Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Non-Partisan vs. Non-Ideological

A blurb in the recent ChronBlog story by reporter Todd Ackerman concerning a recently released study of the potential damage to Texans of not passing health care reform got me thinking about what it means to be non-partisan vs. non-ideological, and whether or not the media does enough to ensure organizations are properly labelled.

The quote:
A week after a Texas agency reported health care reform legislation would cost the state's Medicaid program an extra $20 billion over the next 10 years, a non-partisan foundation says inaction will exact a greater price.
The foundation in question? The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation a group whose stated mission is "to improve the health and health care of all Americans." By "improve" it can be implied that they mean "reform" as in "support the public option" reform, which is what a large portion of the material on their website is in favor of.

Are they "non-partisan"? Apparently, I could find nothing on their website to convince me otherwise.

Are they "non-ideological"? No, and therein lies the problem. Not with them (everyone should have an ideology that they believe in) but in the way the newspaper (either Ackerman or the editors) have decided to present them.

Too often in the media the code-word 'non-partisan' is understood to mean 'neutral' or 'without bias'. In this case a cursory look through the foundation's web-site reveals that such a neutrality does not exist. They have, I hate to say it because it always muddies the waters, a bias towards health care reform with a public option. Now, it could be argued that the Republican-controlled Texas Health and Human Services Commission has a bias against the public option, a valid argument that should be considered when evaluating their study. But the same rules should apply when evaluating the RWJF study as well. Bias is not bad, especially for/against heated issues, provided it's fully disclosed and presented accurately by the media when they report it. Too often, many in the media (MSM and otherwise) fail this simple litmus test of fairness.

What this leads to are charges of "librul bias" or proof against from partisans who like to view things in terms of right and wrong. It obscures the debate behind a veil of false neutrality that is impossible to maintain. For some reason America is the only Country where our media refuses to openly declare their bias. Perhaps, as a result of this, we are among the most uncivilized as well?

These are things to keep in mind the next time you read a news story on a major issue. If you see Planned Parenthood (an open advocate for access to abortions & birth control) listed as a "non-partisan advocacy organization" while the Right to Life Coalition is listed as "a conservative organization" you can see where ideological-bias creep is slinking into your news. Would that the newspapers, TV and radio media admit that, we'd be a lot better off than we are today.

In Britain there's no question where the media lie. The Guardian considers itself the left-leaning voice of the LibDems, while the Times views itself as the voice of the Labour party leaving The BBC as the rather conservative outlet most likely to provide favorable coverage to the Torries. American media is much the same: CNN, MSNBC and The New York Times are all solidly liberal news outlets while Fox News and the Wall Street Journal can be relied upon to present the news with a conservative lean. We all know it, it's just some sense of media enlightenment that prevents them from saying it. Some archaic American sense of fairplay that we hold on to tighter than outdated moral regulations from our Puritan past.

For those of us in Houston, the biases of the media are fairly obvious. ChronBlog is pro-big government, pro-Metro, anti-death penalty, pro-choice, and pro-immigration in their editorial lean. This is not a bad thing, but something that must be considered when reading their copy. It also goes a long way to explaining why an advocacy group advocating for health care reform with a public option is listed as "non-partisan" but no mention is made of their obvious ideology. Unfortunately most news consumers are too busy in the hustle of their daily lives to go check these organizations out. The result is they walk away provided an incomplete picture by those whom they trust to present them the straight story, no chaser.

Attitudes such as this lead to even more disturbing gaffes, such as the architect of a towing program not being correctly identified as such when he created a study on the same program, a Metro columnist lacking even the minimum amount of required skepticism especially when pet projects are on the line, and a "transportation watchdog" column frequently short on the "watchdog" meter. All of these are things that short-serve the local community, an putting aside of the journalists' responsibility to the public in favor of catering to pet causes. Want one more?

Chron-Eye for the death row killer guy - Journalism driven by the anti-death penalty activism of the wife of the Editor in Chief.

All of these ideological quirks would be tolerable, if the media didn't try and hide behind an increasingly translucent veil. Just come clean.

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