G. Pascal Zachary

The Future of the Journalist — This is the first in a series of important essays commissioned by Dvorak Uncensored to contribute to the debate about journalism and its future in the US and elsewhere. Here, long time award-winning reporter G. Pascal Zachary discusses the myth of “balance” in reporting. I first heard him unveil this thesis on a podcast and asked him to write it up for the Dvorak Uncensored readers.

Mainstream journalists are being torn apart. Conservatives long have accused reporters and editors for big newspapers, magazines and television of having liberal biases. More recently, liberals have hounded journalists for pandering to conservatives and America’s social elite. Both conservatives and liberals depict journalists as craven careerists, more concerned with maintaining their own privilege than getting stories right or serving the national interest…I must concede that critics of conventional journalism are correct on nearly all counts.

Click here to read this important essay in its entirety.

  1. Aaron says:

    Interesting. Don’t know if I buy it 100%, but will agree that it makes me think.

  2. Chris says:

    Impossible to really comment in a short space on the piece – you could argue for hours on the topic and the short paper in question. It raises so many sub-issues or tangents that you can discuss.

    In many ways one should ask what drives the journalist to write the way they do. Pressure comes from many areas – the editor, the owner, the public. You could well draw a flow chart indicating the various “stresses” imposed on the journalist.

    Is it the media that force the public to accept the standard of journalism or how it is written or vice-versa? Or is it a synergetic or symbiotic relationship? Is the financial pulling power and the need to make profit all important? A major or minor consideration.

    No journalist can ever, ever be truly inpartial or non-biased. It is impossible – speak to any psychologist who will ramble on about the counscious and sub-counscious levels of thinking. In fact if a journalist goes out of their way to be truly impartial, they run the risk of failing to impart the message (or story) to the public that they were trying to convey.

  3. Pat says:

    It is only those that don’t report what I agree with that are biased.

  4. BillBC says:

    I agree with most of this except for this sentence: “Blogs and other forms of “citizen” journalism can never replace the breadth and quality of professional journalism.” He wishes this were true…sorry, in many cases they already have replaced it….

  5. Smith says:

    Integrity is very important. When I watch the news, I want NEWS not opinion. I know 90% of the comments on this board come from people who believe FOX News is biased. Certainly Bill O’Reilly is biased, but then he isn’t reporting the news. Neither is Hannity nor Scarborough and Mathews on MSNBC. These people are offering opinions, which I can either accept, reject, or mull over.

    But you can’t reject news. News is supposed to be the data with which we form opinions. I want mine as clear and true as possible. I can then go to O’Reilly or Mathews (or this blog) if I care to see how it’s being spun.

    I don’t actually watch television news much anymore, so what I saw on CNN last weekend came as a bit of surprise. I believe it was a piece on New Orleans. As soon as the piece ended the anchor looked into the camera and said, “President Bush has much to answer for.”

    Is this what passes for news on “unbiased” CNN? Is CNN News competing for Hardball viewers? How am I supposed to believe anything that CNN reports if the anchor’s bias is so blatant?

    Tim Russert appears to be the only (TV) journalist that gets it right. I’ve been watching him for years and I still don’t know if he is conservative or liberal. He just does his best to dig out the facts and let you decide. If he offers opinion, he makes it clear it’s opinion and doesn’t try to peddle it as part of the news.

    Integrity. Russert has it, virtually none of others do.

  6. Emery Jeffreys says:

    He makes many valid points. But it may not change the problem.

    I’ve been a journalist slightly longer than Zachary. That includes two stints at UPI and a couple of metro newspaper (100,000 circulation or higher). I should have known better than to go back to UPI the second time… even though I got to cover a war.

    Of course journalism is biased. Eliminating bias from most news writing is not possible.

    I so despise the descriptions of liberal and conservative. The words are tossed about like gauntlets. The conservatives rail about liberal bias in the media. Convince me that conservative bias is any better.

    Throwing those labels around has really just degraded most of the bias discussion into petty name calling. The person who is damaged the most, the reader, doesn’t benefit from that kind of conduct.

    Most political reporting is so inside baseball that it useless to civilians. Reporters know that other reporters read their work. They add facts and details only because they know their competitors are reading it and they don’t want to look stupid.

    Most people only care about how the issue will affect Joe Sixpack.

    I am a tried and true news junkie. I listen to NPR on the way to work. When I get to work, I tune the TV to CNN. It’s all biased in one fashion or another… and most people know it and they recognize it.

    If you recognize it, then you ought to be able to see how it distorts the telling of the story, Most people are able to correct for that, once they analyze.

    Someone in on of the comments suggested that Fox does a good job. That’s just plain foolish. In the early days of the second gulf war, I switched channels a lot. As the facts developed, Fox frequently got its facts wrong about the fighting. How do I know that? Since I was switching channels a lot, I realized that the other networks were getting the facts wrong too.

