Local media headliners discuss ideology
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Panelists talk about how press influences political perception, seek to define “good journalism”
A panel of local journalists gathered on campus to discuss the prevalence of political ideology in the media and how it influences public perceptions of issues and events.
The panel was hosted by the UNLV College Republicans andmoderated by Nevada political commentator Jon Ralston.
It featured Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Steve Sebelius, former Nevada news anchor Ron Futrell, Las Vegas CityLife staff writer Jason Whited, The Rebel Yell Opinion Editor Keith Nathan and opinion writer Matthew Jarzen.
The discussion allowed some participants to give their own definition of what it means to be a journalist.
“The job is not to go out and talk to both sides,” Sebelius said. “That’s actually a common misconception.”
“The job of the professional journalist is to go out and understand all sides,” he said.
Sebelius said that he believed that all journalists have ideologies of their own, but that the sign of a serious journalist is in willingness to set aside personal beliefs in the pursuit of truth.
Skepticism, he said, or the ability to question authority while keeping an open mind, is the fundamental core of the profession.
While some panelists insisted that the national media are largely left of center, Sebelius argued that the print media of Nevada in particular is overwhelmingly conservative.
The panelists agreed that cable news outlets such as Fox News and MSNBC maintain distinct editorial slants, but that they exist less as actual ideological positions and more as commercial media with which to connect to a certain political demographic.
Futrell said that as a news anchor working with producers and news staff, he inevitably ran into individuals with political allegiances but that the most subtle forms of ideological bias he encountered occurred in the form of bits and pieces of Associated Press stories that his producers would reference as part of a newscast.
As a journalist, Futrell said, he would ultimately have to exclude the portions of the AP stories that he found biased.
But not everyone felt that the national media could be divided neatly along party lines.
Whited argued that even though many journalistic outlets and some reporters at the national level seem to have personal beliefs that bleed over into their writing or broadcasting, that the ideological tendency in the mainstream media is overwhelmingly to support the status quo.
“We get caught up in this false left-right debate,” he said. “If there is a bias in the national media, it’s a bias towards the establishment.”
He talked about concerns like corporate malfeasance and governmental corruption and how the same issues that have plagued the country for decades are still happening because the press has not adequately held the existing power structure accountable.
“From the New York Times to the Boston Globe, you don’t see a lot of journalists asking why these policies are still in place,” Whited said, explaining that the allure of being around the rich and powerful leads some journalists to believe that they are part of the elite.
Coverage of national events was also discussed, with the ongoing example of the Tea Party movement and the way it is perceived by the public by way of its representation in the media.
Jarzen argued that depictions of the Tea Party movement in the national media invariably focus on the extreme elements of the group, such as those who display Confederate flags or carry signs alleging that President Barack Obama is an illegal alien from Kenya.
Futrell agreed and pointed to recent coverage of Obama’s decision to break his campaign promise to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison, where a newscaster used the euphemism “legal turnaround” to justify the president’s inaction in shutting down the facility.
“Republican candidates ‘flip-flop,’ [while] Democratic candidates have ‘legal turnarounds,’” Futrell said.
Jarzen said that he believes ideology in the press comes not only in the form of favoring one side over the other, but in a general unwillingness to examine issues from an objective standpoint.
“Instead of investigating it and presenting both sides,” he said, “they already have their minds made up.”
Futrell said that while he studied journalism in college, he was encouraged to see his role as a journalist as a defender of the ordinary citizen.
“Sometimes the little guy is [wrong],” he said.
Sebelius said that he had investigated stories in the past with his mind already made up, only to discover later that he was wrong.
“I did something which every journalist should do,” Sebelius said. “I changed my mind.”
Although the panelists did have differing opinions about media coverage of issues ranging from foreign policy to finance, they agreed that the most valuable asset the journalist can have is an intense desire to seek the truth.
“We strive for human fairness and to be as completely fair as possible,” Whited said. “Journalism may not be the oldest profession, but it is a deeply flawed endeavor.”
Contact Ian Whitaker at firstname.lastname@example.org.