan Williams ’76 (Fox News, NPR); Loren Ghiglione ’63 (Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University); Victor Navasky (The Nation, Columbia Journalism Review); and Amy Hollyfield (Politifact.com, The St. Petersburg Times).
Following introductions by Mark Silk, brother of Andy Silk ’75 (in whose honor the Silk family has endowed this annual event), Williams detailed his recent and controversial firing from NPR, which has brought the whole question of partisanship to the forefront of the national conversation about objectivity in the media. He claims that his firing was less motivated by out-of-context statements about Muslims at airports than by the public broadcaster’s discomfort with his working at Fox News. He then lamented the politicization of his profession, which he sees as a consequence of cable news and talk radio’s success attracting listeners eager to “pound the dashboard” in agreement with their favorite (and partisan) broadcasters. “We live in a political culture today that would be a total surprise to the Andy Silks of the world,” he said.
Amy Hollyfield, the government and politics editor for the St. Petersburg Times who runs the paper’s fact-checking website Politifact.com, detailed a recent national story that Politifact helped to break. During the recent budget debates, Senator John Kyl (R-Arizona) claimed on the floor of the Senate that “well over 90% of what Planned Parenthood does” is abortions. Politifact checked this figure with Planned Parenthood’s own records and found that, in fact, 3% of its services are abortion-related. When CNN sought comment from the Senator regarding Politifact’s fact-checking, a Kyl staffer responded that “his remark was not intended to be a factual statement.” Hollyfield laughed as she told the story, but said that stories like this one are why her organization exists. “That’s what our mission is,” she said, “to hold politicians accountable.”
Ghiglione opened with a video montage that revealed how partisanship is an inevitable by-product of the democratization of news gathering and dissemination: bias is an inevitable consequence. His video included clips of CNN citizen journalists, The Daily Show, Wikileaks footage, animated live-action political cartoons and the famous Howard Beale tirade from Network. “For the public, it is confusing,” he said. “[They wonder], ‘Who is the journalist and what values does he represent?” But, as a professor of journalism history, Ghiglione was also quick to note that though the current climate of partisan news may feel “new” to us, it actually has a long precedent. “The history of journalism hasn’t been objective,” he said, noting that the so-called “yellow journalism” of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer was often highly partisan and competed for readers with titillating and entertaining stories.
Navasky told a story from his days as a Swarthmore College student, about how he was almost expelled for running a cover of the student paper that embarrassed the college’s president. After an admonishment from the president, he was later surprised to be praised for his story by his political science professor, who told him, “A student paper is supposed to be a thorn in the side of the administration, and you did that.” It’s a line he still thinks about to this day, as he believes, “that’s the role of the press in general.”
Though diversity in the newsroom and the effect of the internet’s speed on journalistic standards were also discussed, most of the rest of the three-hour symposium was spent trying to answer the one question: Should we be worried about a current lack objectivity in journalism? Williams argued for a who-what-when-where-how style of journalism, in which the goal is to report objectively and under deadline, while Navasky quoted late New York Times columnist Molly Ivins as proof that such a standard doesn’t exist. “The fact is I’m a 49-year-old, white, female, college-educated Texan,” he quoted Ivins as saying. “All of that is going to color how I see the world. Everyone who has ever interviewed five witnesses to an automobile accident knows there is no such thing as objectivity.” All panelists, however, seemed to agree that the real newsroom bias isn’t expressed by how stories are reported, but in which stories aren’t reported at all. “Stories are ignored,” said Williams, “because they don’t follow [the organization’s] prejudices or world view.” Perhaps not surprisingly given his affiliation with Fox News, he expressed concern for the distinction between “catering” to one’s audience and “pandering to one’s audience.” For Navasky, the difference lies in the degree to which objectivity is overshadowed by ideology.
Journalists today have a lot to contend with: consolidation, shrinking budgets and staffs, the speed of the 24-hour news cycle, a dearth of in-depth reporting, and the popularity of what Williams’ called “infotainment” and gossip. Ghiglione argues for media literacy classes to help audiences learn to be sophisticated about interpreting the news and separating fact from opinion in different media sources. And, as Navasky said as a guide to wading through the crowded field of opinion journalists, “The key is a combination of common sense and transparency.”