A growing and dangerous new journalistic ethic
By Bill Connor
A growing number of journalists are increasingly falling prey to an ethic recently expressed openly by famed news anchor Lester Holt. In a recent speech to fellow journalists after receiving an award at the 45th Murrow Symposium, Holt asserted: “It’s become clear that fairness is overrated … the idea that we should always give two sides equal weight and merit does not reflect the world we find ourselves in.” Holt justified this emerging journalistic ethic by arguing that “Decisions to not give unsupported arguments equal time are not a dereliction of journalistic responsibility or some kind of agenda. In fact, it’s just the opposite.” Though Holt’s speech raised eyebrows outside the journalism community, it was part of a growing trend in the profession and was generally lauded from within. This new ethic is a dangerous direction for journalism and undermines the foundation of the free press. Let me explain.
Writing more than a century and a half ago in arguably the most famous treatise about free speech and press, “On Liberty,” philosopher and author John Stuart Mill provided some of the most compelling justifications for fairness in covering both sides of an argument. According to Mill, censoring or even hindering one side of a debate harms all for multiple reasons: “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” His work explains how ignorance and prejudice are maintained by failing to give weight to both sides: how the disfavored side may be true, or may contain parts of the truth, or may help in better understanding the truth.
The ideal of providing the “two sides equal weight,” a growing anathema to Holt and many others, has been the standard sought by professional journalists through modern times. Journalist Jonathan Fenby has expressed the traditional ethic held by most credible news organizations throughout modern times: “Objectivity is the philosophical basis for their enterprises — or failing that, widely acceptable neutrality.” In many ways, this ideal of objectivity in news reporting can be traced to Mill’s writing and the influence of “On Liberty” for free speech, freedom and objectivity of news coverage.
Unfortunately, many mainstream journalists have become so partisan to one side, the liberal side, that they don’t acknowledge the lack of objectivity. In some cases, such as in the coverage of the proven false allegations of the Steele dossier asserting Trump as an agent of Russia’s Putin, the media ran with questionable sourcing. In other cases, such as the Hunter Biden laptop scandal, the mainstream media refused to cover it due to alleged questionable sourcing. By Mill’s arguments, both stories would have received equal coverage by an objective and neutral media, and truth would flow in the end.
A more egregious case of this dynamic of selective suppression of one side came after TV anchor George Stephanopoulos attempted to shut down Rand Paul when Paul took the side of problems with the 2020 election. Paul slammed Stephanopoulos, saying, “Where you make the mistake is that people coming from the liberal side like you, you immediately say everything’s a lie instead of saying there are two sides to everything. Historically what would happen is if I said that I thought there was fraud, you would interview someone who said there wasn’t, but now you insert yourself in the middle and say that the absolute fact is that everything I’m saying is a lie without examining the facts.” In other words, Rand Paul explained how far things had come from the John Stuart Mills ethic of objective journalism to today.
NewsBusters managing editor Curtis Houck spoke about the psychological dynamic involved with many in the mainstream media. It comes down to a “groupthink” disdain, in many cases, for those on the opposing side of the journalist: “The liberal media seems as intent as ever to browbeat viewers who don’t think or vote like they do into submission, and if you dare to point this out to them, they’ll suggest those not in lockstep have had their minds poisoned or are concerned with threatening the lives of journalists. In reality, journalism’s credibility crisis is almost entirely self-inflicted.”
It’s time for mainstream media soul-searching about whether or not the profession of journalism can continue while moving farther away from John Stuart Mill and objectivity. The media has acted as a force for liberty and truth throughout much of American history, but dark clouds are gathering quickly. “Fairness,” in terms of seeking the truth, is always right and must be defended in spite of disagreement.
Bill Connor is a 1990 Citadel graduate, 30-year Army infantry colonel and combat veteran. He is a writer and attorney and lives in the Charleston area.