    But many networks corrected it and moved on.

    Fox frequently didn’t correct their reports. They just stopped reporting those facts without admitting a mistake.

    That problem underscores a bigger problem at Fox. If they can’t get their facts straight, then they probably can’t get opinions right either because of their view of skewed facts. Sure not all of their reporting is about war, but consider the methodology. If they use a thought process on war reporting… they may use it in other sectors. If they don’t value accuracy enough in one kind of reporting, they may not value it in others.

    And all the political talk shows are just that — talk. The views of both sides are so distorted that the shows do not put the discussion in context for mere civilians. It’s just entertainment… and not very good at that. Shouting amongst the pundits is not much better than shouting soap opera stars.

    Most people don;t have to listen to it anyhow. Who cares if Robert Novak and James Carville are not getting along this week because of a grand jury investigation about Scooter Libby. Who cares if O”Riley is incensed about something that doesn’t even make the radar for Hannity.

    Questioning the anchor for saying “President Bush has much to answer for.” is bogus. Of course Bush has a lot to answer for. He’s the president of the most powerful nation in the world. He must be held accountable for every action he takes — right or wrong. We have a duty, not a right, to question elected officials.

    Why is it any different if a voter or a news anchor asks the question. It a relevant question no matter who asks it. It was relevant when Kennedy was president. It was relevant when Lincoln was president. Same for Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Truman.

    Rant mode off.

  7. moss says:

    Smith — that same anchor answered your question. He told the truth when he indicted the guy in the kitchen for frittering away peoples’ lives. Would you rather that anchor just offered the usual plastic non-conclusion. Someone with a brain and integrity, after all, should be allowed to use both.

  8. Eideard says:

    “Fair and balanced” is just another jive formulation of what has always been the Liberal copout. “Both are sides are too radical and the truth lies in the middle.” Bullshit! Opposing Fascism before and during WW2 wasn’t middle-of-the-road. The copouts were the so-called Neutrals in the 1930’s. Example after example replicates.

    The most obvious rehash of the same cover story is that political and religious reactionaries have adopted the same tactic. Whether Fox Snooze or [sub]Intelligent Design — the copout is simply a fresh clone of cowardice.

    Punish liars.


    We not only benefit from journalists with the courage to be free, to be accurate, to tear the Emperor’s new clothes into tatters — we free ourselves as part of the same process.

  9. Eideard says:

    Smith — I posted #8 after reading the article. Now, I’ve noticed your own response and [with some bemusement] your problem with that CNN anchor. I’m sorry to say I don’t even comprehend your dismay.

    That anchor raised a question in the minds of the whole spectrum of political beings affected by the state of our nation — whether they are Americans or not, victims of Katrina or not. What useful purpose is this idiot in the White House serving to the whole body politic?

    That’s not Left or Right bias. That’s outrage over incompetence, the spread of that incompetence throughout an already lame bureaucracy. Cronyism and corruption isn’t endemic to any unique political party. Just politicans of a sort.

  10. Paul says:

    What is truly sad about reporting in this day and age is that the major news channels are so focused on the “breaking story” that they don’t take the time to analyze the situation at anything more than a “talking head” level. TV has become the equivalent of a presidential debate — everyone knows what is going to be said before the debate even begins.

    There are a few news sources out there that take their time and report the story after it has had a chance to unfold. Most of these stories are in print publications, although there are certainly some great internet sites. Foreign Affairs, The Economist, even Salon.com constantly suprise me with well thought out pieces that truly provide analysis and not just “fact regurgitation.”

    And by the way, if anyone watches The Daily Show with John Stuart — on Monday they did a 3 minute segment on exactly this topic: the willingness of journalists to call it like they see it, instead of how their source wants them to see it. The segment showed Oprah’s reaction to being played in the whole “Million Little Pieces” fiasco. She rails on the author for an hour—calling him a liar and pointing out how he’s misled his readers. In between the Oprah clips are clips of well know White House reporters asking fluff questions and/or just repeating the exact talking points that the White House has published.

    CBS is about to select a new anchor — lets hope they live by this quotation, “Let subjects have their say but tell readers why one side is fudging, lying or worse. Subjects have grown too adept at manipulating reporters. Punish liars.”

  11. AB CD says:

    I think the article’s pretty good, though I get the impression he’s British with his call for partisan media. He neglected to mention the primaryh purpose of the media: to be a watchdog of government(in a non-partisan way..)

