The journalistic sin that festers in open sight

The idea that “Everyone I don’t like is Hitler” is a common social media meme, but there’s a more insidious instance of this thinking that is promulgated by the supposedly “curated” media – the almost reflexive habit of labelling anyone who deviates from the received centre-left wisdom as “far-right”, which is as much to say, “Nazi” or “Fascist”.

My latest for Whale Oil blog.

When I was studying journalism, it was drummed into us that mixing opinion and reporting was a cardinal sin. Journalism academic Stephen Lamble ruled that, “journalists should clearly distinguish between news, comment and opinion”.

Yet one flagrant example of this journalistic sin occurs almost daily in media right across the ideological spectrum. That this particular and glaring breach of journalistic good practice is allowed to fester in open sight is, I suspect, because almost everyone – journalists and audiences alike – has been conditioned to simply accept it as a received truth.

News is what journalists commonly call “hard news” – the “just the facts” of who, what, when, where, why and how. In print, hard news is usually the front pages of the paper. News reporting is supposed to strictly report the facts without inserting the reporter’s opinions. “There should be no clues in a journalist’s work,” says Lamble, “about her or his political leaning”

The Centre for News Literacy illustrates this principle with two clips of stockmarket reporter Rick Santelli. In the first clip, Santelli gives a straight report. Just the facts. In the second, without indication, Santelli vents his personal political opinions. Which are not facts, obviously.

The point is not that journalists aren’t allowed to have political opinions, or write about them, but that opinion pieces should be clearly identified. Indeed, newspapers usually quarantine opinion pieces in a separate section.

ABC Australia recently referred to Milo Yiannopoulos as a “far-right Breitbart News editor”. Note the journalistic sleight-of-hand: while it’s a fact that Milo is a Breitbart News editor, “far-right” is purely the opinion of the journalist. Certainly Milo disputes that classification. It’s also true of many other politicians and parties routinely labelled “far-right”, such as Geert Wilders or Nigel Farage.

On the other hand, one almost never sees the opposite: “far-left”. While a news search of “far-right” turns up hundreds of results, from every mainstream media publication, “far-left” returns a mere handful, mostly from alternative news sites and blogs. Similarly, while the “far-right” tag is routinely applied to well-known parties, “far-left” is mostly reserved for obscure, fringe radicals.

So, while Milo is regularly dubbed “far-right”, violent radicals such as Antifa or Socialist Alternative are hardly ever called “far-left”, nor is, say, Guardian columnist Van Badham, who openly describes herself as an “anarcho-syndicalist/libertarian communist”.

More importantly, as Crimes Against Logic author Jamie Whyte points out, political leanings are almost always irrelevant. Journalists should only ever need to report on what people have to say. There is almost never any reason to report political leanings – except to slant a story.

This journalistic deceit is practised again and again and again, in media across the ideological spectrum, and almost nobody bats an eyelid. How do journalists keep getting away with it? As Whyte says, this kind of trick is “so common that we have become desensitized”.

Journalist Ed West also argues that journalists and audiences have been conditioned to not even notice. West claims that there is a deep institutional bias in Western education that routinely demonises the right and indulges the left: the enormities of the Nazis are (rightly) never forgotten, while the crimes of the Communists are almost never mentioned. Put simply, the lesson repeatedly driven home is that “right=bad, left=good”.

Which, again, is just opinion. You may like left-wing politics, or you may like right: either is just an opinion. It is not a fact that the right are good, nor the left. Both are opinions, and neither one is a reporter’s call to make when reporting the news.

But conditioned to a Manichean worldview of right-bad/left-good, “far-right” becomes a subtle ad hominem attack. It’s an easy way for journalists to slant their stories against a subject. Journalists are acting like pantomime prompts holding up “Boo! Hiss!” signs behind a villain, signalling that this is a bad person. As Milo retorted to the BBC, “you want to suggest that there is something nefarious about my belief system”.

But the whole point is that that’s just the journalist’s opinion. That Milo has certain political views is a fact, and reporting those particular views would be to report facts. But that his views are so extreme as to qualify as “far-right” is not a fact – that’s an opinion. Journalists who report that opinion as news are inserting their political leanings into their work as reporters, which grossly violates the basic standards of their craft.

The only reason they get away with it is because we have been so assiduously conditioned not to notice it.

Afterword

For an example of how it should be done, the supposedly wretched Breitbart News, of all media, delivers the goods. Note that in this story the journalist only ever refers to the candidates’ names and their parties. Their supposed political leanings – as presumed by the journalist’s opinion – are never mentioned. The most the journalist reports is that Le Pen has moved Front National “into the mainstream of French politics”.

Breitbart and Donna Rachel Edmunds get a gold star for this report at least.

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