  12. Smith says:

    Why was I miffed with the anchor’s comment? Because the New Orleans piece hardly mentioned Bush at all. The anchor was clearly attributing the entire New Orleans fiasco to Bush. No mention of Louisiana’s governor, no mention of the idiot mayor, and no mention of corruption. Nope, it was all Bush’s fault. Her comment completely invalidated the facts of the story. She made sure that no one in her audience would be given the opportunity to think about cause and effect, to think about solutions. She made sure that no one would be given the opportunity to reach his or her own conclusion. “Blame Bush” became the entire point of the story.

    I expect that from talking heads; I despise that from news anchors.

    Yes, I agree that you cannot eliminate all bias from a story. The mere selection of the story to be reported involves bias. But obvious bias — where the facts are being deliberately selected and reported so that an agenda is served — should not be tolerated by anyone that values freedom.

    And if you can’t understand that, Eideard, then there really is no point in continued discussion.

  13. AB CD says:

    >The mere selection of the story to be reported involves bias.

    Nightline talks about Scalia’s ‘what critics call judicial junket’ of playing tennis while Roberts was being sworn in, but Nightline has never mentioned the name Juanita Broaddrick.

  14. Brad says:

    Smith said:

    …people who believe FOX News is biased. Certainly Bill O’Reilly is biased, but then he isn’t reporting the news. Neither is Hannity nor Scarborough and Mathews on MSNBC…

    Brit Hume? John Gibson? Do you know where they stand politically? I sure do. Do you really think that most Fox viewers make the same distinction that you do between “news” and “opinion?” I’m just asking.

  15. Smith says:

    “Do you really think that most Fox viewers make the same distinction that you do between ‘news’ and ‘opinion?'”

    Certainly the bulk of those posting to this board don’t understand the difference. Which explains the “amusement” at my taking exception to the CNN anchor.

    Is Fox’s programing biased? Of course. As is CNN’s and MSNBC’s. But is Fox news with Bret Hume biased? Likely. But I find its bias more in line with the subtle bias of a CBS under Walter Cronkite — that of choosing which stories to report and a slight shading of their color.

    I can’t even imagine Cronkite saying, “Nixon has a lot to answer for.”

  16. T.C. Moore says:

    The problem I see with the article is that at this point in history, we now equate being Fair with being Balanced.


    And this can mean including quotes or arguments from the other side. Or just thinking about it yourself (the author/reporter) and addressing the points and arguments on the other side.

    So how does Zachary defined being Fair without being balanced? He never really says.

    The other problem is that drawing Conclusions is seen as being in the realm of Opinion. “Let the viewer/reader decide.” But concluding that someone is lying or misleading is what everyone seems to be calling for. That would turn reporting the News into Opinion (at least I think that would be our gut reaction).

    I also agree that there is a lack of analysis. Reporters are supposed to report Facts, but for most of the stories in our complex world today, there is a great distance between the raw facts and an intelligent conclusion. You need background information and logical reasoning.
    The way to be fair but thorough and accurate is to provide that line of reasoning, one for each side of the debate. Then it becomes a matter of multiple choice for the viewer. Hmm, doesn’t that sound (not so) great.

    Perhaps journalism is an Art and not a Science. A tradecraft instead of a profession. There is no one way to do it right.

    Anyway, I agree with Jeffreys in #6 above. I mostly watch and read opinion, because the participants are allowed to use all the rhetorical devices at their disposal to make their point, including coming to conclusions and giving their opinion on how the evidence should be weighed. I think it is relatively straightforward to distinguish the facts in these discussions from the arguments that may be slanted left or right, so you get facts, analysis, and opinion all at once. It’s a real time saver.

    Contrast that with the usual news report, where the reporter is trying to seem fair by failing to mention the assumptions and premises in their analysis, or by not doing any analysis at all.

  17. Andrew Davis says:

    An important point which wasn’t made clear is that when an event is covered, there are many angles, or “stories” that can be reported. Perhaps most of the bias that is discussed comes from the journalist’s judgement in choosing which story to report, not how that story is followed up. When the journalist targets the story he or the editor want to report, that’s when the professional journalistic techniques (of which objectivity is one) kick in.

    Another point which was missed is that journalism is a team effort between the reporter and the editor. Although the journalist does bear personal responsibility for his work, the journalist is typically assigned to cover an event by the editor, and the editor has the final word over about the real story to report and how it is reported. This practice is absolutely fundamental to most journalism, but I didn’t see a reference to it. Why?

  18. peddle says:

    I was wondering about this, thanks for the information.

  19. I agree with Jeffreys in #6 above
    Likely. But I find its bias more in line with the subtle bias of a CBS under Walter Cronkite — that of choosing which stories to report and a slight shading of their color.

  20. journalist’s judgement in choosing which story to report, not how that story is followed up. When the journalist targets the story he or the editor want to report, that’s when the professional journalistic techniques (of which objectivity is one) kick in.


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